Pilot Performance - "Overlearning"
by Henry K.

The series of articles on Pilot Performance explores a metaphor for business leadership and performance improvement based on the techniques and methodologies of aviation, and the performance of pilots. The assertion is that we can gain useful insight through an examination of how pilots execute with precision in a rapidly changing and uncontrollable environment. In an earlier article we explored the need to ‘unlearn’ dysfunctional sensory perceptions, assumptions and behaviours to free up conscious awareness to the external environment. In this article we examine ‘overlearning’ and how pilots achieve a level of ‘mastery’ where ‘the successful outcome of any maneuver is never in doubt. 

Pilots do possess the abilities to execute complex skills in guiding an aircraft through an ever changing and three dimensional environment. This competence is achieved through a thorough understanding of the flight environment, the mastery developed through training and personal discipline, extensive experience, an ongoing and critical flight awareness, and continuous learning and performance improvement.

A continuous process of accurately recognizing what is happening and adjusting actual performance to the desired performance for each task or activity.

Piloting an aircraft involves a continuous process of accurately recognizing what is happening and adjusting actual performance to the desired performance for each task or activity. In a very general sense, in terms of reaching a destination safely, and from moment to moment, the pilot determines the desired performance and the actions needed  to maintain the effectiveness of the aircraft’s systems, other crew members, and passengers. Situational awareness refers to an anticipation and outwards focus on the environment and those vital internal systems and processes and is the basis of skill, proficiency and competency in execution.

The ‘unlearning’ of dysfunctional perceptions and ‘overlearning’ of procedures and maneuvers are designed to free up the maximum of aware attention to the external environment for the accurate interpretation of reality. The activity of piloting an aircraft requires a constant and conscious aware attention focused outwards on the environment and on those vital internal functions that are critical to the achievement of desired specifications of performance and effectiveness.

Overlearning is - training, experience, and mastery.

We can move from ‘unlearning’ to free up aware attention, to ‘overlearning’ to reinforce and enhance the outwards focus of attention. Piloting an aircraft involves an ongoing process of recognizing and reducing differences between what is happening and what is needed. From moment to moment the pilot is aware of and acting to match actual to desired performance, determining the attitude, altitude, heading and speed to fly, and the actions needed to maintain the functional effectiveness of the aircraft’s operating systems.

Skill in flying, as in most skills training, is acquired in demonstration and performance techniques, involving the demonstration of perfect or desired performance, a detailed explanation of the maneuvers, student performance with supervision, and subsequent evaluation and debriefing. Training is highly effective if it incorporates perfection in demonstration and student practice until done competently with development in manageable segments.

Perfection in demonstration is a key to the full understanding and conscious awareness of the student in mastering the maneuvering of the aircraft, and the vital aspects of the judgment and decision making of operating as pilot - in - command. Through a variety of exercises, maneuvers, and activities a student develops the skill to execute proficiently and demonstrate his or her capability to assess and manage risk, quickly consider options and alternatives, and take decisive action in challenging conditions. Perfection in performance, within very narrow tolerances, is a requirement to proceed in flight training, as we are dealing with an area of human endeavour where there is little margin for error. Imagine the heightened responsibility of both the instructor and the student in releasing the student for solo flight.

Full conscious attention is available to cope with the unexpected.

A continuous overlearning and very high level of proficiency are achieved through frequent updates, flight simulation training, emergency maneuver training, and ongoing currency requirements. Mastery exists in a continual learning mode to develop and improve the capabilities to deal accurately and decisively with new situations. 

Through flight simulators, pilots hone judgment and decision making skills to fully explore the capabilities of their aircraft and their proficiency. Simulators allow the exploration of a variety of emergency conditions that are either too risky or costly to experience in actuality. The focus is on emergency maneuvers to develop and reinforce the capability for immediacy of awareness and action to maintain full operational command of the aircraft in any unusual circumstance. 

Emergency maneuver training is also undertaken in live activities such as in flying with partial instrument panels, practicing simulated engine failures and forced landings for an ongoing demonstrated proficiency to execute under any circumstance. 

Currency requirements are also prescribed to ensure pilots continue to demonstrate their capabilities and remain current in their ratings. A pilot’s personal currency criteria are usually well beyond that prescribed to fulfill the responsibilities of being ‘in command’ and executing flawlessly. Pilot licensing requirements involve demonstrated proficiency in the set of performance criteria for each license or rating, with flying experience and current proficiency also specified as requirements. The criteria for each successive license or rating are increasingly stringent to ensure the necessary knowledge, skill, and discipline for safe operations within the tolerances of the rating. A pilot must consistently demonstrate the ability to control the aircraft at the performance levels and under the prescribed conditions to achieve, and to maintain the specific rating or license.

Demonstrated performance and perfection
Judgment and decisive action
Emergency maneuver training
Continuous learning

Effective performance in a rapidly changing and turbulent environment requires the continuous awareness and ongoing incremental action to achieve the desired results. With full conscious attention available the processes of managing risk, assessing options and alternatives, judgment, decision making, and taking decisive action are enhanced to operate with precision and confidence in unexpected and emergency situations.

Pilot Performance TM - Superior Performance and Adventure

"In life you’re either a passenger or pilot ... It’s your choice."


Henry K. is a private pilot, author, artist, actor, whale watcher, fly fisherman, tour guide, seasonal server and surfer residing in Tofino, B.C. Canada, as well as a contributing editor to The CEO Refresher.

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