Back to Basics: Operating in an Unorthodox Environment


The entire field of aviation is an extremely dynamic operating environment, with an overabundance of complex variables, which in and of itself ensures a high level of complexity. Couple that with a worldwide pandemic, instability in multiple areas of responsibility, and an ever-increasing operational demand, and the result is an ever-changing and unorthodox environment. When presented with such challenges, get back to basics of training, instructing, and prioritizing tasks.

The first challenge is usually identifying when you are operating in a degraded state, such as task saturation. The Aeronautical Decision-Making section of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aeronautical Information Manual describes task saturation as, “The first effect of high workload is that the pilot may be working harder but accomplishing less. As workload increases, attention cannot be devoted to several tasks at one time, and the pilot may begin to focus on one item. When a pilot becomes task saturated, there is no awareness of input from various sources, so decisions may be made on incomplete information and the possibility of error increases.”1

Whether task saturated, operating at reduced capacity, or presented with novel challenges, Airmen commonly revert to their core training, frequently referred to as “muscle memory.” An article in the October 2005 Journal of Neuroscience describes the phenomenon of muscle memory: “There is strong evidence from studies involving the physical practice of movements that an important physiological component of behavioral performance gains is a lasting change of local cortical movement representations, a kind of motor memory. … Although most motor skills are acquired through physical practice, the mere observation of movements has also been shown to lead to subsequent specific performance gains.”2

To build good muscle memory, it is imperative to train with repetition to build resilient habit patterns but also to incorporate realism in order to observe a complete system in action. Summed up simply by Gen George S. Patton, “You fight like you train.” For every opportunity, it is essential to maximize training potential through dedication and accuracy. This requires the commitment of time, even when it is inconvenient or undesirable. An example would be executing multiple approaches and landings on Friday night local sorties when the majority of the crew would rather terminate early and go home. Precision is equally important to ensure accurate habits. For example, while training approach proficiency, be vigilant to maintain stabilized approach criteria all the way to touchdown. By applying these tenets, training can be optimized, thereby preparing you for adversity.

The core of any solid training program or sortie is the instructor. Although the instruction can be given and received by anyone, designated instructors (such as Instructor Pilots and Craftsmen) bear the greatest weight of that responsibility. They are relied on to be experts in their professions, facilitate deliberate practice, and execute thorough feedback—all designed to improve skills mastery and individual motivation.

A 1993 American Psychological Association article, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” notes, “… studies have already shown that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout. … By viewing expert performers not simply as domain-specific experts but as experts in maintaining high levels of practice and improving performance, we are likely to uncover valuable information about the optimal conditions for learning and education.”3

No matter how exceptional your instruction or habit patterns are, uncertainty is sure to find you. The worldwide pandemic has generated unique tasks and challenges. Aside from the potential medical impact of being infirm, some examples of obstacles to a traditional operating environment are facial coverings, changes to local policies, additional personal protective equipment, reduced enroute services, restriction of movement, prolonged deployments, reduced training sortie frequency, contingency lodging, additional operating procedures, medical screening, self-isolation, and emotions from the uncertainly of the future, to name a few. All these examples present possible conditions to which muscle memory derived from training or instruction likely does not exist.

Before entering any operating environment, be honest to those around you about your proficiency versus your currency. The FAA summed this concept up well in 2010, “In aviation, we hear a lot about proficiency and about the difference between being current and being proficient. Currency means you meet the letter of the regulations. Proficiency helps keep you and others alive. It’s that simple.” The Air Force has robust Risk Management strategies, tools, and processes, but what ensures their efficacy is the willingness of individuals to be candid about their proficiency with fellow crew and coworkers.4

When handling an abundance of traditional or novel obstacles, loss of situational awareness is a common outcome, and remaining calm, thinking rationally, and prioritizing tasks are paramount to reducing stress and increasing the capacity to execute tasks safely. A common adage for aircrew is “Aviate, navigate, and communicate.” While airborne, assessing and overcoming issues that happen at rapid speed is unavoidable, but on the ground, slowing down to prevent unnecessary risk acceptance is often an ideal course of action. In such incidents, it is essential to remember the “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” concept because moving fast (or rushing it) is reckless and can potentially be fatal. If you move slowly, carefully, and deliberately, however, you are actually moving as fast as you can without needlessly increasing risk.

As our proud Air Force personnel operate undeterred through an unorthodox operating environment, it is imperative to nail the fundamentals: train in a way to prepare for adversity, and deliberately prioritize tasks. Remember, never become complacent because you are part of a team that defies gravity.

1 media/04_phak_ch2.pdf , page 2-24
2 PMC6725701/
3 freakonomics/pdf/DeliberatePractice(Psycho logicalReview).pdf
4 briefing/2010/media/SepOct2010.pdf