Karlene Petitt wrote an interesting article on visualisation last week, and how it can be used to accelerate progress and improve performance on the flight deck (in the learning environment). It’s an interesting topic – partly because it’s a technique I use myself, and one that I’ve encouraged my students to use – but also because it’s something that we apply virtually every single time we fly.
What is visualisation? Visualization refers to the practice of seeking to affect the outer world via changing one’s thoughts.
“What people visualise is what they get, likewise, what they have is a result of what they have visualised.”
Visualisation really only made its way into modern culture as a legitimate learning tool after it was revealed that Russian athletes used mental imagery training to practice routines over and over; making them virtually an unstoppable force in the Olympics gymnastics arena in the 60′s, 70′s and early 80′s. It became known as the ‘new thought’ movement in the athletics and sporting fields, and became an essential ingredient to success.
In what is now a well known study, Russian scientists conducted a ‘Creative Visualisation’ experiment with a group of their Olympic athletes.
- Group 1 = 100% physical training;
- Group 2 – 75% physical training with 25% mental training;
- Group 3 – 50% physical training with 50% mental training;
- Group 4 – 25% physical training with 75% mental training.
Group 4, with 75% of their time devoted to mental training, performed the best.
Karlene mentioned the story of Major James Nesmet. He was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and was locked up for 7 years in a bamboo cage. To save himself from going mad, he visualised himself on a golf course playing a perfect 18-holes each and every day. He was your average golfer shooting an average round of no less than 90, but on the first round he played upon release he scored a personal best of just 74 strokes. Why? Because in his head he had played a perfect game over and over.
Visualisation has become an essential tool in the professional golfers daily training lifestyle. Jack Nicklaus once said that “will power is what separates the great athlete from the average to mediocre athlete.” He often refers to the discipline of Arnold Palmer who, when putting, would “see” the ball go into the hole and “will” it there.
Two physiologists, Alan Richardson and Edmund Jacobson both independently concluded that consistent and focused visualisation would actually improve “muscle memory”. They both determined that even small and subtle muscle movements would translate into real physical movements when engaging in actual activity.
Australian physiologist Alan Richardson is now famous for his 20-day basketball experiment. He chose three random groups. One group visualised taking shots every day (If they “missed,” they “practiced” getting the next shot right); one group did nothing; and one group physically practiced every day. Needless to say, the group that practiced outperformed the others, the group that visualised saw a marked improvement (nearly as good as those that practice), and the group that didn’t use either technique saw no improvement at all.
Visualisation Flight Training
When I was instructing regularly, most students would come in about once a week. The first part of each lesson was often spent revising various sequences, often wasting precious airtime and money. Very early on in my career I encouraged and trained my students in various visualisation techniques and the results were extraordinary. Not only did I rarely see a deterioration in performance but I often saw a noticeable increase in skill and fluency. It was most evident while conducting busy sessions of circuit training. It became so apparent that supplementing actual flight training with visualisation techniques was so important that I would schedule lessons far enough apart to ensure that students could ‘practice’ at home at least a few times.
I applied (and continue to apply) the same techniques in my own training. After a few hours of helicopter training (many moons ago) my instructor wanted to send me solo (but couldn’t because of a Robinson 20-hour minimum insurance requirement). After the fourth hour he sent me solo anyhow. I completed the commercial syllabus in 18 hours.
When I conducted my early aerobatics training, I read two particular books ad-nauseam (starting well before I ever set foot in the aircraft). I would fly the manoeuvres in my head over and over again while peddling back and forth with my feed and hands. When I eventually flew each new sequence it literally felt like I had flown it a hundred times… because I had – in my head.
I would encourage anybody learning to fly to engage in repeated and focused sessions of visualisation. It will improve your performance and it will save you money.
Karlene, like myself, still employs various visualisation techniques to improve performance and muscle memory on the flight deck. You can use the technique to action memory items (recalls), landings, approaches and emergency responses in various scenarios… anything.
It’s through visualisation that I identified with mind-mapping – a tool to organise information into a human-identifiable and intuitive means. Mind mapping is a process of visual thinking, making it easy to visualise, structure, and classify ideas. Similar concept… but that’s another story.
Visualisation in Practical Aviation
Whether we know it or not, we visualise all the time in aviation. Our briefings, for example, are designed to reinforce a particular departure/arrival/procedure to be flown. When we brief a complicated approach chart we’re visualising the procedure to be flown – effectively increasing our performance while flying it. The same procedure applies to briefing emergencies. By visualising the net result of an abnormality we are more prepared to handle it should it occur.
Obviously, briefings in aviation serve other purposes; they synchronise the mindset of flight crew, identify weaknesses in crew and identify anomalies that may impact flight. Briefing shouldn’t ‘just’ be read – they should be visualised.
I recently undertook a ‘train the trainer’ day and we were presented with the following scenario:
Two different sets of two pilots flying a complex approach they have never seen before. Each approach is flown twice – once by each crewmember in each aircraft. For the purpose of the example you can assume a comparable skill level among all crew.
1. Captain flies approach. FO Observes.
2. FO then flies the same approach after observing the Captain.
3. Captain flies approach. FO Observes.
4. FO flies the same approach after observing the Captain.
Which pilot is more likely to be most effective and proficient? Most people will, of course, pick crewmember number 4. Not only does he get to initially visualise the approach by virtue of a comprehensive brief, but he also gets to observe the captain perform it. What Captain would be more proficient? Captain number 2. Why? He briefed (meaning that he had visualised the approach prior to undertaking it).
The techniques I’m suggesting pilots use are those outside the aircraft (so the proficiency will translate to inside the aircraft), but it’s interesting nonetheless to identify with an effective form of visualisation we all use in the course of normal flying.
How to Visualise
Visualisation is different from ‘daydreaming’, and it’s easy to confuse the two. Visualisation is actioned in the first-person back ended with purpose and direction; and one should have a clear mental picture of an end result. Fantasising (or daydreaming) is nothing but some wishful or fanciful thinking.
It is important to engage multiple senses when trying to maximise the effectiveness of visualisation. Feel, sight, smell, sound and appearance are all important – anything to emulate the environment you’re trying to create.
Visualisation in the Red Bull Air Race
Here’s a very short video produced by CASA which shows a Red Bull Air Race pilot demonstrating a means of visualisation by flying his race profile on the ground.