Now what ? There would be pilots more intelligent than others? And on top of that these are pilots flying in a 500 kg machine with three clocks on their control panel when I have twenty times more in my Boeing ? They go flying with just a map under their arm when I have to carry a 10 kg case full of papers to cross the Atlantic, and I’m not even mentioning all the stuff inside the plane! And they are probably having barbecue behind the hangar on summer nights when I have to deal with updates, revise procedures and what more. And I’m not talking about flight preparation. Ok sure they master better than I do the pseudo potential adiabatic of the wet thermometer, as for the rest! I would like to understand.
Well, here is why glider pilots are more intelligent than: ULM, helicopter, passenger plane pilots… and most of all how they become so.
Intelligence and performance
Behind that concept of intelligence, it is performance we are interested in, but what performance are we talking about? Here we have to do a little side stepping to compare the sporting performance of a glider pilot with the safety performance of all other pilots, whatever their field of activity. This comparison is possible because the glider pilot, to be able to fly for a long time and fast, must possess the same competence and abilities as the other pilots to fly safely.
Competence, decision and safety
What are the recurrent contributing factors in air accidents? Bad decisions based most of the time on a wrong or incomplete representation of the reality and complexity of the environment. If you only make good decisions nothing will ever happen to you. In the worst case, you will decide one day not to fly or to turn around, or take on an extra 10 tons of fuel! The one making the best decisions in his glider wins the championship; and in his Airbus he will arrive without damage in spite of extreme conditions.
Intelligence of the pilot is:
- To gather information;
- To find out what links them to understand the situation;
- To use it to make the best decisions.
There is a cloud forming over Le Cheval Blanc, with the return from the East it might be difficult, I’ll go a bit more West.
The weather forecast says there might be a storm in Washington, and in New York the probability of it is even higher. If the sky gets clear over Washington there will be a queue to land there, so I’m going to take an extra 10 tons of fuel.
Intelligence and relation to time
The last two examples tend to prove that intelligence is useless if you do not make use of the information you gathered to prepare your decisions. Now, the decisions you are going to make are not the same if they are about management of your machine : of the systems, the piloting ; or the management of your environment with its cumulus and its bad weather. If you project yourself far ahead in time, you are in a tactical and strategic attitude, with a lot of unknowns, of conditional elements: if… then… but maybe… so… and if… A gliding champion sees far ahead and speculates a lot.
Thinking well and fast
If he wants to be the first to arrive the glider pilot sometimes has to make decisions very quickly. I am at the ceiling and things are going well with 50 km to go. Let’s see how things present themselves ahead: the shadows of clouds on the ground, the shape of cumulus… There is a nice street of clouds on the right but taking me out of my route. I have to decide now. I estimate a 30° route alteration, the wind in coming slightly from the South, I’m going to end up towards… Let’s go left.
I’m arriving in Geneva from the North, the weather today is really bad. Ok, there is quite a bit of traffic, the controller will probably take me quite far in the tailwind before the base stage towards the ILS. « Camembert 72, would you be ready to turn right towards the ILS in 3 nm? ». S… we are still on FL 150 ! I’m at 20 nm in the north of the field, I’ll have 15 nm left in the final approach, therefore 4500ft, plus 1500ft of altitude, I can loose 5000 ft in the base leg… it’s a bit just (Time Pressure and Public Transport: 50% of accidents).
Ok, until now it’s a nil-nil draw, with maybe a little advantage to the glider pilot.
Thinking well, fast and often
Glider pilots are not the only ones thinking ; other people deep in their research have listed the pilot mental activity into six levels of requirements in an increasing order of difficulty. The first three levels roughly mean : « do as usual » ! 1600 m at La Vaumuse, I head for Authon (sorry if I get it wrong that was a few years back). The weather is good in Washington, so let’s take 110 tons of fuel. In the last three levels you have to think, with the last level dealing with the complex situations without obvious solutions. And that’s where neurones have to come into action to fly fast and to fly safe. Now, the more often you agitate the neurones the easier it is, and the less you do it the more viscous they become. In other words, the more the pilot’s higher mental codes (intelligence) are solicited, the more they become easily accessible and efficient.
Sollicitation of intelligence
How many decisions engaging higher modes, said intelligent, a glider pilot has to make in a 5h flight ? Hundreds, more or less elaborate. How many decisions engaging higher modes, said intelligent, an airline pilot has to make in a 5h flight ? Do you know the answer? Not a lot? That’s right, not a lot, but … but that depends on which pilots. Some will dissect their flight and analyze a multitude of little things, probabilities… in short they think. Others will have a more relax approach, with the decision of the day being to have their coffee with or without sugar.
Here the glider pilot is clearly ahead of the pack.
Level of proceduralization of activities
There are still other researchers who have showed, surprisingly, that competence was inversely proportional to the degree of proceduralization of the activity (ref. Guy Le Boterf). In a word, the more work is done for you, the less you have to think, the more difficult it is to do so. So, the less proceduralized it is, the more intelligent we are, and the more proceduralized it is… with due respect! Let’s have a closer look at the different activities under the angle of degree of freedom left to the pilot to solicit and so develop his adaptive skills (intelligence), and this is what we get:
A pilot has to think fast, in an open environment where he is mostly left to himself; with the speed dimension, the fighter pilot also has to make use of his neurones. Obviously the problematic faced by the pilot of a hot air balloon is not the same, but as anticipation is concerned he has to be on top of things.
An airline pilot operates in a very closed environment with very little place for adjustment, whereas a glider pilot flies in an open environment in which he has to adapt constantly. If he doesn’t think a minimum, he is on the ground a few minutes later! When the A320 Airbus started its career, the journalists told us anybody could fly these planes. And if the journalists say so!
Intelligence can be trained
The intelligence of the pilot can be trained. In fact it is one of the objectives of training that can be found in many programs around the world and says : « At the end of his training the pilot will be able to face a new situation ». We have to link things together. It is also the development of the higher mental modes in the trainee pilot that’s part of the objectives of some trainings (for the ones who know, there is a problem resolution module in the training for passenger plane pilots regarding the cabin crew resources: one or two sugars?).
Good news if your are not a glider pilot, not everything is lost !
There is a risk management concept called Threat and Error Management which has the particularity of asking the pilot to think, to project himself ahead in time to prevent some extreme threats from disturbing the flight and bringing undesired situations. The mental approach necessary for this « proactive » risk management is the same as the one used by the glider pilot, who deals with risks to obtain a sport performance. You have to think well, fast, and project yourself into the future.
Glider pilots therefore are in fact the most clever ones, and they can keep eating barbecue behind the shed, being well ahead. And as the Mentalpilote team is nice, if you are not a glider pilot, we give you an idea for you to become an intelligent pilot too :-
Have a good flight
First picture : Mika Ganszauge