Ready to React? “Reflexive Skills!”

Any fan of action sports, whether it’s football or air racing, knows that the greatest moves and memorable moments are not in the huddle (reflective) but during time-critical (reflexive *1) action. These “snapshot moments” are automatically deployed (but previously trained) skills that occur in a few microseconds. The reflective, thoughtful mind is not even in gear. We certainly should make plans (prebrief) on the sidelines or in the huddle, but the amazing moments come when the surprise blitz occurs and we must respond reflexively. This is true for pilots as well as in sports.

A fastball at 90mph takes only 4/10ths of a second (400 milliseconds) to reach the batter. It takes more than half that time, 250 milliseconds, to make a decision whether to swing or not and execute that action perfectly. Psychologists still do not understand this process but some highlights are available and important for pilots.

The neural circuit that makes this “snap judgment” to swing (or not) and tunes the response properly is not reflective and language-based. There is no time for this “slow thought.” Reflexive action is immediate and subconscious and comes from hours of practice and rehearsal. These new brain circuits are developed through repetition that are myelinated for a faster, appropriate response. These memories are even stored in a different part of the brain (and this too requires a time investment). Though practice and development occur as a methodical, conscious process, the “immediate actions” are then stored like books on a shelf ready to go with the correct triggers from the environment. Scenario flight training can develop judgment for the “when” but drill and repetition are essential fo sharpen the pilot tools.

Our action timeline for pilot decisions varies considerably depending on the challenge of the day.  In most operations, we have time to research, plan, and adapt a fairly predictable flight. And most challenges we face allow time to consider and decide a plan of action. But there are definitely moments in flying that require immediate, reflexive action that must be both appropriate and accurate to assure safety. These challenges require confidence and an appropriate “automatic” trained response.

In aviation the times that require “reflexive action” are usually during take-off and landing or when “surprises” like loss of control inflight occur. These are time-critical and the brain circuit at work here is not the reflective (language) part, but the embedded, trained reflexive part. Not surprisingly, this is also where most accidents happen. (We spend only 5% of our time in the pattern, but 60-70% of accidents occur here.) Similarly, startle and loss of control (immediate action) is the primary cause of fatal accidents. In both areas, drill and repetition practice builds the necessary basic skills for “immediate action” responses to avoid crashes. Without this practice, we are stepping up to the plate for a fastball and complacently only capable of a slow pitch game.

Many researchers talk about “cognitive unavailability” when referring to LOC-I or landing accidents cognitive (reflective) brain function is not involved here at all.  During time-critical reactions, especially with “startle incapacitation”, it is the “reflexive,” immediate action brain circuits that must respond and save us. Our “reflexes” are either honed sharp from appropriate and recent practice, or we fail and crash.

To be clear, cognitively “pre-loading” and rehearsing every expected challenge for potential surprises (e.g. pre-take-off briefing) is a highly effective technique to improve pilot response. But the kinetic skills must be automatic and appropriate, ready to deploy. Any “out-of-the-blue” surprise is going to require the subconscious implicit brain domain not “cognition.” There is a lot more to examine and explain here, and especially tips for the instructor to build these skills. We will examine those in a future article.

Please visit our “WIngs Up” YouTubes from Gold Seal this week and enjoy some aviation learning and FUN during the CV-19 lockdown. Flying more soon!*1) “reflexive” is used herein as “subconscious, habitual and unthinking behavior, not subject to conscious reflection or review”


SAFECFI-PRO™ workshop is open to every aviation educator at every level (even if you are working on your CFI?) June10/11 at Sporty’s Pilot Shop.

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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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