How many times have you accomplished a new level with your pilot-in-training and heard “got it” on first completion – as if you could immediately lock it up and move on? (Don’t do it; it’s not locked in…) Have you had a new student think they can immediately solo just because they get hit their first good landings? Intuitively, as savvy educators, we know progress is great and motivating but consistency and reinforcement are also necessary. This same situation occurs on a meta-level also when a pilot passes their flight test but stops flying. We intuitively know they must “use it (continually) or lose it.” But there is a brain process that explains all these touch and goes (and IFR practicing) we do as pilots – we finally have an explaination why.

Neuroscience is starting to understand the details of this learning process. It is now proven in studies that unless we immediately reinforce a new skill and put it to use, much is lost right away. Skill mastery requires us to “overtrain” and reinforce every new learning level before progressing for retention. As aviation educators, we need to emphasize repetition, elaboration of each skill and lifetime learning to be safe as aviators.

Once we have successfully accomplished a new behavioral repertoire, it is neurologically essential to “stabilize” it by continued training well past the point of simple proficiency; “got it and onward” is not enough. Scientists call this technique “overlearning” and have observed it in every field where human skill mastery is critical; from first violin to martial arts. A recent study reveals that “overlearning” reinforces a skill and embeds it in a different part of the brain, installing it chemically in an entirely different way so it will not be overwritten by new learning. Critical piloting skills must be impervious to forgetting (and this is also why the initial imprint must be accurate) and fluidly and immediately available. This new study shows that if you stop training a skill as soon as it is first successful, the brain stays in its “ready-to-learn state” and the new skill is highly perishable. Reinforcement changes your actual brain state and chemistry. The study shows that repetitive training beyond the point of proficiency will “hyperstabilize” the skill and prevents”retrograde interference” from newer inputs.

Similar research from a different angle at MIT studies habits and decision-making behaviors; specifically how we develop and store them (also obsessive behaviors and addictions). Dr. Ann Greybeil at MIT is an amazingly prolific and passionate brain researcher (Fortunately she left Florida as a young girl when the only “science” a young woman could study was home economics). She has documented how early skills are reinforced and transformed into habits in an ancient brain area called the basal ganglia/striatum. Once habits and skills are formulated, they are stored, almost like books in a library, in a totally different part of the brain for fluid and rapid recall in action. (This is what we do everyday as pilots) If skills and habits are not fully formed and recoded into the forebrain repertoire, they will be available for fluid recall. The time and effort of serious practice are the necessary elements for skill retention and future aviation safety. Knowing and enforcing this practice is important for educators. Fly safely (and practice often).

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About the author 

David St. George (Lifetime Member)

David St. George learned to fly at Flanders Valley Airport in 1970. Proving that everyone is eventually trainable, he became an FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor for airplanes (single and multi, instrument, and glider) and serves the Rochester FSDO as an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. In this capacity, he gives flight tests at any level from sport pilot to ATP and CFI. For 25 years David was East Hill Flying Club's 141 Chief Instructor and manager. David holds multi and single engine ATP pilot certificates, with pilot ratings for glider and seaplane and several jet type ratings. He recently earned his 13th renewal as a Master Instructor and owns an Aeronca Champ so he can build hours for that airline job!

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