Daydream believer

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The good old bad old days

Dreaming and doing are not as different as they seem: the link is mental practice

by Robert L Cassidy

Would you believe me if I said the Boeing 747-400 was the first transport-category jet I ever commanded? How is it possible to go from flying the Boeing 747 Classic as a first officer to serving as a captain of a new 747-400 jet, fresh off the Boeing assembly line?

I have to confess – sometimes I pretended, but pretending helped me learn.

During line training, I had more weight in my luggage from various reference materials – airline standard operating practices, Boeing flight crew manuals, training notes, Jeppesen worldwide coverage – than I did in shirts and uniform.

Before I departed from home or my hotel room, I would read and re-read them. I would call dispatch to ask for a flight plan, NOTAM and weather package from a previous crew’s trip to the same destination. I would use the weather information to compute my take-off performance data and fill out spare take-off and landing data cards. I would lay out my Jeppesen terminal and en route charts and the most likely departure plates, standard arrival routes and approach plates.

I would create the entire flight in my mind, like line-oriented flight training, except it was imagined, rather than in a full-motion level D flight simulator. I would review each radio frequency, heading, altitude change, navaid, minimums and include studying the alternate airport. I would make pertinent notes to myself, like a cheat sheet, with mental triggers at key points. I might write down a call-out that I overlooked last flight or a note to remind myself to ‘select speed brakes before thrust reversers’.

Next, I would sit on the edge of my bed or in the hotel room to visualise a cockpit preflight setup, actually moving my arms and hands to the relative location of the switches, knobs, push buttons and levers, to train ‘muscle memory’ using the motor cortex of the brain.

I would likely have the page turned to the flight management computer diagram to simulate flight plan entry. I would give a thorough briefing. I would read the checklists aloud to myself so I could hear myself say it, which is using a different part of the brain.

To this day, I can smell the burnt jet-A from the auxiliary power unit, especially when there was a tailwind at the gate. I would imagine this smell, at the appropriate time, and the groan of the engine startup. I would go through appropriate calls to my purser.

Before imagining pushback or making any tiller wheel movements to steer the jumbo jet, I would turn, look out the imaginary side windscreens and say, ‘clear left’ and then ask, ‘clear right?’

Does mental practice apply to general aviation, recreational or warbird operations? Absolutely!

I would have already examined the taxi routes to the likely departure runway, which is important at complex airports like Tokyo-Narita or John F Kennedy International in New York. Of course, I would focus on the take-off actions and might run a couple of abnormal scenarios, such as a rejected take-off or an engine failure after V1.

I might recall the change in the rushing sound of air molecules smashing against the windscreen and nose as I changed speed or I might review position reporting items and sequence, plotting location and fuel data.

I would calculate my top-of-descent point – not so simple as the often quoted 3:1 rule – and then I would say my approach briefing aloud, then call for the approach checklist and visualise arrival to initial approach fix and making the approach, recalling what engine pressure ratio setting I would use, with gear down and flaps 30 set. I would imagine a go-around and all the actions and callouts. I would ‘reset’ my brain and make the approach all the way to the touchdown and initial actions after touchdown.

Why did I put myself through this? To reduce the uncertainty and anxiety from lack of preparation. To learn quicker. To up my game. To be able to do things as if almost second nature. To look like an old hand, even though I was new to the Boeing 747-400.

For me, the habit dated from when I was learning to fly US Army helicopters, positioning my hands and feet as if the cyclic, collective and anti-torque pedals were actually there and making appropriate control inputs for various manoeuvres.

Mental practice is a well-established concept. In a review published in The British Journal of Anaesthesia, psychologists define mental practice as the systematic use of one’s mental imagery to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ an action in one’s mind without engaging in the physical execution of the action in question. Imagery can be applied across all sensory modalities, which means that humans have the capability to mentally simulate ‘seeing’ a scene or object, ‘hearing’ a sound, or ‘feeling’ a surface and so on … The existing evidence suggests that mental practice can improve a range of motor skills … ’

A 1973 US Air Force study of undergraduate pilots learning to fly the Cessna T-37 jet trainer found those who listened to a tape recording that prompted mental practice of the landing scored higher in procedure and landing evaluations than the control group.

Mental practice is a well-established concept.

John ‘Gucci’ Foley served as a US Marine Corps jet fighter instructor pilot, flew as lead solo for the US Navy Blue Angels and flew in the movie Top Gun. ‘Spoken rituals play an important role in developing and sustaining the habits and behaviours that result in high performance,’ he says.

Would that be like giving a departure or approach briefing or reading a checklist aloud, even though you are the only one in the cockpit? You bet – reinforce good habits.

I am not suggesting mental practice can replace training in a level D certified full-motion flight simulator, but it would certainly reinforce the experience and provide a simulated experience of what you might see and feel from the moment the chocks are removed, to being replaced at your destination.

For the things you can’t practice, mental rehearsal is the only option. In 36 years earning my living as a pilot, I have learnt that sometimes your day just doesn’t go to plan. So always have a plan B – an escape plan – and go over it in your mind before you take-off. Update en route, if required.

Does mental practice apply to general aviation, recreational or warbird operations? Absolutely!

Nothing replaces thorough pre-flight planning, complying with aircraft limitations and aviation regulations to protect the privileges of your pilot’s licence. However, the value of visualisation and mental rehearsal should not be underestimated, whether you are flying a Cessna 172 into a paddock, learning to hover an R22 or hauling cargo in a Metroliner. And, during the forced grounding of COVID-19 lockdowns, it provided an excellent opportunity to daydream about flying.


  1. All of the suggestions above I endorse as a means of making the unfamiliar familiar. Taking the surprise out of any potential by making it familiar reduces the stress of the unknown. All the reviews referred to above should bring up gaps in knowledge or comprehension, and highlight what should be known or known about before you get in the aircraft. Details of possible alternates for example, reduces the stress of learning of them during the divert.
    There is one trap in all this preparation. What you ‘Think’ might happen should not become a fixed expectation of what ‘Will’ happen. This applies whatever the aircraft, size or mission.
    The first Command in an airline is an opportunity for the standards people to have a thorough look at the pilot before they turn the new Captain loose as a PIC. Expect it, rise to the challenge without fighting it and do the preparation required – it will likely be the most thorough review of who you are and what you bring to the task and job that you will ever experience. Do it right first time as the rewards are worth it even if only to know you can. The private pilot has a bigger responsibility to check themselves or arrange a regular full check by a qualified instructor – who else is there for standards but the pilot themselves?

  2. Great advice. As a low time PPL in NZ I made it a habit to regularily sit and visualise the cockpit of my very modest Piper Cherokee and run thru all the checklists and emergency procedures. I well recall one instructor doing my licence renewal commenting on how sharp I was considering my few hours over the previous 12 months. Little did he know how I did it

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