Winging it: Learning by the Seat of Your Pants

planeOn a Saturday afternoon last autumn, passenger John Wildey suddenly found himself alone 1,500 feet up in the air, in a small private plane, with no flying experience whatsoever and with darkness rapidly falling. His pilot had died suddenly at the controls, leaving him to manage a situation the rest of us only have in our nightmares. His story was told in “Mayday” a recent C4 documentary which instantly caught my attention: we believe in the power of carefully designed experiential learning but this was clearly a very rare case of sudden onset extreme experiential learning. So what happened next?

After John’s remarkably calm mayday message is received on the ground – “My pilot seems to be unconscious. I am not a pilot. Over.” – it soon becomes clear that his predicament has resulted in the rapid coalescence of a surrounding rescue team. All the participants are under sudden immense time pressure dictated by the unknown amount of fuel the plane has left. There’s the Air Traffic Controller receiving John’s message, the operations manager at his destination airport, two RAF officers in a Sea King called to the area and a Chief Flying Instructor racing to the scene to try to talk John down.

It soon becomes clear that amidst all this technology and machinery there are two things that might just save John.

The first is his own personal reaction to being plunged into an unexpected and uncertain situation where he simply must achieve the required result. Educationist Guy Claxton has coined a wonderful phrase, calling an effective learner someone who is adept at “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” What type of a learner would John turn out to be?

The second thing that might save John will be the ability of his surrounding team to communicate effectively. They have just minutes to assess the situation and co-ordinate decision making with their principal tools being their disembodied voices over radio transmissions. Deprived of visual contact with each other, the various participants begin to model the kind of effective communication we often focus on in terms of developing professional performance.

They communicate with confidence – the strength, certainty and calmness of their utterances convey purpose and reassurance in the face of potentially overwhelming uncertainty. John himself recalls, “I tried to keep as calm and professional as possible when communicating.” Their voices must not betray any anxiety that could engender a destabilising anxiety in others.

They communicate clearly – they must all vet their speech for jargon words and phrases that could obscure or confuse vital meaning.

They communicate concisely – with time critically short, they must ensure their messages are sharp and to the point.

They must listen actively – faced with John’s highly exposed position they must use the right questions to check for their understanding of what he has (and hasn’t) said and ensure they don’t rush to impose premature solutions on what he is uniquely facing.

As the situation unfolds we see John gradually take the controls and practise manoeuvring the aircraft through simple turns. He is diverted to a nearby minor airport to make a first landing attempt but the unlit runway denies him and the falling darkness drastically reduces his options. With no means of illuminating his cockpit controls he is then almost literally flying blind.

Diverted on to a larger airport he again fails to land on a wide well-lit runway cleared exclusively for him, completely overshooting it. On his third attempt he comes in too low and has to climb rapidly to avoid a crash, only to find himself stalling and narrowly managing to pull out of a complete tailspin.

The original voice traffic recordings reveal that throughout this repeated practising of landing – and in managing his sudden violent tail spin – John displays what Claxton regards as the “foundation stone” of learning – resilience. He emerges as someone with ‘the ability to tolerate frustration and confusion; to act without knowing what will happen; to be uncertain without becoming insecure.’

Moreover, as well as resilience, John displays in his often chirpy banter with the rescue team a number of vital intrapersonal attributes that we regard as essential for success as a C21st professional.

He shows self-belief in his own intrinsic value and capacity to manage the situation.

He shows empathy in his concern for the plight of his rescue team and also in his insistence that his stricken plane should not become a hazard to anyone else. His concern for others and ability to see the situation through their eyes is a powerful quality in helping him control a deeply stressful situation for himself.

He shows focus in his ability to remain attentive and immersed in the moment of his various tasks as he finally manages on his fourth attempt to – at last – land the plane safely to the huge relief of the team including Sea King captain Flt Lt Rebecca Bethell.

Watching this compelling documentary unfold was a reminder of the power of experiential learning in testing our most fundamental attributes for learning and achieving optimum performance. The way we deal with real situations that are unfamiliar and unexpected has a tendency to magnify our most essential traits and habits. In the end the surest way to learn is to apply and reapply our skills in real situations. Although of course properly designed experiential learning should ensure that stretch is proportionate to safety, and nothing like the rare life or death situation here.

At the end of the programme a final thought struck me about stereotypical notions that advancing age creates barriers to learning. The team was staggered by John’s ability to manage his situation and to actively help make a hugely demanding task for his rescuers more manageable for them. The average age of the diverse rescue team surrounding him was around 40. John Wildey is in his 78th year.

Two weeks after the incident last October John signed up for his first formal flying lesson, an experiential learner par excellence.

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