Blog: Ahead of the Power Curve

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Learning by repetition: a good pilot is always learning (and re-learning)

  •  By Dan Sobczak
  • Editor's note: This content does not constitute flight instruction. Consult a certified flight instructor in your area for proper flight instruction.

Recently I read former NASA astronaut John Young's book Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space. In his book, Young discusses NASA's successes and failures during his career, lessons that can apply to all pilots.

Young was the preeminent astronaut, the poster boy for what an astronaut was in the first three decades of NASA's history: a naval aviator, a test pilot, an aeronautical engineer. He was a career astronaut who flew six missions into space, spanning Gemini, Apollo and the Space Shuttle.

Astronaut John Young, commander of Apollo 16, leaps from the lunar surface as he salutes the American flag at the Descartes landing site. Source: NASA
  • Astronaut John Young, commander of Apollo 16, leaps from the lunar surface as he salutes the American flag at the Descartes Highlands. Source: NASA

Young was pilot and commander on two Gemini missions: Gemini 3 and Gemini 10 respectively.

He is one of only three humans who have (so far?) twice made the voyage from the Earth to the Moon: Apollo 10, where he orbited the Moon in the Command Module; and Apollo 16, where he walked on the surface of the Moon.

He also flew the "boldest test flight in history" -- STS-1, the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle program, onboard Columbia, as well as a second flight aboard Columbia on STS-9, which carried the first SpaceLab module into space.

Overall, Young worked for NASA for 42 years as an astronaut, as head of the astronaut office, and in other important roles with a focus on engineering, operations and safety.

In his book, Young discusses his experiences in NASA's successes as well as its failures, particularly the losses of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia and their crews, both of which "were completely preventable and caused by well-known problems that were never fixed," as he writes:

"We should hope for the best but always plan for the worst -- that's how NASA operated in the Apollo program and that's why the Moon landings succeeded as well as they did. Even Apollo suffered one terrible, life-costing disaster (Apollo 1) as well as one potentially catastrophic in-flight emergency (Apollo 13) that could easily have taken more human lives. Still, that's how NASA should have kept on operating, into and through the space shuttle program, into and through the space station program, and into and through whatever else lies beyond. Any space exploration program in the world that hopes to succeed -- any engineering enterprise that plans to succeed -- absolutely needs to plan for the worst.

"In something as innately dangerous as human spaceflight, you are always taking a highly calculated risk that your people, as a team and as an organization, are smart enough, experienced enough, careful enough, tough-minded enough, ethical enough, and managed well enough, to ferret out what all it is that can go wrong, and that actually is going wrong -- some of which you may not know about -- so that the major sources of failure, let alone catastrophe, can be pinpointed, probed, understood, and obviated, to the greatest extent possible."

While Young's comments are clearly specific toward human spaceflight, the same mindset can be applied to general aviation here on Earth.

How can pilots better avoid accidents in aviation?

By hoping for the best but always planning for the worst.

By making sure that you as the pilot are smart enough, experienced enough and careful enough to learn all that can go wrong, so that the major sources of failure and catastrophe can be pinpointed, understood and removed to the greatest extent possible.

One way to do that is to continue re-learning what you previously learned. We've all heard that a good pilot is always learning. But good pilots also repeat what they learn. Repetition is part of the learning process.

The authors of an Aviation Safety Reporting System study in 2003 wrote that "the risk of memory errors is greatly reduced when aviation operations are strictly proceduralized and overlearned." (Human Memory and Cockpit Operations: An ASRS Study)

In other words, the more you learn, the more you need to remember what you've learned.

By reviewing again aviation topics you've learned in the past, such repetition or overlearning can help you stay ahead of the power curve when you need it most. Repetition is one tool you can use to accomplish what Young warns about in his book in order to help avoid completely preventable accidents.

Stay sharp!
The Flight Chain App team

Flight Chain App and its companion blog are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.

  • Dan Sobczak is the founder of, a mobile app that helps pilots learn from accident chains by making NTSB reports more convenient and easier to digest. Dan received his private pilot certificate in 2003.

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