Muscle Memory


Years ago, when I was working on my flight instructor certificate, I was doing a lot of flying. Necessarily, much of it was from the right seat, but I also flew a lot on the left side, for personal and business travel. I had become comfortable in either seat of the airplanes I was flying. After all, I was making the same motions in the right seat as I was accustomed to in the left one, just with opposite hands.

Meanwhile, a flying club I had been active in a few years earlier was trying to revive itself and hosted an afternoon for giving free introductory rides to various interested parties. I volunteered to provide a Skyhawk and give some rides out of a nearby commercial airport.

On the appointed day, I drew three passengers for their introductory rides, two 20-somethings and a seasoned, Type A executive. The plan was to fly to two nearby airports, giving the passengers an opportunity to fly the 172 from the left seat while I was in the right. We’d switch out passengers at each stop and return to the commercial airport.

The plan went fine. The 20-somethings flew the first two legs, and soon I settled the Type A executive into the left seat for the slightly longer flight back to the commercial airport. Being a Type A individual, they gripped the yoke tightly and made constant control inputs. I had to coax them to use their fingertips, and suggested that if they’d just relax and give things a gentle nudge every now and then, they wouldn’t have to work so hard.

As we neared the landing, I took over and configured the airplane for landing, setting up for a gentle touchdown. As I flared, however, the wind fell off, leaving us a few feet above the runway and dropping toward it. I did what I would normally do: moved the control in my left hand aft and moved the one in my right hand forward. In the left seat, that would have slightly increased the airplane’s pitch attitude and added a touch of power.

Except I was in the right seat, so what I actually did was retard the power and push the nose down. Immediately realizing my mistake, I reversed my control inputs and got the nose back up, just as we pranged onto the runway. Thankfully, there was no bounce. Red-faced, I taxied to the ramp, where I bade farewell to my passengers.

I learned that no matter how experienced we are or how much we know better, muscle memories developed over years can’t be unlearned in a few flying hours.

Learning Experiences

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