Muscle Memory


Way back when I was working on my flight instructor certificate, I was surprised to have some initial trouble acclimating to the right seat. It wasn’t a matter of being able to reach everything necessary to safely fly the plane, a Cessna 172RG Cutlass, or needing to adjust my sight pictures. Instead, it had to do with literally years of using one hand on the yoke and the other for the throttle.

The best description of the problem I can give involves approaching a runway for landing and needing to slow the descent just a bit before flaring. When seated in the left seat, the tendency is to pull back slightly on the yoke with the left hand and ease in the throttle just a bit with the right. Switch seats, though, and attempting to add that same slight amount of energy with the same hand movements results in pitching the nose down when you want it to come up.

It was a “muscle memory” problem, where I had become experienced at doing something in a certain fashion and had to retrain myself to do it another way, from the other seat. Since then, I’ve seen many other pilots at least initially suffer the same confusion. A common example is someone stepping from a Cessna 172 and into a Piper Cub or Aeronca Champ. In both of those classic taildraggers, the throttle is located on the cabin’s left side and the stick is centered between the pilot’s legs. Such a configuration lends itself to the same phenomenon—using the opposite hand for control inputs.

After years of flying and instruction, I’m convinced muscle memory plays a huge role in training pilots who are transitioning from one aircraft to another, even if they’re doing it from the same seat and even if the controls’ relative positions are the same. Take a Piper Arrow pilot and put him or her in most Bonanzas, where the flap and landing gear switches are reversed from what they’ve become accustomed to, and it can require very timely and firm intervention on the instructor’s part to prevent retracting the gear after a landing. That’s one reason pilots should be trained to not touch anything after a landing until the airplane is at a complete stop and the pilot can take the time to stop and identify the correct switch before activating it.

There may be more-scientific terms for it, but muscle memory is a thing when flying different aircraft.

— C. Rivington

Cessna 172 RG cockpit


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