I don’t like the word “regulation.” It feels and sounds ugly to me. I suppose that is because when I think of regulations, I think about them as a set of rules foist upon us by politicians, designed to govern behavior externally– echoes of “make your bed, Ira,” or simply, “you have to go to school, Ira.”
But in my day job as a psychologist, the word “regulation” often appears with the word “self-“ preceding it, and that gives it a different connotation. Self-regulation means to be in control of one’s self, to have a smoothly operating thermostat capable of turning on the heat when needed and cooling down as the situation demands. It is a popular word today, perhaps because it is less theory-bound than the term “ego strength,” which essentially meant the same thing but was promulgated by those sex-obsessed Freudians.
Most pilots I know are like most people I know, and they hate regulations imposed upon them by the government. On the other hand, they tend to be in favor of self-regulation, especially when it comes to things such as determining what medical conditions should prevent them from flying.
As a pilot, I am aware of the fact that the vast majority of accidents are caused by something called “loss of control.” It can happen at any time, but it often happens when life offers up a surprise, such as a malfunctioning instrument or a sudden weather change. Accident investigations of such major catastrophes as Air France 447 and Colgan 3407 revealed that the pilots were “startled” by the events unfolding in the cockpit, and that the startle response may have led to a deterioration in the pilots’ reasoning ability.
Regulations designed to prevent such disasters are often aimed at improving training of how to recognize and respond to specific emergency scenarios, which is all good. But let’s face it, the whole point of the so-called startle effect is that, almost de facto, when faced with a real emergency, the human body is designed to flood the bloodstream with hormones that simultaneously have the effect of muting learned responses and instigating a primitive fight or flight response.
One of the oldest clichés is that a pilot’s license is a “license to learn.” I deeply appreciate the ongoing training I avail myself of, as well as the early training I received in which certain fundamentals were drilled into my head. One of those was the mantra that, above all else, one must “fly the airplane.” That mantra is there because, when the fit hits the shan, pilots and humans in general forget the basics. Whether panic takes over completely, or one concerns oneself so much with problem-solving that one fails to focus on the simple basics of flying, the failure to self-regulate can have devastating consequences.
“Flying the airplane” is a metaphor for self-regulation. When the unanticipated bill arrives from the IRS, when the person in the Escalade cuts you off on the freeway, when the process server knocks on your door, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath and simultaneously level your wings. Slow down if you’re going too fast, or speed up if you’re going too slowly. Above all, don’t let the airplane fly you. Self-regulation beats the other kind hands down.