Postflight: Reflection, Refraction, and Reaction — an editor's perspective

by Susan Parson, FAA Safety Briefing

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. — Confucius

No doubt you have at some point marveled at the beauty of a rainbow. If you’re really fortunate, you might have even seen one from the sky. As you might remember from elementary school science class, a rainbow results from the reflection, refraction, and dispersion of light in water droplets. It allows us to see all the colors in the spectrum that normally appear as just plain white light.

As we close this issue on risk management and decision-making, I’d like to suggest that we, as pilots, can use the processes of reflection and refraction to be better, safer aviators. We can use them in any phase of flight, but I want to focus here on the benefits they have in the postflight phase. When you land after a flight, especially one that involved weather or other challenges, your first inclination is to relax. That impulse is natural, because after all, the flight is over, right? Ah, but as the late Yogi Berra famously said, “it ain’t over til it’s over.” The immediate postflight period is the best time to learn lessons. Just as a reflection and refraction allow us to see the full range of colors in the light spectrum, they also allow us to see the full range of hazards we faced, decisions we made, and risks we mitigated during the flight.

Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action. — Peter Drucker

For rainbow-producing refraction to occur, a light wave has to pass obliquely through a medium with different velocity. For us humans, reflection — the kind you do in your head — provides the different, slower velocity needed to refract the completed flight into its full spectrum of “teachable moments.”

The FAA Aviation Instructor’s Handbook (FAA-8083-9A) suggests a simple process for guiding the postflight analysis. Let’s take a look.

Replay. As a first step, mentally replay the flight from start to finish. Use a camera, an app, or even old-fashioned pen and paper to capture memories and perceptions while they’re still fresh. In addition to capturing pilot performance perceptions, this activity is also a great way to record all the personal and aesthetic observations you want to remember.

Reconstruct. The next step is to identify things you would have, could have, or should have done differently. I can recall occasions where I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. I can also think of flights that, in hindsight, I should not have taken at all. The point, though, is not to beat yourself up. The goal is to make an honest assessment of gaps in knowledge or skill.

Reflect. Reflection is nothing more complicated than asking yourself questions about perceptions and experiences and answering them as honestly as you can. For example, what was the most important thing you learned from this flight? What part of the experience was easiest? What aspect part was the hardest, and why? Did anything make you uncomfortable? If so, when, how, and why did it occur? How would you assess your performance, and your decisions?

There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge ... observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination. — Denis Diderot

Redirect. Now comes the time to react — to consider how the lessons learned on this flight can be applied to the next trip you make. What lessons can you use to mitigate risk, or perform better, in the next cross-country flight? Do you need to adjust your personal minimums? Did this flight indicate a need for deeper knowledge, or for sharper skills? If so, how and when will you take action to close the gaps?

Perhaps more than any other human endeavor, flying offers endless opportunities for learning and improving. Use the postflight reflection and refraction to make the most of them!

Susan Parson (, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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FAA Safety Team

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