Multi-Tasking: Not Natural, Rarely Necessary

Audio Blog, 12:08

The most elementary maneuver for a helicopter pilot trainee to learn is how to hover. Hovering is when the helicopter is flown so that it maintains a constant position over the ground, and it requires the student to multi-task.

There I was, in the spring of 1990, at the U.S. Army’s Flight Training Center in Fort Rucker, Alabama.  It was over 100 degrees inside the cockpit of the green UH-1 Huey helicopter.   The old Vietnam era Huey, painted with orange doors to alert everyone to the danger of a student pilot, was loud, rough and intimidating.

I was sitting in the left front seat, sweating profusely in my green Nomex flight suit and helmet, gloves and combat boots. In the cockpit seat to the right of me was Mr. Dennis Thorp, a longhaired, flamboyant instructor pilot who wore Ray-ban sunglasses, even when the sun was not shining.

Mr. Thorp was one of the veteran retired aviators, with combat experience in Vietnam that the army hired as contractors. Their job was to teach the dangerous first phase of helicopter training to a bunch of “wanna-be” aviators, right out of basic officer training.

Mr. Thorp was highly critical, sarcastic, and loved to comment on the crookedness of my teeth as I struggled to fly.

“Frank, I don’t get it. Why didn’t your parents get braces for you?  My goodness!”

The mental stress applied was part of the Army’s proven process to develop aviators to the required proficiency level before receiving the silver wings at graduation and being sent out to active duty units.

“OK, Frank, the goal today is to hover the helicopter on your own.  I am going to give you just one of the three controls to the aircraft, the anti-torque pedals.” he calmly stated as the helicopter hovered perfectly with apparently no effort required on his part.  “All you have to do is keep the aircraft pointed at that large tree in the distance.  Very simple.   You have the pedals.”

“Yes sir, I have the pedals.”

The pedals on the helicopter control the yaw of the aircraft.  The yawing movement is where the helicopter’s heading is changed by rotating the nose to one side or the other around the main mast, using the anti-torque control provided by the small tail rotor.  Well. In no time at all, the aircraft’s nose was turning away from the distant tree to the right, requiring an input of left pedal to bring it back.  I pushed the left pedal, but far too hard, causing the nose to whip back around past the tree and too far left.

“Candidate Van Buren, what are you doing?  Easy on the pedals.”

“Yes sir.”

I pushed right pedal…and passed the tree again.  Then left pedal…passed the tree again.  Back and forth I went, with the frustrated sighs of Dennis Thorp filling my ears.  This seemingly simple task, analogous to finding the sweet spot when learning to manage the clutch in a stick-shifted car, was introducing major stress into my life!  Finally, I settled the aircraft down, and pretty much kept the nose pointed towards the tree over 100 yards away.

“OK, Frank.  That is good enough.  I have the pedals.”

“Yes sir, you have the pedals.” I said as I took a deep breath and began to realize that this year was going to be a bit more difficult than I imagined back home.

“Candidate Van Buren, I will keep all controls except for the cyclic stick,” he stated over the incredibly distracting noise of the helicopter.  “All you have to do now is keep the aircraft level.  You have the cyclic.”

“Yes sir, I have the cyclic”.

The cyclic stick is connected to the floor and located between your legs.  The control is called the cyclic because it changes the pitch angle of the rotor blades cyclically. The result is to tilt the rotor disk in a particular direction, resulting in the helicopter moving in that direction. If the pilot pushes the cyclic forward, for example, the rotor disk tilts forward, and the rotor produces a thrust vector in the forward direction.

It didn’t take but a second for the amazingly stable aircraft piloted by Mr. Thorp to begin to move forward.  At that point, I pulled back on the cyclic (too abruptly) and the nose arched back like a bucking horse, and we moved rapidly backwards.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa cowboy!” Mr. Thorp yelled over the intercom.  “Just nice and gradual!”

I continued this over correcting dance for ten minutes, with him literally saving us from crashing, and I was already tired. Finally I managed to settle down the bucking bronco to his satisfaction.

“OK, that is enough Van Buren.  I have the cyclic”, the salty instructor said.

I relinquished the controls, but felt by the tone of his voice that I was not performing up to his expectations.

“Finally, I am going to give you the last control, the collective stick.  All you have to do is to keep the helicopter hovering at ten feet above the ground.  I will keep all the other controls.  You have the collective.” he calmly informed me with a huge (cat that ate the canary) grin on his grizzled face.

The collective pitch control, or collective lever, is normally located on the left side of the pilot’s seat. The collective changes the pitch angle of all the main rotor blades collectively (i.e., all at the same time), and controls the climb and descent movement of the aircraft.

“I have the collective”, I quietly said with a bit of trepidation in my voice.

Off we went.  Up from 10 feet to about 30, as I had too much power applied through the raised collective.

“Like a rocket ship, eh Van Buren?” I think he enjoyed the fun.

So I pushed it down…too much, and we screamed towards the ground rapidly.

“I have the controls!” he screamed as he faked outrage at my apparent attempt to actually try to kill him.

Then he gave the collective back, and let me play the elevator game for several minutes before holding it steady.

“That’s decent, Frank!”

“Thank you, sir”.

“Now before we head back for the day, I want you to take all the controls, and hover this aircraft”, he commanded, with the knowledge that he should stay alert so I didn’t get us both killed.

I took the controls, and attempted to hover with all three controls…and it was a disaster of an attempt. Up too high, then down too fast only to barely save us from crashing, nose too far left, the helicopter banks hard right…it was quite a ride.  I think I heard that old bird Thorp laughing loudly over the roar of the engines and the whop-whop of the blades.  He was clearly enjoying this spectacle.

“Well, that is enough.  I have the controls,” he said with disgust dripping from his tone.  “That was one of the ugliest displays of hovering that I have ever witnessed.  We are going to have to work on your ability to do more than one thing at a time”.

Somehow, ten hours of flight training later, I figured out how to hold a solid hover.  One year plus of flight training later, I had a great deal of respect and gratitude to ole’ Dennis Thorp for keeping me out of the grave, and standing at the graduation ceremony to have the shiny silver wings pinned upon my chest.

Multi-tasking is difficult but necessary in tasks like hovering a helicopter. However, with the evolution of technology, most people now believe that routine tasks are an opportunity to multi-task, even when simultaneous performance is unnecessary.

How many of us text and drive?

Listen to a presentation while answering e-mail?

Watch TV while talking to our spouse?

Listen to your kid’s review of the day, while typing on the computer?

However, the leading researchers have concluded that the data does not support the myth of multi-tasking.

“People can’t multi-task very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller. Miller says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.  What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

“Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” Miller said.

“You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”

Miller said there are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. Primarily, similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain.

Additionally, the frontal lobe houses the “executive system” of the brain; it decreases in volume as we age. This region helps the brain decide which tasks to focus on and when to suppress irrelevant information.

Researchers believe that humans don’t do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly. They believe that it is not nearly as effective and efficient as we believe, and often unnecessary.

Besides, what we consider multi tasking, can often be counter-productive. Here are a few negative effects of unnecessary multi-tasking, and some practical steps for us to immediately improve.

  • Loss of productivity.  Focus your energy on the task at hand, get “in the zone”, and watch productivity rise.
  • Loss of time. Accomplish individual task efficiently, and move on.
  • More mistakes. Pay attention to detail, the first time.
  • Missed opportunities to observe beauty. Take a relaxing walk/run without your phone, and observe various elements of life.
  • Heightened stress. Eliminate your 24-hour access to office e-mail, and you won’t be frazzled and distracted.
  • Poor time management. Always first prioritize, then handle tasks in order.
  • Degraded memory performance. Focus the mind in the moment, especially the first 30 seconds when meeting new people.  It will impress them.
  • Detrimental to your relationships. Give your loved ones you’re your undivided attention, and they will respond and appreciate the attentiveness.
  • Weight gain from over-eating. Turn off the devices, slow down and let your body process a meal.
  • Increased danger. Drive, walk and bike without texting; it improves your odds of safe travel.
  • Reduced creativity. Set aside daily personal time to free your mind to wander and think.

Multi-tasking, or as researchers describe by “switching our attention from task to task rapidly”, may be necessary for some occupations, but not conducive to a balanced lifestyle with quality relationships.


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