Targets vs. goals


Photo by Norbert Braun on Unsplash

MUCH Early flight instruction in an airplane consists of the giving of instructions like “do this,” then “do that,” then “do the other.” (In fact now that you mention it quite a lot of the later flight instruction is the same way, unfortunately. But perhaps that’s a story for another time.)

Pretty soon after that we’re setting targets for the student: “Do [this] so that happens.“. “Make it look like [this]“.

What’s going on is we’re setting targets for the student to meet. Why? Because this is how we fly an airplane. The reason good flight instruction is helpful is because the targets we set ourselves sometimes don’t match the goals that the we know we want to achieve.

Here’s an example: I want the student to pitch the airplane to climb at the best-rate-of-climb. That’s the goal. To a new student I don’t say “climb at the best rate of climb.” I don’t say “climb at the best rate of climb airspeed.” And I don’t even say “climb at 80 knots“. What I do say is “put the nose at the horizon.” Nose to the horizon is the target, that closely achieves the goal of getting the best rate of climb from the airplane. It’s also much easier to achieve, pitch being an attribute that is more immediately controllable than airspeed, while also being the best way to adjust airspeed, and correct airspeed being the best way to get the best climb performance from the airplane.

On the other hand I would certainly tell a more advanced student simply to climb “at best rate”, because I would expect them to set themselves the target of “nose to the horizon” to achieve that goal. A big chunk of learning to fly is putting in place in your head an abstraction layer of easily-achieved targets that help you to your goals.

Course intercepts

Here’s another example: intercepting a localizer as part of an instrument approach. If you’re lucky you’re doing this in an airplane with a Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI) with which one way to achieve a smooth intercept is to turn the plane so the top of the course deviation indicator needle is under the lubber line and as the needle moves to centre to adjust heading to keep it there. Don’t worry if you don’t know what an HSI is, or an instrument approach. The salient fact is that to achieve a goal, a sophisticated mental task of adjusting aircraft heading to capture a course indicated on a flight instrument is made much easier by replacing it with a simple target: keep this needle under this point on the display, and it will all work out.

In this case the target is quite different to the goal. So you’re likely to remember it as a helpful trick. You might forget the trick in its entirety but if you remember it at all you won’t get confused about it, or mix in things that don’t belong.


Here’s another example that’s easier to mess up. When we start a cross-country flight as part of our navigation planning we have an on-course heading to steer calculated from estimated true airspeed and forecast winds. Typically that heading is off by a few degrees. When we fly that heading we find we’re not quite following the correct ground track, a fact that becomes pretty obvious after only a few minutes of flying. The temptation then is to simply steer the airplane to the left or right of that heading so it looks like we’re going in the right direction. This is especially tempting when we know the landscape over which we’re flying, which we typically are, on a training flight. “I’m trying to get to Lindsay, and I can see we’re to the south of Port Perry instead of to the north. I’m just going to turn left a bit, as I know where Lindsay is.

So I like to reframe the exercise. I set a different target. The goal is still to get to Lindsay airport, but the target is instead to measure the difference between the ground track we marked on the chart and the ground track our pre-determined heading gives us. By replacing “get to Linsday” with “measure the error” it becomes (psychologically) much easier to fly in a straight line, even if that line is slightly wrong. Once we can fly in a straight line it’s trivial to measure the track angle error, and when we’ve measured the error it’s very easy to adjust the heading accordingly, and when we do that, flying a straight line to the destination is the result. In fact we achieve the goal of arriving at Linsday much more easily and predictably than if we allowed ourselves the luxury of making random that-looks-about-right course changes.

I do find though that I have to remind students about this target. It’s almost as if the goal (getting to Lindsay) is close enough to the target (measuring the error) that the goal bleeds through and eventually takes over. Sometimes we have to reinforce the difference, before the student remembers to aim at the target instead of the goal.

Airplane control

There is also a whole class of target-versus-goal differences when it comes to basic aircraft control, similar to achieving best rate of climb that I wrote about earlier. Here are some examples:

  • To achieve the goal of flying a steady heading, don’t repeatedly look at the heading indicator to make heading adjustments. Instead turn to the heading, then pick a distant in front of the airplane and set yourself a target of keeping that point in a fixed position in the windshield.
  • To descend at a steady airspeed, don’t chase the airspeed needle. Instead set yourself the target of trying to find the horizon position that gives you the airspeed that you want.
  • To make a steady standard-rate turn during instrument flight time don’t try to work the turn coordinator needle. Instead set yourself the target of finding the steady bank angle that gives the rate of turn that you want.
  • To make a decent landing, don’t try to “land” the plane. Instead, put yourself the right height above the runway and close the throttle, with the target of keeping the plane in the air as long as possible. The plane will do the rest!

If there’s a moral to this essay perhaps it should be this. A wise pilot knows the goal they want to achieve but they also acknowledge that to achieve it they may have to pretend to themselves they’re actually targetting something different. Next time you’re flying a plane and finding it difficult to achieve your goal, see if there’s a different target you can aim at that will get you there.

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