This is a response to the Quora question: Can you know something without knowing you know it?
Our instinct, or subconscious ability, is amazing; it saved my life.
In high school, I used to bike to a local glider field and help them stage and repair gliders. That was fun, but nothing beat flying them myself.
That white glider on the right is the Schweizer 2–33 I learned in. The one on the left is a sporty little 1–26 I’m about to tell a story about.
As a young pilot who couldn’t even legally drive, I had a blast in the skies above the Shenandoah. But as a young hotshot I pushed a few too many boundaries.
My second time out in the 1–26, I found myself too far from the runway in the afternoon when the lift tends to burn off.
(For those of you that don’t fly gliders, we search for “thermals” which are spots of heat in the atmosphere. If you keep a tight circle in those hot spots, you’ll gain altitude. Part of the sport of gliding is to see how far/high/long you can go in the air by gaining altitude in thermals, or other types of air currents. I was getting too far from the airport, with too little lift to keep me in the air)
Long story short, I turned back for the airport. I might have made it all the way back, but a hill rose up in between me and the airport. The hill was covered with trees and powerlines- there wouldn’t be a place to land.
As I flew towards the hill, I saw a branch fly by my wing. Immediately, instinct kicked in.
I pulled the glider into a 180, and dove for a spot of land I couldn’t even see. I ran through my checklist, and within seconds, was bouncing through a cow field. Textbook land out.
In training, we always practice keeping a field in mind. You should never fly without knowing you can safely land at any given time. What I didn’t realize, is that I had done this automatically and subconsciously.
In the stress of trying to make it back to the airport, I wasn’t paying much attention to choosing an alternative field. I was so focused on making sure I’d make it home, that I wasn’t consciously making sure I had a backup.
But I was doing that unconsciously. As soon as I realized that going any further over that hill would mean crashing into trees, I reacted.
I hadn’t known I had chosen that landing spot, but when I pulled the stick around, I saw it in my mind. I knew exactly where I wanted to land. I had stored it away, and kept it as a backup plan in case I’d need it.
There’s an old martial arts quote “Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training”
Practice doing things the right way: every single time. Training builds instinct. You never know when you’ll have to rely on that instinct.