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Learning to Fly – The Theory of the "Three Buckets"

Learning to Fly – The Theory of the "Three Buckets"

A couple years back, when I was a flight student, struggling to understand and memorize all the procedures, maneuvers, scan patterns, landing pattern, and myriad other aspects of slipping the surly bonds, one of my instructors would routinely see how frazzled I was. After one notable flight, he was nice enough to share with me his theory of flight training. Learning to fly, he explained to me, was just like having three buckets with you all the time. These buckets were called Knowledge, Experience, and Luck.

When we first start learning to fly, the Knowledge bucket is only as full as we’ve made it. (Actually, at the start of flight training, the Knowledge bucket may be almost empty!) If we’ve studied hard, listened and taken notes during all our ground classes, and committed most of it to memory, our Knowledge bucket fills up steadily. We can readily see the bucket filling, and this encourages us to study harder, learn more, and continually fill that bucket. It’s also quite the magic bucket; it never reaches a point where it overflows! The more knowledge we gain, forever and ever, the more full our Knowledge bucket becomes!

Now that we’ve got a Knowledge bucket that we can see filling up daily, we are eager to get in the air and start flying. It’s at this point that our Experience bucket slowly starts to fill up, starting with the bottom barely covered up with our meager flight experience. With each hour we fly, whether under instruction or solo, whether a nice easy day flight in VMC or a bad weather night flight where we’re in the clouds getting bounced around from takeoff to landing, that Experience bucket keeps on filling. This bucket is magical also; it never seems to get completely full! Just when we think we’ve got tons of experience (especially LONG after we’ve become rated pilots), that bucket just keeps growing ever so slightly to have just a little more room to stuff even more experience in!

Whereas the Knowledge bucket and the Experience bucket are fully under our control, and open to allow us to monitor the rates at which they fill, the Luck bucket is a complete unknown. It is probably the most magical bucket of the three, in that it is of an indeterminate size, it is completely dark and impossible to see inside, and it is not for us to fill, only take things out of it. The only thing we know for sure is that the bucket is there. There will come times in our flying careers when we need to reach our hand into that dark opening and search for a little Luck to get us out of a jam, and HOPEFULLY there is something there to pull out! Will it be empty the next time we reach in there? Will we reach in, looking for a little Luck, and come out empty handed? Who knows? The point here is that we should never rely on the Luck bucket to save us. Instead we should keep our Knowledge and Experience buckets full through diligent study and continued practice of our flying skills, ensuring we will never have to rely on our Luck bucket.

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