Three-D Thinking

Way back when, my highschool still offered shop classes. I took drafting and metal working. Of the two drafting did me more long-term good, but wreaked havoc on my grades. It is said that women have more difficulty visualizing things in three dimensions – spatial imaging. This sample of one certainly fits the pattern. I can draw things from life, measure carefully, get the scale correct, and so on. But present me with two views and have me draw the third? I was very proud of that C+.

And then came instrument flying…

The rules made sense. Following the instruments made sense, once you acknowledged that instrument flying was an unnatural act and felt like it (thanks, Gordon Baxter). But being able to “see” where I was on an instrument chart, especially an approach plate? No. Having a poor instrument instructor did not help, as I discovered later when I learned that I’d been taught one of the holding patterns completely wrong. The chief pilot could not fathom what the h-ll I was doing. I could not understand why he was screaming at me. We found out when we got on the ground and I diagrammed the pattern for him. What I’d been taught was almost exactly opposite what everyone else did. Oh boy.

Relearning instrument flying is no fun if you learn it wrong. Anyway…

I could fly instruments safely, especially if I had some sort of wing-leveler to use while setting up the beginning of an approach. For those non-pilots, or non-instrument pilots, there are a limited number of ways one can get from up there to down here. Why? Because 1) there is only one runway you can land on and 2) having everyone show up from random directions at random rates of approach and descent could lead to moments of loud, crunchy interest. So there are broad arcs that serve as entrance ramps leading to the initial approach fix, the point where you are supposed to have everything squared away and are getting ready to approach the airport. From the IAF the plane descends to the final approach fix (FAF), the gate where you are committed to shooting the approach, and where your ducks (airspeed, gear up or down, flap settings, power settings, radio settings, seatbelts) must be in a row for a safe under-control approach. In most cases, you fly a straight line (heading) from the IAF to the FAF to the runway. This is good.

I have to follow along on the plate with one finger to keep track of where I am. I can either hold a vertical mental picture – elevation – or horizontal – place relative to IAF and FAF. I cannot see the two at the same time in my mind. Three-D doesn’t happen in a moving airplane, at least not inside Alma’s head.

Even when I was flying instruments daily and shooting approaches daily, I had to have the plate out and a finger on it. Only once out of several hundred instrument approaches did I actually manage to visualize everything in three dimensions as it took place. The weather cooperated, the approach was simple, the autopilot did what it was supposed to, the engines obeyed, and I did not have passengers to keep track of. Once, everything worked in my brain and I actually saw what I was supposed to be seeing. Once.

So, if you have ever wondered why my battles and such are always two-dimensional, why I stick with places and times without air support and over-the-horizon artillery, now you know.

I don’t see three-D.

18 thoughts on “Three-D Thinking

  1. ” In most cases, you fly a straight line (heading) from the IAF to the FAF to the runway.”

    Obviously you never did a lot of flying in the Frank Church River of No Return wilderness. Approach goes something like this, fly down the canyon, following the river but keeping high enough to avoid pesky things like finger ridges that insist on running clear to the edge of the river and ending in bluffs with a lone pine on top reaching skyward for things like unwary Cessnas. Turn the corner, oh there is the runway, butted up against that next ridge, full stop. (not actually, but it feels like it) drop like a rock in order to hit the runway and be going slow enough by the time you get to the end of it that you can make a u-turn and not end up crunched up against that ridge I just mentioned. Which in at least one case has the picked over carcass of a less lucky plane reclining against it serving as a warning/waiting for company.

      • I’m not a pilot, but as a passenger I can tell you there is a reason that those pilots have to reupholster their seats regularly.

  2. Oh. OK. I just thought you liked the more in-your-face type of battles. We all have our blind spots.

    Over-the-horizon artillery (and stand-off air support) is best thought of as magic. You talk into the radio (or telephone), and if the stars align properly, a little while later your enemy suddenly explodes. Or something nearby. Or not so nearby. Or fifteen minutes after it doesn’t matter any more. Or a half hour later, when you’ve already taken the target. Or the lieutenant reverses the locations of caller and target, and you get to have a really bad day. Or maybe nothing happens at all, because the whims of Murphy blow both hot and cold. Like when the lieutenant decides to rearrange all the color coded pins on the map into funny shapes based on their colors. Or the supply company delivered the wrong caliber or type of ammunition, or left the powder bags out in the rain. Or gophers chewed up all the phone lines and yellow jackets decided to nest in that nice, warm radio mount. Or the laser designator illuminates some of the tall grass or swirling dust near the spotter, and the precision guided munitions randomly pick which target to strike.

  3. About a third of my high school drafting class could not make the connection between a physical object and an isometric drawing.

    Years later, working in a machine shop, I saw people with the opposite problem; they’d hold a drawing out in front of them and rotate it at various angles, trying to get a 3D impression of a simple 3-view.

  4. I can’t think in 3-D in the real world either; even have trouble picturing what a room will look like if I rearrange the furniture (no, looking at plan and elevation views doesn’t help). Oddly, though, I can think in 3-D in the space inside my head where I go to think about topology. But add a dimension or more, and intuition fails me.

    Somewhat OT, but the only person I ever met who had good intuition for n-dimensional constructs (where n > 6) was an Israeli mathematician who’d been blind from birth.

  5. “It is said that women have more difficulty visualizing things in three dimensions”….yet…just judging by the voices on the radio…something like 20% of air traffic controllers seem to be women.

    • Air Traffic Controllers and other jobs where you absolutely must be able to think in three dimensions all tend to have a high initial attrition rate in training, and weed out males, females, and anyone else who can’t cut the mustard. And as you said – 20-25%. That leaves 75-80% who are not obviously (from voice) women…

  6. “About a third of my high school drafting class could not make the connection between a physical object and an isometric drawing.”

    It gets even more interesting when you confuse isometric with isotonic. Ask me how I know this.


  7. Heh… Not everyone can do it, and the same applies to underwater operations. You NEED to be able to think/operate in three dimensions. Also, fighter pilots/NFOs need that capability in aerial combat. In addition to being able to do vector logic in your head, at 200kts plus…

      • Vector logic is vector calculus simplified to the binary of “he’s dead and I’m alive and I’m quite happy about that outcome.”

    • This is the funny one for me, because I think in pictures, so the 3-D comes easy, and the simple logic of seeing my own movement as a flowing sweep through it works just fine. But I have a very hard time translating that to precise numbers (I do fine at “I need to add a smidge more power here to make that touchdown point, ’cause the wind’s hitting that bank and will burble up right…there.”, and terrible at “when encountering a wind shear of 15 knots .25 miles from touchdown on final, how many knots do you increase airspeed?”), and an even worse time tracking other objects moving in different directions & speeds than me. If I’m paying attention to them, I can follow – but if I stop, they either hang in my mental imagery in the last place I saw them, or continue straight-line on last seen vector in my head, and I get unpleasantly surprised when they re-appear where I don’t expect them.

      Which makes me really paranoid about my situational awareness, because I know it sucks.

  8. Don’t feel bad. It took me years in childhood to get reconciled to the same volume of water looking different in different shaped vessels. I mean, obviously it would, but there’s just something wrong about it.

Comments are closed.