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Familiarity in Unfamiliar Cockpits

Almost everyone in tune with the general aviation scene has at least heard of Steve Thorne from the YouTube channel Flight Chops. In particular, he is well known for flying a variety of different airplanes as part of his videos and his involvement in the Canadian Historical Aircraft Association (now the Canadian Aviation Museum). Ranging from standard 172s to warbirds like the T6, to hand built experimental like his new RV-14, Steve has likely flown it — and made a video about it!

Image courtesy of Flight Chops, 2021

Suffice to say, he flies a lot of different planes and often finds himself navigating an unfamiliar cockpit. Listening to this seminar, I found myself comparing his experience to my own recent transition from a Hershey-bar Piper Cherokee 140 to a larger, taper-wing Piper Cherokee 151. While largely very similar, there are so many subtle differences in the flight characteristics, panel layout, and equipment, not to mention transitioning to an entirely different airport.

Steve explains that he uses ForeFlight as a “touchstone” of familiarity. No matter what cockpit he’s in or what plane he’s flying, he has an iPad running ForeFlight right in view. I certainly can relate to that, although for me, it was my checklists that served as the touchstone.

The ideas presented in this seminar were intriguing. And because it was right on the heels of performing our final ovarian hysterotomy as part of our lab animal surgery course, it got me to think about the parallels in aviation and surgery. Now, having experienced both fields first-hand, I see the value of the cross-disciplinary thinking that leads to innovation.

What I noticed was that there is so much shared innovation in aviation because of how standardized it is. There is an easy opportunity to continue to learn. It is easy to measure our improvement, even if it’s only a qualitative pat on the back for a good landing. Ultimately, many people seem to think that pilots do the same basic things again and again, day in and day out. In contrast, or so the argument goes, people say that medicine is not standardized. Each patient is unique; during each surgery, the surgeon must deal with the unique anatomy and circumstances of the patient.

But I think that this argument is flawed. Each flight is unique. Just like the anatomical differences in individuals, each flight is slightly different. It’s a different airport, it’s a different plane, a different time of day, different traffic volumes, among others. I could go on about each field ad nauseum. But, therein lies the key takeaway: using checklists and familiarity helps in both aviation and in surgery.

I’ve always said that the biggest part of innovation is cross-disciplinary work. Through that type of collaboration, you get a chance to look at a problem from a fresh perspective. That shift may hold the key to thinking outside of the box and coming up with a new solution without having to force-fit it within the confines of the aggregation of discourses or common knowledge in a field.


“Pilot in Command: The Power of Familiarity in Unfamiliar Cockpits,” by ForeFlight, December 14, 2021.

“Ovarian Hysterectomy | Lab Animal Surgery,” by Sahil Nawab, December 12, 2021.

“Piper PA-28 Year Model Changes,” by Skywagon University, December 8, 2021.


Piper Cherokee


The Danger of Flying at Night


  1. Zainab

    Sahil, very interesting read! I love the way you have compared the 2 disciplines. And the last paragraph of the article is so true..very nice 👍

    • Sahil

      Thank you! I’m glad that you found it interesting combining the two disciplines. As I reflected on it, I just kept finding more and more similarities. Really I think it comes down to the fact that both combine theory and practice. There’s the actual knowledge, but just as important, is a physical understanding of applying that knowledge. Honestly that could be a good segue into bringing engineering into the fold too! 🙂

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