I could feel my gut tightening and my brows furrowing as I pored over the spreadsheet on my computer screen. Those numbers weren't looking good, and no matter how I moved them around, they added up to one conclusion: I had a cash-flow problem.
As we're all too aware, daily life is full of challenges like this. Like everyone, I find myself continually balancing conflicting needs and handling "over-constrained" problems—and like everyone, I undergo my share of stress over this. But this is yet another area of life that has been informed by my flying.
Flying continually presents opportunities to practice what might be called the "art of the possible." From flight planning to in-cockpit decisions, I'm constantly balancing the aircraft's capabilities, environmental conditions, my own skills and abilities, and a host of other constraints to either accomplish, modify, or postpone the intended mission—or decide that the better part of valor is to give it up altogether.
Which brings me back to that spreadsheet. The cost of flying has more than doubled since I started flying—but during the same period, my income has increased about 30 percent, while the cost of living has increased about 33 percent. Put it all together, and it's clear something's got to give—and lately, that something has been flying. And it's killing me!
Now I realize it's both useless and annoying to complain. I'm keenly aware of how lucky I am, by accident of birth, timely opportunity, and my own efforts, to have the life that I have. I am truly blessed to have encountered the people and places I have known and the countless wonderful experiences I've had—including flying airplanes. Still, flying has become so integral to who and what I am that I can't help but feel a pang of regret every time I see a small airplane fly overhead.
But like the journeys I've made in those small airplanes, I know that this is just a part of a larger journey. It's like sitting in a hotel room for a couple of extra days while waiting out the weather. I really want to be flying, but the "art of the possible" says I need to cool my jets for the moment. It just takes longer in this case because the constraints I'm dealing with operate on larger time scales.
So I keep frowning at those spreadsheets, looking for ways to make some numbers bigger and others smaller, so that someday soon I can make that "go" decision and start the process of getting my backside back in the air. I still don't know how I'm going to arrange my life so that every month there's fresh ink in my logbook and black numbers in that spreadsheet, but I will find a way. In a very real sense, my life is at stake—the life I've chosen to live.
The scattered clouds above us were bunching up a little closer together and we had rising terrain ahead. My wife Janet, my parents, and Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator were VFR on our way North through Oregon in my club's A36 Bonanza. A cold front had passed through earlier leaving some scattered clouds and it was time to climb above them. I steered for a break in the clouds and started a slow, circling climb to top them. Soon we were back on course above the ragged, cottony-white layer. The forecast for our destination was good and I knew I could get a pop-up IFR clearance if needed to get back down. It was a stunning day and we were thoroughly enjoying the view.
One of the main themes of this blog has been the immediacy and "presentness" of flying. You just can't fly an airplane safely and well without a keen awareness of what's going in the present moment. That experience of fully "being" is one of the things I find most compelling about flight. A popular aphorism says that we are "human beings," not "human doings." It's a reminder that our experience of life happens only here and now, no matter how we fill our lives with frenetic activity. While I find much wisdom in that statement, I also find that "human doings"—the constant stream of actions, moment-to-moment and day-to-day, that make up a life—are equally important. These doings often provide some of the best opportunities for being.
On our Oregon flight, for example, I was taking a continuous series of actions in response to the present reality of our situation. Observing the cloud conditions and the terrain, I had some decisions to make. Climbing above the clouds VFR, changing course, or requesting a pop-up IFR clearance were all viable options. It was another opportunity to practice what I like to call the observe-act-observe cycle. The realities of the flight environment demanded of me both an awareness of the present reality and a series of timely actions. What's more, that awareness allowed me to enjoy every moment of the flight.
While few other experiences in my life inspire quite the same degree of alert action, I have gradually learned to bring some of it to my everyday experience. As I go through the often frenetic activity of my daily commute or work day, I find myself frequently stopping to notice what's going on around me, how I feel physically and emotionally, and assessing what would be the best thing to do next. Sometimes, it's just to gaze out the window and take a deep breath! I don't imagine that I would have quite this experience of life if it weren't for my lessons learned in the cockpit.
As we approached our destination of Redmond, Oregon, the clouds started breaking up, leaving a convenient opening through which to comfortably descend VFR. I went through all the usual actions involved in landing at an unfamiliar towered airport: planning a pattern entry as directed by the controller, watching for traffic, getting the airplane slowed down and configured for landing. Finally, we rolled out on Redmond's runway 28, turned off, and were cleared to taxi to the FBO. Through it all, I maintained a continuous stream of actions taken in the context of an alert and present situational awareness. I had no choice! The airplane and the flight environment insisted on it.
The sun was setting as we climbed out of the airplane and looked around. The clouds over the Cascade mountains were bathed in a gorgeous red-orange glow and the wind was sharp out of the West. It was a spectacular scene—and I couldn't think of any place I would rather be.
"Gas: fullest tank; undercarriage: down and locked; mixture: rich; prop: forward," I called out as I entered the pattern in my club's A36 Bonanza on a left 45 for runway 31 at Hollister airport, just 40 miles Southeast of my home airport of San Jose. Following my usual practice, I did this "GUMP" check twice more: once on base leg and again on final approach.
In last week's post I described how conscious planning is a great way to ward off compulsive worrying. Good habits are another. One of the most important goals of flight training is to instill good cockpit habits while minimizing the bad. We pilots rely quite heavily on habits, and that's a good thing. They free our conscious attention from the repetitive and mechanical tasks involved in flying, making it easier to maintain good situational awareness and plan our next steps.
According to Webster's Dictionary, one of the definitions of habit is, "an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary." Because habits are involuntary, we don't have to think about them; they operate largely outside our conscious awareness. In instrument flight training, the first and most important skill that we learn is the instrument scan. At first, it requires conscious effort to scan the instruments effectively, but over time the scan becomes automatic. That's why it's so important to learn and practice a good scan—developing bad scan habits at this stage can make it much harder to learn to fly instruments well.
Often, when I've become aware of some aspect of my flying that isn't going well, the problem has been either a bad habit or a good habit that's not sufficiently ingrained. There were several times when I landed my club's Cessna 172, turned off the runway, and found that I forgot to pull the carburetor heat on before landing. This tended to happen only at towered airports, and I eventually figured out why it was happening—my checklist habit was to apply carb heat when turning downwind in the pattern. At towered fields, however, I was often given a base-leg or straight-in entry, so there was no downwind leg! My carb-heat habit wasn't triggered in this case, causing a potentially dangerous situation. In response, I consciously practiced a new habit until it became automatic: applying carb heat when reducing throttle below a certain level (and turning it off when applying full throttle, as for a go-around).
Having good and reliable habits in the cockpit and my pre- and post-flight activities brings peace of mind and contributes to a legitimate confidence in my abilities. In fact, when I become aware of some unease or anxiety, it often implies the need for developing a new habit. I've even come to apply this idea in my work and personal life. My twice-monthly habit of reviewing and paying bills, for example, lets me rest easy at night, confident that my bills were paid on time. At work, I maintain a mind-map diagram showing all the major projects I'm managing, with notes on status and next steps. Reviewing this diagram several times a day helps me feel confident that I'm focusing my attention appropriately and effectively.
As I crossed the threshold of the long runway at Hollister, I started rolling off the throttle and gradually raising the nose for landing. Soon I touched down gently and rolled out… on the wheels! Pilots of retractable-gear airplanes can never take this for granted—but good habits really improve our chances.
I was drifting between wakefulness and fitful sleep as I rolled over in bed, trying to get comfortable, when I suddenly jolted fully awake with a shot of adrenaline. What would happen to our housing costs if we couldn't find a place to live in our price range? We had just sold our house and were renting it from the new owners for a limited time. We needed to find a new place to live soon—in the most competitive real-estate market we'd ever seen!
I know from experience that the best thing to do in this situation is to do some breathing exercises to focus my attention on the present rather than worrying about a future I can't do anything about at 4 in the morning. Having practiced various forms of meditation over the years, I've developed some skill in focusing my attention on the present, which is a wonderful way to cultivate awareness of the only thing we can ever truly experience: the here and now.
But it's easy to fall into the trap of using this technique to avoid any thought of the future—and this can cause problems. If I did this in the cockpit, I could easily run out of fuel before arriving at my destination, encounter weather conditions that are beyond my own or the airplane's capabilities, or run afoul of any number of other hazards that require planning to avoid.
There have been many times in flying when I felt stressed and worried, overloaded with information and needing to make a decision. Pilot training teaches us to cope with this by setting priorities and allocating attention accordingly, with the basic priorities being "aviate," "navigate," and "communicate," in that order. In other words, we shouldn't worry about what to say next on the radio until we have the airplane under control and going where we want it to go.
In fact, one of the things I enjoy most about flying is that it doesn't really give me time to worry—there's too much to do. Last year I wrote a post about hearing General Chuck Yeager speak at a nearby aviation museum. I was struck by the emphasis he places on planning, and his observation that worrying is not only a waste of time, it's a distracting nuisance that can lead us to grief.
While both planning and worry concern themselves with the future, they couldn't be more different. While worry tends to be involuntary, undirected, and obsessive, planning is a consciously chosen activity with a specific purpose. When General Yeager sat in the Bell X1 cockpit and asked himself, "How can this thing kill me?" he wasn't worrying about a future he couldn't control. He was asking the question literally, itemizing all the risks he could think of so that he could prevent them or prepare responses in advance for those risks he couldn't prevent.
And one of the great benefits of planning is that it provides a legitimate reassurance that minimizes the temptation to worry. If I've prepared as much as possible for future eventualities, I don't have to worry about them. I have a plan.
I turned on my green cockpit flashlight and scrawled some questions for our realtor on my bedside notepad, along with some spreadsheet calculations to do in the morning. With that, I rolled over and finally went back to sleep. I could rest easy because I had a plan—to do some planning in the morning.
"Take your hood off," my instructor Bill said as we were climbing out from San Jose. "I want you to experience the transition from visual to instrument conditions."
We were on an instrument flight plan and I was just a few lessons into my instrument flight training. We'd completed the lessons on basic attitude flying by reference only the instruments using a view-limiting device (the "hood") that allowed me to see only the instrument panel. On this day, however, Mother Nature was kind enough to provide the next step in my training: a nice, high cloud layer to fly around in.
A couple of minutes later, the view of the ground faded into the mist, until finally I could see nothing but silver gray out the windows. This was the real thing, and my attention was now firmly riveted to the panel!
"Skyhawk 377, left turn to 030, climb and maintain 5,000," the controller instructed, and I complied, using the turn coordinator to make sure I didn't bank too steeply. My altimeter read 4,200. 800 feet to go. Whoa! Heading 030 was coming up fast on the heading indicator, so I abruptly started to roll out of my turn. Graceless, but effective.
"You're doing fine," Bill reassured me. I noticed that while Bill was bundled up in a warm jacket, I was starting to sweat!
Soon we reached 5,000 feet, so I leveled off, let the airplane speed up, throttled back to a comfortable cruise power setting, and ran my cruise checklist. For the better part of an hour, I got to practice the attitude instrument flying skills I'd just learned in real conditions while working with real controllers as we made our way out to the Central Valley and back.
"Skyhawk 377, expect the visual approach at San Jose," the controller said. That was convenient, because I hadn't had any training yet on instrument approaches. We were home free!
Or so I thought.
"Skyhawk 377, turn right heading 210," the controller said. I glanced at Bill with a quizzical look. I was already going heading 210!
"Give me a 360," the controller clarified.
"He's giving you an impromptu hold, probably for sequencing with the big boys," Bill explained, referring to the large airliners with whom we share the airport.
"Right to 210," I replied and started my turn. The controller had us go once more around before directing us towards the airport.
Finally we were cleared to descend, so I throttled back to my descent power setting and pushed the nose over slightly to start down. A minute or so later, the ragged patches at the bottom of the cloud layer whizzed past the windows as the ground came into view about 3,000 feet below. Lo and behold, there was my airport just off the nose.
"377 has the field in sight," I called on the radio.
"Skyhawk 377, cleared visual approach Runway 29. Contact San Jose tower on 124.0," came the reply.
"Cleared visual 29, over to tower, g'day," I confirmed with a sigh of relief and began a familiar descent for landing at my home airport.
After the flight, Bill and I debriefed the lesson.
"You did very well today," Bill said. "It's great that you got some actual instrument conditions so early in your training. Some people earn their instrument rating without any actual at all. You learn much more this way."
He was right—it was exactly the kind of experience on which true confidence is built. When it comes to experience, there really is nothing like the real thing.
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