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Hold What You've Got

I once read Henry Winkler's account of his audition for the part of Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli in the 1970s TV show Happy Days. The script called for him to walk up to a mirror and comb his hair in stereotypical "greaser" style. But the moment he got the comb out, he had an insight into the character. The Fonz was perfect. His hair was perfect. It didn't need combing. He looked at himself in the mirror, paused, smiled, and ad libbed what would become the character's signature utterance.


And the rest, as they say, is history.

Early in my airplane flying, as a transitioning glider pilot, I often found myself struggling to maintain a desired altitude. In gliders I'd only ever maintained an altitude incidentally, so in the airplane, I'd be sawing back and forth on the yoke, fiddling with the trim, and jockeying the throttle continuously, trying to zero in on my target. Unlike The Fonz, I was "combing my hair" whether it needed it or not. My altitude never strayed too far, but the constant effort was draining, cut into my enjoyment, and consumed lots of attention. Finally my instructor Paul convinced me just to stop my futzing long enough to figure out what was really going on. Was my altitude trending upward? Downward? How quickly? Only after making that assessment could I know what kind of correction to make. It took some practice, but eventually I got the hang of it.

I was reminded of this experience one evening when my buddy Hal was telling our flying club about some instruction he received in his naval aviator training. On final approach for a carrier landing, after a certain point, if your glide path is acceptable, just stop messing with things and "hold what you've got" down to the deck. The closer you are to landing, the greater the importance of a stable approach.

Recently I've been thinking about this idea in the context of the observe-act-observe cycle. Many times in this blog I've described the process of observing a situation, taking an action that seems appropriate, and observing the results. Sometimes, though, the observation is saying don't change a thing. No action is required. Hold what you've got. In the past when flying airplanes I think I've had a habit of taking actions almost compulsively. It felt like it was about time to do something, so I'd make a control input. Over time I've realized this isn't necessary or helpful. If everything's looking good, don't change a thing. Or, as the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The observe-act-observe cycle isn't about compulsive tinkering. It's about taking appropriate action based on observation, and sometimes the most appropriate action is no action at all. So these days, when I'm hand flying and my altitude isn't quite right, I take a moment to observe the trend indicators like vertical speed, airspeed, and even RPM (when flying a fixed-pitch prop). Based on these, I can assess just how much, if any, corrective action is required. And when at last I'm on my desired altitude and the trend indicators are looking good, I do my best not to change anything, hold what I've got, and enjoy the ride. Those are some of the sweetest moments in flying.

As The Fonz would say, "Aaaayyyy!"

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