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Do I Have What It Takes?

As I described in a recent post, during my early flight training I was often plagued by bouts of anxiety and doubt in the wee hours of the morning. "How could I have made such a horrible landing? My instructor must think I'm hopeless. Will I ever get the hang of crosswinds?" Ultimately, the question I was asking was, "Do I have what it takes to fly?"

In the years since then, I've been struck by how many people I've talked with who have an interest in flying have expressed similar concerns. They're fascinated and excited by the prospect of "slipping the surly bonds of Earth" and taking to the sky, but they often express doubts about their aptitude, temperament, or courage. A good friend who has often thought about learning to fly wondered aloud whether she was capable of "that pilot calm" she's observed in pilots she's known. Another friend said she was afraid that her attention span and memory might not be up to the demands of flying an airplane. Yet another friend who's always wanted to fly and is planning to take lessons has developed an anxiety about turbulence and is concerned whether he can overcome it. In essence, these people are all asking themselves, "Do I have what it takes to fly?"

There was no "Eureka!" moment in my flying career when I suddenly realized that I had "what it takes." My confidence has just gradually grown over time as I've gained experience so that I no longer doubt my capacity to fly. This doesn't mean I think I can handle anything that flying can dish out. It just means that my doubts are no longer strong enough to threaten my continued flying.

I've recently been considering the question of "what it takes" in the context of confidence in general and I think there's a common perception that flying an aircraft requires a certain innate talent. You either have "it" or you don't. Tom Wolfe wrote an entire book, The Right Stuff, about this belief as it applies to military pilots and astronauts. His thesis is that the idea of an "it" that one must have to "cut it" as a jet jock is core to the ethos of military aviation. Military flying is not part of my experience, so I won't offer an opinion about it, but I plan to ask the former military aviators in my flying club for their opinions about Wolfe's thesis (stay tuned for a future post). I'm very curious about what they'll have to say.

I think it's safe to say, though, that civilian flying is worlds away from the high-altitude, high-performance, combat flying that military pilots do. Even if there is such a thing as the "Right Stuff" in that context, does it apply to the kind of Part 91, prop GA flying that I do? I've come to decide it doesn't.

As often happens as I'm drifting off to sleep at night, I recently had a flash of insight about this. What if "what it takes" to fly is simply a certain combination of skills, knowledge, and judgment? If this is so, that means it can all be learned. How can I build skills? Practice. How can I gain knowledge? Study. How can I develop judgment? Experience. I'm convinced it's that simple.

So if I find myself doubting that I have "what it takes" to fly, I can look to my skills, knowledge, and judgment for areas of concern. Are they somehow insufficient for the kind of flying I want to do? If so, in what ways? What actions can I take to address these concerns?

To anyone who expresses doubt that they have "what it takes," I say, "You might not have 'what it takes' right now, but you can learn it. If you can get an FAA medical certificate and you have enough desire to fly, you absolutely can do it."

In fact, that might be the main ingredient in "what it takes": desire.

More about that in a future post.

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