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Watching the Fuel

Cruising at 10,000 feet under a high, broken cloud layer with occasional light rain, my parents, my wife Janet, Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator, and I gazed out at towering Mount Shasta off to our right, spotlighted by shifting shafts of sunlight. The flight had been smooth and beautiful, and now after about two hours it was time for a tank switch and some quick math. I calculated how much fuel we'd burned so far and looked at the GPS estimate of our remaining time en route. Good—we were on track to arrive with more than an hour of fuel in the tanks—always a good feeling!

One of my main themes in this blog has been what I've come to call the observe-act-observe cycle, a process of continuous observation and informed action. There's nothing particularly new about this idea. "Observe-act-observe" is just a phrase that I find useful to remind myself to pay attention, allow what I observe to inform my actions, and notice their results. This works great for all kinds of situations, from learning new skills to keeping an eye on all the many variables that affect a flight—including critical items like fuel consumption.

It can be a challenge, however, in situations when I find it difficult to pay attention and be aware—and one of these situations has always been dealing with money. Most pilots seem to indulge in some degree of denial when thinking about money. We're painfully aware of the breathtaking rate at which airplanes siphon cash from our wallets, but because the prospect of not flying just doesn't bear considering, we turn a blind eye to the Hobbs meter and start the engine. I would never dream of taking an aircraft into the air without dipping the tanks and verifying that I had enough fuel to get to my destination with a comfortable reserve, but I can't say I've always taken the same care with my bank account.

I don't want to give the impression that I've been completely irresponsible. The only debt I carry is my mortgage. I pay my bills on time. I at least glance at my balances once a month. Still, I've let years of my life go by without sparing more than the absolute minimum time and attention required to manage my money. But at some point I could no longer deny the ugly truth: I'd been operating in the red and the fuel was running low. Fortunately, my primitive "money management" techniques were sufficient to prevent "cash exhaustion."

Now you might well ask how a responsible pilot in command could allow himself such a close call. Well, I'm pretty sure it's the same way that so many normally responsible pilots every year manage to run their tanks dry. Denial is a daunting force. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

On reflection, I've realized that my denial in this case stemmed from the belief that if I actually paid attention to my money, I would have to give up the things I most care about, like flying, so denial was the only way to keep doing those things. I made no distinction between money management and soul-crushing austerity. Of course I wasn't consciously aware of this reasoning. The challenge with beliefs like this is that they're unconscious and usually rooted in very old experiences. If I had been aware of it, I could have seen that my actions were actually taking me further from what I care about by squandering resources that might otherwise have been directed consciously and effectively.

So in the spirit of observe-act-observe, I've started taking a few minutes every evening to record everything I spent that day. It's turned out to be much easier and quicker than I expected, and the patterns that are emerging from the data have been extremely revealing. The news often isn't good, but it's an essential first step toward better decisions and making the most of all available resources. It's exactly the same process that I used that afternoon in the airplane to make sure I had enough fuel to get where I wanted to go.

The sun was setting as we circled to descend into the little valley where our destination, Ukiah, California, lay in the gathering dusk. As I taxied to the ramp and shut down the engine, I dutifully recorded the time and noted that we did in fact still have over an hour of fuel left in the tanks. Yes, that was a very good feeling indeed!

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