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My buddy Tim and I were part of the crowd lining the taxiway as the CAF airplanes rolled by: a gorgeous, mirror-polished P-51 Mustang, a Hawker Sea Fury, a Grumman F6F Hellcat, an extremely rare Mitsubishi Zero. It was a fine, if blustery, Spring weekend at Half Moon Bay airport and we'd flown my club's Cessna 172 in for the Pacific Coast Dream Machines airplane and car show. As I watched the airplanes pass, I thought I heard a woman's voice call my name amid the din of the massive radial engines.


I turned around and saw a familiar face.

"Ann?" I asked.

She smiled and nodded. We hadn't seen each other since college. Her hair was darker and much longer, but she looked virtually unchanged. We hugged and she introduced me to her beautiful 6-month-old baby girl. I introduced them to Tim.

"What brings you here?" I asked.

"I love airplanes!" she answered. "We were driving by and saw the event and I just had to stop."

She went on to describe how she'd become an avid skydiver and had spent most of her pre-parenthood weekends hanging out at the drop zone, getting in all the jumps she could.

"Funny we should both have gotten into flying. I've become a pilot," I told her. "In fact, we flew here today."

The four of us wandered around the show, admiring the airplanes and catching up on the events of the intervening years, but inevitably the conversation returned to our shared love of airplanes and flying. We talked about the intensity of that passion and lamented that a lot of people don't understand it.

"You gotta watch out for 'whuffos'—people who look at you like you're crazy and ask, 'Whuffo you do that?!'" she said. "You can't let 'em wear you down!"

I laughed in agreement and thought about how important it is to have support for one's passions from friends and family. It must be really difficult to pursue something as challenging and consuming as flying without that support. I was reminded how lucky I've been to have a wife who's always supported and encouraged my flying, even when it took time and money away from other important things. It was clear from our conversation that Ann hadn't always been so lucky. I was struck with a fresh admiration for those like her who persist in doing what they love even without the support of those close to them.

Finally, we arrived at our airplane and I opened up the doors to let her look inside.

"Wow, this is pretty fancy compared to the jump planes I'm used to," she said. "You have upholstery!"

I chuckled. "Yes, and relatively new upholstery at that. One of our club members did the work. He did a great job."

By this time the show was winding down and it was time for Tim and me to leave and for her to get her little one back home. We parted with a good-bye and a warm hug.

"Blue skies!" she said. "Enjoy the flight home!"

"Thanks!" I replied. "It's been really great to see you!"

It was really enjoyable to meet an old friend after all these years and find that we had so much in common—and to be reminded of the importance of pursuing one's passions—no matter what the whuffos say.

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"Skyhawk 80377, cleared into class Bravo airspace at 4,500," said the NorCal Approach controller as I was heading towards the Livermore Valley from my home base at San Jose International Airport.

"377 cleared Bravo 4,500," I replied, "Thanks!"

Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator, and I were on our way to spend Thanksgiving weekend with my parents on the North Coast of California. The Wonder Pom was content in his crate as I dialed in a GPS course for the Scaggs Island VOR, just North of San Francisco bay. The winds were strong out of the Northwest, so our groundspeed was reading a paltry 90 knots. As we passed over the East Bay hills, the wind over the terrain caused some fairly insistent up-and downdrafts. Although it was pretty smooth, it was still more work than usual holding altitude and heading.

My practice with the GPS when flying such legs is to compare my ground track (TRK) with desired track (DTK) and find a reference heading on the heading indicator that makes the two match as closely as possible. If I find that TRK and DTK disagree, I adjust my reference heading slightly and wait a minute or so to determine the effect of my correction. Early in my instrument training, when first starting to use GPS in any sophisticated way, I'd expect TRK to catch up immediately after I made a correction. The result was a lot more course corrections than necessary. It was the digital equivalent of "chasing the needle" on the CDI.

Over time I learned to hold a correction long enough for TRK to stabilize. Later, I realized why: the GPS doesn't know where I'm going. It only knows where I've been. This is even true of sophisticated glass cockpits with AHRS (Attitude and Heading Reference System) units driving the avionics. Such systems know the airplane's heading, but that's still not the same as knowing where you're going. You never really know what the winds will do.

Recently, I got to thinking about this idea and realized it's much the same as our own course through life. Even if we know where we're heading, we still don't really know where we're going because the "winds" of circumstance change all the time. All we really have to work with is where we've been, the sum total of our experiences. Just as the GPS "observes" our past flight path and projects our future ground track, we tend to do the same thing. We assume that because things have always happened a certain way that they will continue to do so in the future. Barring further information, that's a reasonable assumption, but sometimes we'd like to break with past patterns. When we're diligent about practicing observe-act-observe, we can do that by recognizing our habitual behaviors and questioning them. The past doesn't have to dictate the future because we're free to make new choices in the present. I decided this idea merits further elaboration in the book I'm writing, The Confident Pilot.

As I mused on these thoughts, I noticed the little white witch hat of the VOR standing by itself in the dun-colored tidelands just ahead. We were right on course. Eddie Pippin stood up and stretched in his crate, did a jingly little doggy shake, and settled in for another nap. We still had a long way to go.

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The lantern-jawed test pilot with icewater in his veins. The maverick hotshot pulling a 10g turn to get the drop on an enemy. The cool professional banging it onto a pitching carrier deck and catching the third wire. Through books like Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, its movie version, and films like Top Gun, these images have pervaded our culture. They've had a big effect on the public perception not just of military aviation, but of aviation in general.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I hear many prospective pilots express doubts that they have "what it takes" to fly. I have to wonder to what extent this pervasive idea of the Right Stuff might be influencing their thinking.

What is the Right Stuff? The popular understanding of Wolfe's term seems to be that it's an essential and rare quality that one must possess to "cut it" as a pilot. It's a God-given talent. You either have it or you don't. What's less commonly understood about Wolfe's thesis is that a belief in this quality, which according to Wolfe is never named or discussed in military flying circles, can and did lead its adherents to grief. He cites as proof the appalling safety record of Naval aviation in the years following World War II. As he puts it, "Believers in the Right Stuff would rather crash and burn" than allow the possibility that they might not have 'it' anymore. So in fact Wolfe does not paint a glorious picture of superheroes with special gifts, but rather presents the Right Stuff as a dangerous fiction—the ultimate hazardous attitude.

I asked members of my flying club, many of whom are former military pilots, for their opinions about Wolfe's thesis and the Right Stuff in general. My buddy Hal, a former Naval aviator who flew the Grumman F9F series from the carrier Hornet in the 1950s, had some very illuminating comments.

"I read Wolfe's book with relish because he got so much so right for the time, especially the bravado, the belief in 'specialness' that permeated the Naval aviator's community…at least, in my case, in the beginning. I have many very clear recollections, despite the alcoholic haze of the moment, of us student aviators, in the last advanced phase of our training, congratulating each other on having made it, having proved we had 'it', whatever 'it' was. The truth was, however, that we had no idea of what 'it' was or whether or not we had 'it'. We were very unformed young men and had no notion whatever of what lay in store for us."

Hal went on to describe the importance of his first flight on the wing of an experienced officer as a newly arrived aviator on his first squadron assignment.

"On our return to the ready room, in the presence of others he gave me the highest endorsement one aviator can give to another…'He'll do OK. He's smooth.' At that moment I felt accepted, worthy and qualified to wear the wings. Up to then, that had not been the case. It was a legitimate rite of passage."

In other words, it was this experience and not a belief in predestination that Hal needed to feel capable and confident as a Naval aviator. This is particularly interesting to me because one of the running themes of this blog has been the relationship between confidence and experience. When it comes to developing confidence, I believe there's no substitute for experience. Furthermore, I believe the importance of talent, as a natural, God-given endowment, is often overestimated. We all have different "bents," meaning that some things come more quickly and easily to certain people than others, but ultimately, I believe that practice and experience have a far greater effect. That's why I believe that the myth of the Right Stuff does a disservice to those who long to fly. Hal would seem to agree:

"So for me the bottom line on Wolfe's thesis is that it's overstated and applies to the very few who draw attention to themselves by their attitudes. Naval aviators today do not, in general, have these gung-ho personalities but rather approach the business of aviation much more seriously and responsibly than Wolfe would suggest. They have to. The stakes are higher than they were in Wolfe's day. The machines are more demanding, the systems more complex, the missions more exacting and the watchfulness of their superior officers more judgmental. There is no room in Naval aviation today for the cowboy."

What I take from Hal's comments is that the Right Stuff is not an essential talent, but is instead an overwrought abstraction applicable only to a few military aviators during a specific period in history. If we believe that we need such talent, then there are two possibilities: we either have it or we don't. Even if this is true, we can't possibly know in advance which is the case. If someone asks, "Do you think I have what it takes?" the truth is I don't know. No one does. But if we can't know the answer in advance, what's the point in asking the question? Posed in the abstract, without any experience to draw on, the question is meaningless.

So how do we gain that experience? Well, that's exactly what flight training is: guided experience by which we learn the skills, knowledge, and judgment a pilot needs. Under the watchful eye of a good instructor, we study, practice, and make the necessary mistakes safely and efficiently. We consciously choose our actions, observe the results, and modify our behavior accordingly. Using the observe-act-observe cycle, we develop true confidence, which in turn makes possible the incomparable joys of this endlessly fulfilling craft.

Maybe that confidence, born of our own choices and actions, is the real "right stuff" after all.

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One day in September years ago, my wife Janet asked me what I wanted for my birthday. For some reason I still don't understand I replied, "How about a glider ride?" So, late one afternoon at a small gliderport in Northern California's wine country, I received my first ride in a small aircraft. Gliding almost silently over the rolling hills and forests of that beautiful country in the warm, raking light of early evening was a revelation. I was bitten. Bad. Two weeks later, I was back at the gliderport taking lessons. Seven months after that, I was a Private Pilot with a glider rating.

This Thanksgiving, I feel like writing a post about my gratitude for the amazing privilege of flying small aircraft. I need to start with my wife. Not only was it her gift that first introduced me to the joy of flight, but she's been unfailingly supportive throughout my pursuit of multiple certificates and ratings. She's never begrudged the time or money this training has required and I'll be forever grateful for that.

For that matter, I'm grateful that I've been blessed with the resources to pursue this training. I don't accept the characterization of flying as a "rich man's game," but there's no question that it takes considerable cash and a substantial time commitment. I'm very lucky to have had enough of both (sometimes just barely) to keep me flying.

Of course, none of it would have been possible without the skills and dedication of my flight instructors. They taught me what I needed to know when I needed to know it. They instilled in me not just skills, knowledge, and judgment, but a respect for the craft of flying that I appreciate more and more as time goes by.

They also introduced me to the aviation community and the amazing support it provides for all of us aviators. From the social nature of glider flying, with its cooperative glider rigging, towing, and land-out retrieves to the camaraderie of my airplane flying club, I can't calculate how much I've learned from my fellow aviators. Besides, they're just great people to hang out with at a barbecue or at the hangar while elbow-deep in an engine cowling.

As for those airplanes, I'm frequently grateful for the skills and foresight of the engineers who designed them to fly so reliably, sensibly, and easily. They really are marvels of both form and function that a pilot can grow to love and take into the air with confidence.

And whenever we take them into the air, we rely on the competence and professionalism of the air traffic controllers who do so much to help us keep the dirt out of the cowling and the paint where it belongs. My experience with these folks has been consistently positive and enjoyable. They make getting around the sky as easy and safe as possible.

The very fact the we're legally able to get around the sky in our aircraft is a small miracle in itself, because that's not the case in many places in the world. I'm extremely grateful for the freedom to fly, and for the dedication of organizations like AOPA, EAA, and SSA to preserving that freedom.

Ultimately, the sensation of freedom is one of flying's most compelling experiences. Soaring above our beautiful Earth at the low altitudes that our small aircraft fly allows us to experience our world in a completely unique way. Whether we're traversing a spectacular mountain range, gazing down at golden fields in the red-orange light of sunset, or just circling over our house, the privilege of that perspective is perhaps what I'm most grateful for.

For me personally, it all traces back to my wife's gift of a glider ride. It's not an overstatement to say that it changed my life.

Thanks, babes. I owe you one.

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Last weekend at AOPA Summit in Long Beach, California I had a chance to talk briefly with instructor, author, speaker, and aviation funny man Rod Machado about a recent installment of his regular License to Learn feature in AOPA Pilot magazine. In the piece he raised the question of why flight training has such an appallingly low completion rate, with approximately 70% of student pilots quitting before they earn their certificates. Rod identifies one of the main causes as "an unfavorable comfort-to-discomfort ratio experienced during flight training." I asked Rod to what extent he thinks this problem is related to student confidence.

"That's very important," he answered. "Ultimately, we're teaching to the FAA practical test standards, but if we try to hold students to this standard in the early stages of training, setting unrealistic expectations, they can quickly become discouraged. It's no wonder they quit. That's why I've always practiced and advocated success-based training. I always make sure the student doesn't get out of the airplane without having some experience of success."

This attitude is a very important quality to look for in a flight instructor, but even when we're not in a training situation, I believe we can still apply this principle in our own flying. The thesis of the book I'm writing, The Confident Pilot, is closely related and can be summarized this way: true confidence is based on experience; we can build confidence by actively choosing our experience; the most efficient way I know to do this is the observe-act-observe cycle. By paying close attention to our environment, the condition of our aircraft, and our own mental and emotional state, choosing our actions accordingly, and honestly appraising our results, we can quickly improve our skills.

When approached with this attitude, even self-doubt doesn't have to be a debilitating problem, but rather a call to action—an indispensable indicator of where we need to go next in our flying. Sean Tucker, one of the most skilled of all airshow performers, gave a perfect example of this in an FAA safety seminar I attended a couple of years ago. He described starting out as a fearful pilot, afraid of stalls and steep turns. But rather than just waiting for time and experience to confer confidence, he went out and got some aerobatic training. He actively chose the experience he needed to build his confidence—and the rest, as they say, is history.

We can do this ourselves by seeking out new experiences that require us to stretch but are within reach of our current skill level. For example, if we're uncomfortable with crosswind landings, we can choose a day with winds just slightly outside our comfort zone and find an airport with crossing runways. Traffic permitting, we can practice landing on the crosswind runway, but if the crosswind gets too strong or we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed, we still have the "out" of landing on the favorable-wind runway. If an honest self-assessment reveals any doubt that we can do this safely, it's time to find a good instructor and get some dual. Throughout the process we can use the observe-act-observe cycle to refine our skills and expand our comfort zone. Actively choosing challenges in this way keeps us safe while maximizing our opportunities for repeated experiences of success. This in turn builds a true confidence that keeps the comfort-to-discomfort ratio solidly in our favor.

So why is this so important? In one of his talks last weekend, Rod spoke of the transformative power of aviation. I can attest to that. For me, the most important transformation has been learning to persist through doubts and fears to develop a confidence that I wouldn't have thought possible, or necessary, when I started training. In that respect, flying has been unlike anything else I've learned to do. I regularly draw upon that confidence, those experiences of success, whether I'm negotiating with a client, learning a new technology, or even writing this blog. That's why it's so important to me that those who desire the joy of flight get to pursue it, experience success, and earn their wings so they can undergo their own transformations, whatever form they might take.

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