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In my welcome post, I told the story of a harrowing early solo flight in a glider that ended in a terrifying and humiliating porpoised landing in front of a crowd of onlookers. The resulting crisis of confidence nearly made me quit flying altogether. I agonized over that experience, fearing it was proof that I'd never succeed in learning to fly. And yet the following weekend I came back to the gliderport to continue my lessons. Why? What force could be strong enough to overbalance my fear and embarrassment and allow me to keep flying? Quite simply, it was desire. I wanted to fly more than I wanted to hide.

A co-worker was once describing a weekend he spent practicing instrument approaches under the hood in a multi-engine airplane. As he put it, "We spend enormous amounts of money to subject ourselves to extreme stress and we call it fun." He nailed it. We call it fun because, well, it is fun, and the irresistible force that lets us enjoy the arduous and tolerate the miserable is desire.

Desire tends to get a bad rap in our culture. It's often characterized as a destructive force associated with selfishness and greed. From an early age we're taught to deny what we want in favor of what we're supposed to do, and this is probably necessary to some degree. There are certain academic, social, artistic, and physical skills we need to develop as we grow up that often require doing things we'd rather not do. What we risk in the process, though, is the ability to recognize and tap into that primal desire that arose so naturally when we were young. We can completely forget or discount what we really care about, ending up as disillusioned, frustrated, and unfulfilled adults.

I think it's actually in this state that we're most likely to be "selfish" and "greedy," pursuing possessions, experiences, and addictions in a vain attempt to fill the void in our lives. In contrast, when we're aware of what we really care about and allow that desire to direct us, we can make our best and most positive contributions.

I'm not talking about blindly acting on every impulse. I've often found that what I think I want isn't what I really need. Over time, though, I've come to something of a "litmus test" for desire: if I had or did the thing that I think I want, would it serve merely as a distraction and an escape or would it really contribute to my fulfillment? Paying close attention to my mental, emotional, and especially physical experiences can help answer that question and direct my desire in a way that's consistent with my values. The totality of my desire considered in this way can serve as a compass indicating what's truly important to me, independent of what anyone else might think.

I won't claim that I can unfailingly identify my true desire or that I always understand what it's telling me, but I do know one thing. I have my desire to thank for the continued opportunity to practice and share with others this endlessly rewarding craft of flying.

That's something I find very fulfilling indeed.

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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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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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When I was a boy, my parents and I moved to the small town on the Northern California coast where my dad grew up. On one of my first trips to the beach, I remember playing in the wet sand along the shoreline. Something caught my eye and I bent down for a closer look. The next thing I knew, my mother was snatching me up off the ground just as a big wave came surging up the beach.

"You have to respect the ocean!" my mom said. "Don't ever turn your back on it!"

That early lesson was clear. Respect things that can kill you! As the years passed, though, I learned about other kinds of respect, such as showing admiration for a person's skills, regard for their accomplishments, or consideration for their well being. My schoolwork also taught me a respect for learning and study, but like most kids, I found it a bit onerous. This kind of respect always seemed tinged with the resentment of subordinating what I "wanted to do" to what I was "supposed to do." I think I approached learning as a chore. Even when learning fun things that I wanted to do, such as swimming, kayaking, or driving a car, I wanted to get the learning over with so I could get to the fun stuff.

When I first started flying lessons, I approached them just as I had approached other recreational activities. I figured there were skills to be learned, and once I had them under my belt, I'd know how to fly. How much different could it be from anything else I'd learned? Of course, I soon found that flying has its own unique challenges. Among all the usual highs, lows, and plateaus of my training, though, there were moments when everything seemed easy and clear-cut. Hey, I was getting good at this! These were moments of genuine self-confidence, but if I'm honest, I'll admit there was often some cockiness and complacency in there too.

Here's a definition of complacency: the belief that you'll do the right thing just because you're good at what you do. In my experience, this attitude breeds inattention. I stop paying close attention because I don't think I need to anymore. I'm good at this, so what could go wrong? But, like anyone who flies long enough, I eventually realized that there would be no definitive "now I know how to fly" epiphanies in my future. The process of learning to fly is never-ending, and fulfilling my responsibilities as pilot in command means always paying attention, following my procedures, and respecting my limitations. There are no shortcuts.

Over time, I've come to develop a deeper, more subtle kind of respect for the craft of flying. I recognize that I will do the right thing in the cockpit only if I pay attention, notice everything that seems important, and act accordingly. Being "good at it" guarantees nothing. This is why I regard the observe-act-observe cycle as the key to true confidence. It gives me my best chance of noticing important information and responding effectively.

And there's another important aspect to this kind of respect. Because it's what I choose to do, not what I'm supposed to do, I can relax, enjoy the experience, and just feel grateful for the opportunity to practice this craft. This insight, learned in the cockpit, also informs my experience of life in general.

So these days, when I go to the beach, I don't fear the ocean. It can only kill me if I fail to give it the attention it's due.

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Falling out of an uneasy sleep, I rolled over and looked at the clock. It was 4 am. "Right on cue," I thought. My dreams as usual had been full of convoluted logistics and unpleasant surprises. Now it was time for my regular 4 am bout of worry. Did I pay the insurance premium? Hell, I was supposed to contact so-and-so last week about his project. What's the roof repair really going to cost? Have I been flying often enough to be safe? On and on the litany went, and as usual there was no pattern. Last night's crises were gone, replaced by tonight's fresh crop, which would yield to a new set tomorrow. By 6am or so, I drifted back into a fitful sleep until the alarm went off a short while later. In the light of day, the details of these seemingly urgent issues would be forgotten, leaving only a vague, residual anxiety. This went on for years, at least three or four nights a week.

During my flight training and my early days as a private pilot, these 4 am worries centered around flying. Mistakes, the most important staple of the learning process, were rehashed and over-analyzed. Worries were amplified. In the 4 am stillness, small doubts about specific skills or items of knowledge mushroomed into full-blown crises of confidence. Did I have what it takes to be a pilot?

Inevitably, when it came time for my next lesson, my desire to fly and my trust in my instructors were strong enough to break the grip of the 4 am phantoms and get me back in the cockpit. Predictably, as the day of my checkride got closer and I contemplated the prospect of becoming PIC for real, these anxieties reached a peak. It wasn't until I'd passed the checkride and earned my certificate that they began to abate.

I don't know how common my experience is, but I have to wonder whether anxieties and crises of confidence like mine have anything to do with flight training's "dirty little secret": its dismal 30% completion rate. I can't help but think there are lots of students out there who yearn to earn their wings, but end up succumbing to their demons of doubt and quitting. If this is true, it's nothing short of tragic—and, I believe, completely preventable.

Over the succeeding years, like generations of pilots before me, I gained experience, added ratings, and integrated flying more and more into my life. My confidence as a pilot steadily grew and my 4 am worries came to have less and less to do with flying. Still, my "dark nights of the soul" continued, usually centering on career, money, personal relationships, or a host of other seemingly random topics. I spent lots of time and energy analyzing these thoughts and feelings. What did they mean, and what could I do about them?

Then one evening I was sitting with my wife Janet while she surfed the web. She stumbled upon an interesting article about nutrition and sleep.

"Hey, it says here that sleep problems and nocturnal anxiety can be caused by low blood sugar," she said. "They recommend eating some long-lasting protein about a half-hour before bedtime. Yogurt and cottage cheese are good because they contain casein."

We looked at each other.

"What the heck," I said. "It can't hurt."

From that evening on, I started having a bowl of nonfat yogurt or some similar protein shortly before bed. The results seemed nothing short of miraculous. My sleep improved dramatically. My bouts of worry and anxiety became few and far between. Even when they did occur, the thought that it was just biochemistry allowed me to let the unpleasant feelings and disturbing thoughts roll by. Inevitably, they would pass far more quickly and I would sleep much better than when I was scrutinizing them under my mental microscope.

Ultimately, though, this story is not about how to cure nighttime anxiety. That just happened to by my experience, and I can't rule out the placebo effect. The point is that the emotions and physical sensations that I've often invested with such deep meaning don't necessarily mean anything at all.

The lesson I've learned is that when there's no obvious reason for an emotional experience, I stop digging. A reason might become clear at some point, but in the meantime, racking my brains won't help. Thoughts and emotions come and go on their own. Whether it's anxiety, anger, a crisis of confidence, or even happiness or contentment, I can just let it pass through. I don't have to understand it or do anything about it. In fact, if I just focus on observing the experience, I'm much more likely to notice any lessons it might be holding for me. This is a key aspect of the observe-act-observe cycle: just noticing what I notice and not straining for more.

Most of all, when difficult emotions arise, I don't have to take them personally. That more than anything else helps me rest—and fly—more easily.

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