"Controls, instruments, brakes," I called out breathlessly as I sat on the runway in the glider waiting for a tow.
"Whoa, whoa—slow down!" my instructor Jimmy interrupted. "It's been a while since you've flown, so you need to be extra careful. Take that checklist again from the top—slowly!"
It was an early lesson in how external pressures, or the perception of them, can lead to carelessness and errors in the cockpit. Feeling rushed to clear the runway, I was forgetting critical checklist items—a habit that can be hazardous to one's health!
In flight training, we learn about common hazardous attitudes and how they can affect our decision making. The FAA recognizes five in particular: anti-authority, impulsivity, invulnerability, machismo, and resignation, and they provide a self-assessment test to help us pilots identify our strongest tendencies among these. (As today's story illustrates, I score high on impulsivity!) The training goes further to help pilots identify hazardous attitudes when they arise and to counter them with "antidotes" designed to avert disaster.
What isn't usually explored in flight training is how we come by our hazardous attitudes in the first place. Our attitudes ultimately derive from our fundamental values and beliefs, but so much of what I truly believe and value remains outside my awareness. My own choices and actions can be baffling to me—I find myself doing something stupid or inexplicable and ask, "Why did I do that?"
As I described in my last post, I've recently become aware of an internal conflict between the strong desire to achieve a goal like earning my Flight Instructor Certificate and the belief that achieving goals makes me an obnoxious blowhard. How can I learn to recognize and resolve these conflicts? I can look for unexplained behavior as clues to my true values and bring them out into the light. Antidotes to hazardous attitudes are a good technique to apply in the cockpit, but some time and attention spent uncovering the roots of those attitudes is a more reliable way to defuse them before they arise.
It took me a while to learn the lesson from that early experience in the glider years ago. Thinking back to the urgency I felt, I realized that because I strongly value consideration for others, I believe that being "in the way" is a serious offense that needs immediate correction. My impulsive actions were a misguided attempt to be considerate of others, but my carelessness could easily have endangered others and myself. The FAA's antidote to impulsivity, "Not so fast—Think first!" would definitely have helped in that situation, but a conscious awareness of my true values is ultimately a more reliable guide.
"Controls: free and correct; ballast: none; straps: secure; instruments: altimeter set to field elevation; trim: set; canopy: closed and locked; brakes: cycled and locked," I intoned—slowly—verifying each item by sight and touch.
"That's better," Jimmy said. "OK, let's go."
So, I waggled my rudder to signal the tow pilot, and off we went. It was a great flight.
The handsome, sharp-dressed, silver-haired man struck a supremely confident pose and flashed a million-dollar smile. The glossy picture on display at my local bookstore caught my eye, but what really grabbed my attention was the almost visceral feeling of disgust that shot through me.
"That's weird," I thought to myself. "What is it about that guy's picture that I find so sickening?"
I didn't have an answer to that question at the time, but I've had some insights recently. In this blog I've described a number of goals that I want to achieve, such as publishing my book, earning my Flight Instructor Certificate, and training my first student. But the more I've pursued and written about these goals, the slower my progress has been, until it finally stopped entirely and even regressed as I looked on, incredulous. What could be going on? Don't I want these things?
In a post back in August, I speculated that my long hiatus from flying, and the delays in the achievement of my goals, were due at least in part to some internal conflict. And that, it turns out, is where Mr. Silver Hair comes in. As I reflected on the revulsion that his picture triggered in me, I realized that for some part of me, that picture symbolizes everything that I don't want to be!
At some level, I seem to believe that by achieving my goals, especially those publicly declared, I become "that guy": an obnoxious blowhard who annoys everyone with his boasting—a self-proclaimed hot-shot with an inflated sense of his own importance. But underlying that, there's a deeper belief that success proves that I place my own desires over the needs of others—and even more deeply, I'm committing the greatest sin of all: wantonly not suffering.
That's what it comes down to: I've been living by powerful maxims, unrecognized and unchallenged until now, that (a) pursuing my own desires is wrong, and (b) suffering is the only laudable state of being. Of course, looking at these ideas consciously in the light of day, I don't believe them at all!
On the contrary, it's become obvious to me over the years how much more powerful and capable we human beings are, and how much more we can contribute to others, when we pursue what we passionately enjoy rather than flagellating ourselves to do something we hate. That's why it astounds me that despite holding this belief consciously, my behavior has been governed by a much older, unconscious, totally opposite set of beliefs. But they are unconscious no longer.
I foresee a lot more flying in my future!
So sorry, Mr. Silver Hair. I didn't mean to go all judgmental on you—please don't take it personally. But even more, thank you for your help! You've made a huge contribution to my life without even knowing it.
Let that be a lesson to me.
The broad, featureless expanse of California's Central Valley passed by outside under a dim moonlight. My buddy Mike was driving the rental car, and we alternated periods of conversation with long stretches of satisfied silence. Just a few hours before we had both been rushing to finish up work before heading off on this long-awaited trip.
"It feels really good just to be on the road," I said with a sigh.
"I hear you," Mike replied.
Mike and I have done several trips like this and they've been just what the doctor ordered: getting out of Dodge with no particular place to go and plenty of time to get there. In recent years I'm more accustomed to doing these kinds of trips by airplane, but Mike's not keen on flying, so we drive. "Boys' weekend" we've come to call it, and it usually involves long miles through mountains, valleys, deserts, forests—whatever we're in the mood for. We stay in motels so we don't have to mess with the logistics of camping and generally keep complications to a minimum.
I don't know why, but I'm never happier than when I'm in motion. Thinking about the activities I enjoy most, they all involve movement: hiking, running, biking, driving, flying airplanes. It's a cliche to say it's the journey rather than the destination that's important, but it's always been very true for me. Often, movement itself is enough.
In four days, Mike and I covered over 1,700 miles, from the San Francisco Bay Area through the Mojave Desert, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, and Bryce Canyon, Utah. Over all those miles, we never felt rushed or stressed.
Well, there was that climb up the mountain towards Cedar Breaks in a snowstorm—and we didn't have tire chains. My pilot instincts kicked in at that point and I started thinking about personal minimums.
"How about this," I suggested. "If the snow starts sticking to the road, we turn around."
"OK," Mike agreed, and we continued up the mountain. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later the road started turning white, so back down the mountain we went. We arrived at Bryce around midnight, but we arrived. Score one for contingency planning! Besides, we got to see more countryside that way.
I always enjoy getting a new perspective on a landscape, whether it's flying over country that I know intimately from the ground or correlating the passing terrain on the ground with my memory of the birds-eye view from the air. On this trip, I even found myself imagining that birds-eye view of places like Bryce where I've never flown.
But whatever the perspective or the landscape, the common theme in my relationship with it is motion, be it at a walking pace or 180 miles per hour. I find it both exciting and comforting at the same time. There's an odd sense of safety and security in movement that I can't quite explain.
I can't know Mike's internal experience, but he did the majority of the driving on our trip and didn't seem to mind a bit.
"Let's put this on the calendar every year," he said. "Make sure everyone knows about it months in advance so we can make it stick."
"Good plan," I replied.
I'm looking forward to it already.
Filed under Mission by
At over 128,000 feet, veteran BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner rolled back the hatch of his high-tech balloon gondola, ran his final checklists, disconnected his umbilicals, and carefully edged his way onto the step outside. From his perch far above the Earth, and almost all of its atmosphere, Felix's voice betrayed the emotions running through him.
"Sometimes you have to get up really high… to know how small you are," Felix said with an effort. "I'm going home now."
With that, he gently tipped forward off the step and into the highest and fastest free-fall anyone has ever experienced. Minutes later, as he dropped to his knees in the desert sand with fists raised in triumph, Felix had become the first person ever to exceed the speed of sound without benefit of an air- or spacecraft.
The spectacular publicity stunt, sponsored by Red Bull, was apparently one of the most successful in history, with over 8 million people viewing the event on YouTube.
In interviews, project leaders made the point that they were advancing pressure-suit development—making the space suit of the future. It's undoubtedly true that no previous space suit has had to withstand the kind of speeds relative to the atmosphere that Felix experienced during his supersonic plunge. It's also true that record-breaking missions have always advanced the state of the art in the technologies that made them possible.
But if pressed, I bet Project Stratos members would admit that it was the chance at the firsts and records that motivated them to work long days and long nights over so many years to make Felix's dream a reality.
Whenever someone performs a feat like this, be it climbing a mountain, breaking the sound barrier, orbiting the Earth, or landing on the moon for the first time, there are many who are quick to criticize the feat as pointless, a needless risk, an act of hubris. It would be much better, they argue, to devote precious resources to practical matters, to meeting urgent, tangible human needs like food, shelter, and medical care for those who need them. Maybe they're right—I won't argue the point.
But I will argue that human beings have critical needs beyond the tangible. In fact, I believe it's our intangible needs and passions that are our most human quality. Why did ancient human beings make arduous, days-long journeys deep into caves to paint hauntingly beautiful works of art on their walls? Why did medieval Europeans devote generations of labor to erect towering cathedrals? Why are we human beings constantly striving to make new things, go to new places, and do things that no one has done before?
I don't know, but I do know that it's a peculiarly human trait. This drive is the source of our greatest passions and most ardent labors. In fact, the greatest achievements of humanity have always been driven by this passion for the impractical, the intangible—the pointless.
I also know that for me, a life without it is an incomplete experience. A life devoted entirely to practical, tangible concerns doesn't interest me at all. That's why I write and make photographs. That's why I seek out the best food and drink to share with my loved ones. That's why I fly.
So when I saw Felix Baumgartner slumped on his knees in the New Mexico desert, exhausted but exultant, I knew exactly what he and his dedicated team had accomplished. It was just something that no one in the history of humanity had ever done before.
Yes, it was pointless. And that's just the way I like it.
The vibration from the wheels suddenly stopped and I felt the unmistakable sensation of breaking contact with the ground. It was good to be back in the air—but seat 58G on a 747 is a far cry from the front-row seat I'm used to. OK, I'm spoiled.
Six months. That's how long it's been since I've flown. That's far and away the longest hiatus I've had from flying since my very first lesson. Flying has become such a central experience in my life, and being a pilot such a defining aspect of my identity, that it's been downright disorienting to be ground-bound for so long.
Of course, I also realize that I'm doubly spoiled for living in California, where we get to fly pretty much all year round. In many parts of the country, it's normal for pilots to be grounded for months at a stretch during the Winter. And many pilots I know have gone through periods when tight finances, work, or family demands have kept them out of the air for years. Life happens.
And yet somehow, these pilots managed to endure these periods, get themselves back in the air, regain their skills, and resume flying safely and well, all without undue trauma or debilitating existential angst. I'm realizing that perhaps I've been a bit glib, or at least unrealistic, when writing in this blog about maintaining proficiency in the cockpit. Sometimes, it's really hard.
I confess to feeling a range of difficult emotions as I think about my long hiatus. By turns, I've felt regret, longing, embarrassment, fear, and even shame as an essential part of my identity seems to be slipping away. Of course, intellectually I know that nothing so melodramatic is happening, and I also know it's critically important not to give up, but to do whatever it takes to get back to what drives me—to get myself back in the air.
Besides, I think I tend to ascribe way too much significance to a situation that really has none. The fact that I haven't flown for months doesn't mean I've lost my motivation or my passion, or that I'll never fly again or as well as I once did. In fact, the only thing it means is that I haven't flown for months! As I've said many times in the blog, I mustn't take my experiences personally. They don't mean anything about me—they're just what's happening.
At my flying club's last meeting, I spoke with my instructor and fellow club member Debby about scheduling some dual with her. That should happen in the next month, and we'll review aeronautical knowledge, procedures, and maneuvers until we're both satisfied with my performance. It might take a few lessons, but it'll happen—and it will be flying!
Finally, over nine sleepless hours after slipping the surly bonds of Earth at Narita, I felt the wheels rolling again, with nary a bump, on the long runway at San Francisco.
"Sweet!" I thought to myself. "I remember what this is like!"
Nice work, Captain—and thanks for the taste of flight.