"Did you all drive up together?" Dana asked as my friend Dave, my wife Janet, and I approached the welcome table at my high school reunion.
"We flew into Boonville and Dave picked us up there," I answered.
"You flew?" Dana asked, puzzled.
"Yes, I'm a pilot now!" I replied with just a slight puff of the chest.
I can't count the number of times I've engineered conversations like this. It's a rare social occasion when I don't find a way to let slip that I fly airplanes. It's pathetic, I know, but the response is usually positive (or at least polite) and I can't blame myself for feeling a sense of pride in my skills and accomplishments in the cockpit.
This kind of pride, however, can lead a pilot into temptation. One time I was flying as a passenger with a very experienced aviator at the controls—and he made sure I knew it. He flew the downwind leg with occasional chirps from the stall horn as he kept the speed just a few knots above stall. Abeam the numbers, he lowered full flaps and dumped the nose over into a sharp 45-degree-bank base turn, again maintaining just enough airspeed to avoid stalling. About 50 feet off the deck he executed a sharp, steep final turn and squeaked it down on the numbers. It was a very impressive display of aeronautical skill—and I'll never fly with him again. To my mind, this kind of risk-taking exemplifies not a healthy pride, but dangerous hubris.
I found myself asking what he was trying to prove with that behavior. But then, I might just as well ask what I'm trying to prove by boasting of my own aeronautical experience. Is external validation so important to me? Of course we all enjoy being well regarded by others. For me I suppose there's a kind of security and comfort in feeling that I'm regarded as bringing some value to this life. But do I really need this kind of feedback?
The answer is no, but I guess, like my erstwhile risk-taking flying buddy, I don't always remember that. In fact, the more strongly I believe that I need validation from others, the more likely it is that my healthy pride will turn to hubris. That is, the more I want to be seen as a "good pilot," the more dangerous a pilot I'm likely to become.
When I look at it this way it's clear to me that this dangerous kind of pride is antithetical to confidence. True confidence is a quiet, matter-of-fact faith in my skills, knowledge, and judgment based on real experience—and it's totally independent of what anyone else thinks or says. It must be if I am to trust that confidence to keep me flying and keep me safe.
Over time I've come to recognize the onset of false confidence—this hubris in the making—when it begins to arise and usually I can stuff a sock in it before it gets too annoying. After all, nobody likes a blowhard. Yes, I'll probably always find a way to regale random strangers with tales of my aeronautical exploits. But by staying mindful of the responsibilities I assume as pilot in command I can ward off my hazardous predilections and make good, safe, responsible decisions in the cockpit—even if I occasionally embarrass my wife at the dinner table!
As I'm sure you've heard by now, the NTSB recently published its final report on last year's crash of Galloping Ghost, the highly modified P-51 flown by veteran racer Jimmy Leeward, which killed 11 people and injured more than 60. The report confirmed what many had suspected: the crash was precipitated by the flutter-induced failure of a trim-tab actuating mechanism. This caused the airplane to roll and pitch up uncontrollably, subjecting the pilot to approximately 17 G of acceleration and damaging the aircraft structure. At that point, with the pilot incapacitated and the aircraft out of control, the resulting crash was a foregone conclusion. The report's statement of probable cause includes the following:
"Aerodynamic flutter of the trim tabs resulted in a failure of the left trim tab link assembly, elevator movement, high flight loads, and a loss of control. Contributing to the accident were the undocumented and untested major modifications to the airplane and the pilot's operation of the airplane in the unique air racing environment without adequate flight testing."
Flutter, the resonant vibration of a control surface at high speeds, can occur on any aircraft when it's flown beyond its tested maximum speed, and the NTSB report noted that during the race, Galloping Ghost was flying approximately 35 knots faster than it had ever flown before. In effect, the fateful race was the flight test of the many speed modifications that Leeward had made to the airplane.
Contributing to the flutter were deteriorated lock-nut inserts on the trim-tab assembly. Apparently, the lock nuts had been reused as the trim tab was disassembled and reassembled multiple times. If you've done any maintenance on airplanes, you know that nylon lock nuts are single-use parts. Reusing them damages the nylon, weakening their locking strength.
With these and other serious errors outlined in such detail, many have leveled strong judgments against Mr. Leeward, and I don't feel a need to add to those judgments here. For me, the most important question is this: how could anyone make such decisions and take such actions, knowing the enormous risks to which he was exposing himself and others?
If I'm honest with myself, I know the answer. The capacity for such serious errors and lapses in judgment is only too human. All pilots can think of times (probably many times) when they allowed fixation or obsession to tempt them into bad decisions. In this blog, I've relayed stories of dumb choices that I've made, including continuing flight into questionable weather, choosing to fly over inhospitable terrain, and continuing landing approaches when I should have gone around. Any one of those incidents could have had a very bad outcome for myself and my passengers.
And of course the NTSB database and the "never again" articles in our aviation magazines are filled with stories of pilots who succumbed to "get-there-itis," fuel mismanagement, and other forms of poor judgment that led them to grief. Jimmy Leeward's lapses of judgment may have been greater than most, but they were not of a fundamentally different nature. If we forget or deny this fact, we do so at our peril.
There's no two ways about it—the crash of Galloping Ghost was a horrible, senseless tragedy that should never have happened. It's up to all of us who fly to salvage something positive from it: a commitment to hold our own decision making to as a high a standard as possible—for ourselves, for our passengers, for the public—and out of respect for this craft of flying that we are privileged to practice.
When reading a story like Jimmy Leeward's, I must always remember that yes, it could happen to me—and if don't consciously and diligently execute my responsibilities as pilot in command, eventually it will.
"Doing any flying lately?" my buddy Anders asked me at a recent club meeting.
"Aw, man, I haven't flown in months," I answered ruefully. "It sucks!"
It's true. For all I've written about the importance of recent experience and persistence at this wonderful craft of flying, lately I've been totally, stubbornly earthbound. There have been good reasons for this. I've just started a new job that's taking a lot of my time. I've had some big bills recently. I'm spending most of my off hours preparing my house for sale. So both time and money have been tighter than usual. But really these are just excuses. If I prioritized it, I know I could fly enough to at least maintain proficiency. I mean, come on—it's Summer in California!
No, it's pretty clear that something else is going on. Lately I've been like an old "barn sour" horse who'd rather stick close to the stables than get out and run. I've seen this kind of behavior in other pilots, but the closest I've come to experiencing it myself was a niggling doubt and fear that occasionally came over me early in my flying career when I'd been away from soaring for several weeks. When that set in, I sometimes found myself making excuses for not making the trip to the gliderport. As much as I love flying, at those times, it was triggering thoughts and feelings that I would rather deny and avoid. Invariably, however, once I actually got back in the cockpit and started feeling comfortable at the controls again, I was reminded of just how much I love to fly.
Could the same kind of thing be happening now? I don't know, but it seems very likely. I strongly suspect that as I look inside and ask some hard questions, I'll notice some hidden bias or belief that's been operating without my being aware of it. This time, it doesn't feel like doubt in my abilities—I know from experience that with a few hours of dual instruction and some careful practice I can knock off the rust and fly safely and well. Rather, it feels more like some kind of internal conflict.
It won't surprise me if this turns out to be the case. I think that internal conflict is one of the most common, almost routine, experiences for human beings. So much of what really motivates us and governs our behavior is unconscious. There's what I think I believe, value, and want—and then there's a lifetime of conditioning that drives me to behave in ways I don't understand. I've learned to watch for those situations. They almost always have something to teach me.
Ultimately, this might be the most important lesson I've learned from flying airplanes: how to apply the observe-act-observe cycle not just to my flying, but to myself.
So, what's my plan? Schedule some dual with one of my favorite instructors and get back in the air—and pay close attention to the thoughts and feelings that come up in the process.
It's time for this horse to get out of the barn!
"What's your reference heading?" my instructor Bill asked. I was weaving drunkenly back and forth across the localizer beam and porpoising all over the glide slope in my attempt fly an ILS approach into Stockton airport in California's Central Valley.
"Um—oh, I don't know!" I said with exasperation.
I was really struggling, noticing excursions from my desired course and glide path too late, reacting too much, and overshooting repeatedly. After the flight, having worked my whole adult life in a corporate environment, I recognized what I'd been doing on that ILS. It's called "micro-management!" If you've ever worked for a boss who constantly second-guessed your work, spent most of his time with you giving excruciatingly detailed instructions, and never allowed you any creativity or initiative, you know how ineffective, inefficient, and downright maddening this behavior can be.
And yet we often do it to ourselves without even realizing it! That's exactly what I was doing that day as I jerked and wiggled my way down the ILS. Hunched over the yoke and staring intently at the instruments until my head hurt, I was trying to consciously direct my body's every movement to bend the airplane's path to my will.
It didn't work very well.
Why not? Because that's not what the conscious mind is good at. It's good at focusing on one high-order concept at a time. It's lousy at focusing on a flood of sensory input and directing the entire body to respond in a certain way. In the beginning of our training, we have to focus consciously on physical actions like aircraft control and scanning the instruments because our brain stem doesn't yet know how to do these things automatically. One of the main goals of training is to give the brain stem the experience it needs to do them—and to give our conscious mind confidence in this set of abilities.
Over time, we naturally move from micro- to macro-management. As a manager in a business, if I make sure that my employees have the right training and skills for their jobs, and I clearly communicate to them what I want them to accomplish, I can trust them to figure out how to accomplish it. As a long-time manager myself, having practiced both micro- and macro-management over the years, I can confirm that the latter works much better—for all involved!
Similarly, if I train well in an airplane, I can trust my brain stem to handle the physical part of flying on its own, just as I trust a skilled employee to know her job and do it better than I can. As my instrument training progressed and I gained experience, I found those ILSs getting smoother the less I had to think consciously about aircraft control. As my brain stem got the hang of holding headings, altitudes, bank angles, airspeeds and descent rates, I could focus my attention on the traffic around me, the condition of the runway, my plan for a missed approach—all the high-level planning tasks that only the cerebral cortex can do.
As we coasted down the ILS into Salinas a few months later, the needles were perfectly centered, as I subconsciously responded to subtle little excursions from my desired path before they became noticeable to an observer—in this case Bill—or even to my own conscious mind.
Bill reached over and tapped the course deviation indicator and chuckled, "Is this thing broken? It's not moving!"
I smiled and thought ahead to my upcoming missed approach as I kept up my habitual scan of the instruments. What a difference a little macro-management makes!
"He carried himself with so much more confidence the last couple of outings. The confidence factor is so important. He realized how good he is."
Bruce Bochy, manager of my beloved San Francisco Giants, was speaking about one of his veteran superstar pitchers and his recent struggles with command. I've been a baseball fan since childhood and what most fascinates me about it is the mental game. It's a game of strategy, psychology, and emotion even more than physical skill. Ballplayers, like all human beings, are vulnerable to all the vicissitudes and weaknesses of the human mind. But some players seem able to perform consistently well regardless of circumstances—and as Bochy says, one of the intangible qualities that makes a key difference is confidence.
One of the main themes of this blog has been that true confidence can be built only on a solid foundation of experience. As I gain experience, my knowledge, skills, and judgment improve, and as I observe the increasingly positive results of my actions, I naturally develop a legitimate confidence in myself.
But it's also true that I need a certain degree of confidence to gain that experience in the first place. I have to have some confidence in my ability to learn to fly before I get in the airplane for the first lesson—and I have to maintain that confidence through all the challenges that I encounter during training to be able to see it through.
So which comes first, confidence or experience?
To resolve this apparent paradox I think it's important to distinguish between different kinds of confidence. It might not always be appropriate for me to have confidence in my ability, especially if I have very little experience or I've been away from flying for a long time. But regardless of my level of experience or current skills, I can still have confidence in my capacity—the faith that I can develop the abilities on which a robust confidence is based.
How can I find this confidence in my capacity? The best way is to look to past life experience for examples of similar challenges that I've faced and overcome. Reflecting on past success is a great way to muster the courage to take the actions necessary to succeed in the present.
There are times, however, when I might find myself deep in an existential crisis—when none of my past experience seems worthwhile or relevant, and the prospect of success seems like a pipe dream. This kind of funk can settle in at any stage of a flying career, but it's especially likely during the early stages of training, when mistakes are most frequent and dramatic. What then?
The most powerful response I know is to remind myself that no one can predict the future. When I truly accept the fact that I can't know in advance whether I'll succeed, the safest and best thing I can do is to assume I can—and act accordingly.
The key word here is "act," and this is where the observe-act-observe cycle really pays off. Rather than worrying or obsessing about outcomes I can't control, I can instead just focus my attention on the tasks at hand, respond to what I observe, and let go the impulse to take my results personally.
In fact, ultimately, I think it's possible to transcend the need for confidence entirely. Like the best baseball pitchers, I can learn to just pay attention, take a deep breath, and throw the next pitch—no matter what's happening or what I'm feeling or thinking.