It was a very dark, moonless night at Paso Robles, California when my wife Janet, our friend Lena, and I finished a lovely dinner and were boarding the airplane for our flight home. Paso Robles is in a valley, surrounded by high terrain, and there would be very few signs of human habitation along most of our route back to the San Francisco bay area. Anticipating this, I had filed an IFR flight plan and prepared to fly the published obstacle departure procedure to give us an extra margin of safety.
Let's face it—one of the main challenges to confidence, and one of the main reasons we need it, is fear for our own safety. Some very skilled and experienced pilots have quit flying because this fear finally became too strong to suppress. They might have been flying for years on hope and denial, but finally the fear that they were living on "borrowed time" got to them and they hung it up. Astronaut Mike Mullane in his riveting book Riding Rockets describes this as a common phenomenon in the astronaut corps, and it's not surprising. Space travel is a very risky business.
Fortunately, most of the flying we do is much less dangerous. A circuit around the patch in a Cessna 150 is quite a different proposition from riding a rocket into space, but there's no denying that taking any machine into the air necessarily involves some risk. How we manage and mitigate that risk is a big contributor to our level of confidence and its appropriateness.
One way to estimate risk in a given situation is to consider what margins of safety are available. In another great astronaut book, Carrying the Fire, Mike Collins describes in some detail how the Apollo spacecraft were designed and the astronauts trained with meticulous attention to margins of safety. Redundant systems and exacting procedures helped minimize and mitigate huge risks. The emergency aboard Apollo 13 that threatened the lives of the crew ultimately proved the value of this strategy, as the crew was able to use the versatile systems in ways never before anticipated, such as using the lunar module as a lifeboat and adapting incompatible CO2 filters from one system to another.
The aircraft we fly are also designed with built-in margins of safety, including redundant systems (magnetos, radios, backup instruments) and structures designed to handle greater stress than required for normal flying. All that's needed for us to take advantage of these margins is the right training and practice. If we know our aircraft's maneuvering speed at its current weight, we can stay within the safety envelope when flying in turbulence. If we're practiced in partial-panel instrument flying, we can keep straight and level when the attitude indicator goes belly up.
Safety margins are integral to our flying in countless ways, including weather margins, flight and fuel planning, traffic separation, and instrument procedure design to name a few. All these margins legitimately boost our confidence in our pursuit of this endlessly fascinating craft of flying.
Some of our greatest safety margins are provided by other people, including mechanics, controllers, passengers, and FBO personnel. In fact, these human-powered margins of safety might be the most valuable of all. More about that next time.
As we approached the city lights of the Bay Area, the black, featureless landscape and sky gave way to familiar landmarks and a clear horizon. The controller sounded harried as he worked to sequence us with the big boys approaching San Jose International, so I took pity on him and canceled IFR.
"377, contact San Jose tower on 124.0. Thanks for your help—g'day," replied the grateful controller, and we finished the flight VFR. The IFR flight plan wasn't required that night, but the extra margin of safety made for a little more peace of mind—and that's always good for a pilot's confidence.
The shadows crept slowly across the ceiling, cast by the passing cars on the street outside. It was 4am and I'd been awake for a while. My last few lessons in the glider had been a struggle. The landings that used to be so smooth were now teeth rattlers. My attempts to do a forward slip just resulted in a little extra wind noise, and I'd scared myself by failing to see traffic that my instructor had to point out. It wasn't feeling like I would ever be a pilot. I didn't know the term at the time, but I was deep in the doldrums of a learning plateau, and doubt was a constant companion.
Doubt comes in many forms. Sometimes I might doubt my physical skills, the adequacy of my knowledge, or my judgment and aeronautical decision making. But these are the relatively benign forms of doubt. When doubt goes deeper, it can call into question my innate capacity, tempting me to wonder whether I "have what it takes." Deeper still, and I can even question my self-worth.
It's those kinds of questions that make for sleepless nights. Too many of them, and I can even start to fear the onset of doubt, dreading the crisis of confidence that follows, convinced that my doubt is proof of a fatal character flaw. It might seem silly that such existential angst could arise just from learning how to operate a machine, but I suspect most pilots have had these dark moments, and it isn't always when we're first starting out. I've heard very experienced pilots at the height of their skills express these doubts and talk seriously about hanging it up.
That's why I think it's critical to learn to recognize the difference between doubting my abilities and doubting myself. Doubting my abilities is often healthy. It can be a simple matter of facing facts, and it can help direct my efforts at learning. In response, I can schedule some dual instruction or a practice session in an area where my skills are weak—and avoid doing something stupid in the meantime. But when doubt is personal, it becomes destructive. When confronted by doubt, just asking the question, "What can I do about this?" can help. If specific action steps come to mind, the doubt is probably related to my abilities, not me personally. If the answer is "I don't know," then maybe it's time to ask for help from a favorite instructor. But if the answer is along the lines of "There's nothing I can do—I just suck," then I know that I'm dealing with personal doubt.
When this pernicious form of doubt rears its head, I like to remind myself that it is, in fact, irrelevant. When I express doubt in my capacity to accomplish something ("I don't know whether I can do it!"), I'm just stating a fact. Of course I don't know whether I can do it because I haven't done it yet—and no one can predict the future. No matter how difficult something may be for me, or how much easier it appears to be for someone else, concluding that I can't do it would be to claim some supernatural precognition.
Another technique for separating personal from helpful doubt is dispassionate observation. Separating fact from opinion is a powerful way to "unhook" myself from personal judgments and focus on the specific actions I can take to improve my results. It's the difference between saying, "I'm consistently flaring high, causing a hard landing" and saying, "I suck at landings." One is dispassionate observation of fact and gives me something to work with. The other is just so much noise that leaves me nowhere.
There's no reason that doubt has to be a problem, so long as I can identify and let go of destructive personal judgments and crystal-ball gazing and focus on specific, factual observations that can help me improve my results, gain positive experience—and build true confidence.
After all, if I didn't have doubt, I wouldn't need confidence—and I wouldn't have the opportunity to develop it.
"So, you flew yourself down here for the wedding?" asked the bridesmaid at the reception.
"Yes, we flew down in my club's Cessna," I answered. "The weather was beautiful!"
"Wow–that's cool," she said.
"Yes, I'm very lucky," I agreed.
Somehow I'd managed yet again to let slip in casual conversation that I fly airplanes. It's pathetic, I know, but I can't help myself. It is cool, and most of the people I mention it to seem to get it. But there are some who don't even bother to feign a polite interest, and the occasional person who seems actively hostile to the idea.
"My God, that's so dangerous," they might say. "Why do you do that?!"
We pilots are used to questions like this, and many of us have come to respond with words to the effect, "If you have to ask, I can't explain it to you!" We concede that it's impossible to fully capture in words the magic and passion of flight.
Of course I'm going to try anyway.
I can quote the usual stock reasons: There's the feeling of freedom, the spectacular view, and the satisfaction of achieving something rare and remarkable. But beyond that for me is something deeper—a profound and thrilling sense of connection with my home the Earth.
It's rooted in sensory experience: seeing the moon casting the shadow of the tail on the wing; traversing the nave of a vast cloud cathedral; floating over the landscape as the raking light of sunset paints it in a rich red-orange; noticing the distinctive scent of clouds while flying on instruments; climbing out of the grey gloom into the dazzling sunlight above a vast sea of white stretching from horizon to horizon; catching sight of the beacon at your destination airport after a long flight.
But it's more than just a sensory experience. It's more than simply gaining a better understanding of geography. It's about insight. It's about deepening my relationship with the things of the Earth, being able to see their interconnectedness in a way that just isn't possible from a ground-bound perspective.
Still, for all the words I can throw at it, the deep, inexplicable thrill of flight is something that you just have to experience for yourself.
Why fly? If you have to ask, find yourself a pilot you trust—and go flying!
Filed under Mission by
"Throttle slightly open; master on; fuel pump on; mixture rich; watch for fuel flow; mixture lean; brakes on…"
I paused and took a breath to focus my mind. "OK, let's see if I remember how to fly this thing," I thought to myself as I turned the key to start the Arrow's IO-360. This would be my first flight in almost two months and I felt a little rusty.
In many parts of the world, pilots can go through the Winter months without flying at all. Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Winters are very mild, my flying club sees a marked drop-off in flying at this time of year. Whether it's long hours spent finishing up year-end projects, time spent with family over the holidays, or waiting out the weather, it always seems to be difficult to get out and fly.
Most pilots understand the importance of recent experience. In fact, many pilots I know insist that recency of experience is more important for proficiency than total experience. For them, a long layoff from flying makes them extra cautious in their aeronautical decision making.
Another way of putting it is that we generally feel less confident when we haven't flown in a while, and to a great degree this is appropriate—a sign of intelligence! The fact that we need regular practice to maintain proficiency is a reminder that flying is a never-ending learning process, and one of the principles of learning, the "principle of recency," comes into play here. It simply means that we best remember skills and knowledge that we've been exposed to recently, and because confidence in the cockpit is one of the things we learn from experience, we tend to feel a little pang of doubt when we contemplate a flight after a long layoff. It's sort of how the "confidence" part of our pilot psyche folds its arms, cocks its head, and asks, "So what have you done for me lately?"
Now in fact, our physical flying skills actually decay very slowly with time away from flying. It's the mental game where we're most at risk. Fortunately, we don't need an airplane to practice that part. Just spending a few minutes recalling and visualizing cockpit procedures, referring to the checklist and saying the steps aloud, can be tremendously helpful during those periods when we're not flying.
When I do experience feelings of doubt, rather than ignoring or denying them, I make a point of heeding them, but in a positive way: I choose favorable conditions, a familiar aircraft, or if it's been a very long time since I flew, I schedule some dual with an instructor, but I make sure to get back in the air. That's what brought me to the airport that clear, calm, beautiful December day—and my session in the pattern went great. It was a real confidence builder!
Hmm, it's getting to be time for another flight like that. It's been a while…
I gazed down at the golden, rolling hills beneath me illuminated by the warm, raking light of early morning. Visibility was unlimited in the cool, clear, California Winter air, and the view from the glider's big bubble canopy was breathtaking. My eyes swept the horizon, taking it all in. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed the back seat. It was empty! A jolt of adrenaline brought me to attention. I was all by myself, and in less than two minutes, I had to land this thing!
Like every pilot, I remember my first solo as if it were yesterday. (Actually, much more vividly—these days I can barely remember yesterday.) Aviation milestones like first solo, first cross country, and passing the checkride are so memorable because they mark the accomplishment of personal goals that are deeply important to us.
Flying by it's very nature tends to attract people who are goal-driven. We enjoy meeting challenges and overcoming them. Countless books have been written about goals and their importance in our lives. There's general agreement that to provide effective motivation, goals need to be specific, so we can know unambiguously when they're complete, and they must have a deadline, to keep us focused and tracking to a definite plan.
But what if, despite our best efforts, we miss the deadline? It happens all the time. There are lots of reasons, but they usually boil down to things being harder than expected, taking longer than expected, or other priorities cropping up that divert our attention. After over twenty years in high tech, I can count on one hand the number of projects I've worked on that finished on schedule. Almost invariably, unknown obstacles, over-optimistic scheduling, and "scope creep" combine to delay projects long past their original targets.
So are deadlines meaningless? Are they just arbitrary targets? Not if we sincerely believe they're realistic. When setting my own goals, I do my best to make an honest, good-faith estimate of how long they will take to complete and add some "padding" for the inevitable unexpected challenges. Even so, sometimes I'm wrong.
Back in January, I set the goal of completing my Commercial and CFI certificates by the end of this year. Well, that didn't happen, and I'll admit to feeling pretty disappointed about it. I take my commitments seriously, so there's a strong temptation to interpret my missing this deadline as a personal failing, and my confidence and self-respect could take a hit. This is the point when it would be easy to give up on a goal, talk myself out of it, or pretend it wasn't really that important after all. This is the point when it would be easy to quit.
But it's precisely self-respect that makes it so important to accept reality and strive to be as objective as possible. The truth is that my failure to meet the deadline doesn't mean anything about me. It's just a fact. The important question is why did I miss the deadline? What choices did I make that let to this result? Applying the observe-act-observe cycle to goals means re-assessing them whenever circumstances change or I learn some significant new information. In the case of my goal to earn my CFI this year, I do think I made the right choices overall, but I also see ways I could have used my time more efficiently. I can now apply those insights to setting a revised target.
When encountering any setback or delay, I also find it very helpful to refocus on why a goal matters, rather than allowing myself to get stuck in disappointment. Why is becoming a flight instructor so important to me? Because I love flying and I love sharing it with others. Teaching people to fly will allow me to do both and help keep me connected with the inexplicable magic that airplanes make possible. I can't wait to see that giddy grin of accomplishment on my students faces when they climb out of the cockpit after first solo, first cross-country, or passing the checkride.
And I look forward to cutting those shirttails!