"This is why we live in California," I said to myself with a smile. As I stepped out of the car at the airport early on a recent Sunday afternoon, it was shirtsleeve weather. The sky was almost completely clear and winds were light. Not bad for December! A combination of work, home repair, and weather had kept me away from the airport for weeks. I had set a goal of completing my Commercial and CFI certificates this year, but at this point Spring of next year was looking more likely. (More about that next time.) The only thing for it was to keep plugging away. It was the perfect day to get back in the saddle and fly some patterns.
I started in my comfort zone with a normal takeoff and landing, which went quite well, followed by short-field and soft-field techniques. With the Arrow's sensitive stabilator it took a couple of tries to get a smooth soft-field liftoff, but it came together quickly. So far, so good!
The "warmup" complete, I was ready to tackle the maneuver I had yet to perform successfully: the 180-degree power-off approach and precision landing. On previous attempts, I'd either come up short and had to add power (usually), or ended up high and had to go around.
Abeam the numbers, I lowered the gear and pulled the throttle to idle. With the landing threshold about 25 degrees behind my wing, I started my base turn. Looking good so far! "10 degrees of flaps," I called out, hauling the flap handle up to the first notch. A few seconds later, it was clear that was a mistake, as my landing spot started sliding upwards across the windscreen as I turned final. I aborted the maneuver, added power, and made a normal landing.
"OK, turn base sooner," I thought. "Let's try this again." A second attempt with a closer base turn was better, but I still had to add power to make the runway. "OK, hold off on the flaps!" I decided as I took off for one more try. This time I began my base turn almost immediately after chopping the power and left the flaps alone. Turning final, I saw I was actually a bit high. "Now, some flaps," I thought as I pulled on 10 degrees, 25 degrees, and finally full flaps as I held my approach speed over the fence and across the threshold to a picture-perfect touchdown right where I was aiming.
"Woo-hoo!" I hollered aloud as the nose wheel touched down. That was sweet! The technique that worked was to hold best-glide speed, turn base almost immediately, leave flaps up until turning final, and then use flaps to adjust glideslope. As satisfying as it was to figure that out, it was even better to experience it. It didn't mean I'm a great pilot. It didn't mean I'll always fly the maneuver perfectly. It didn't have to mean anything. It was just one of those rare, sweet experiences that make all the hard work and expense of flying worthwhile.
After tying down the airplane and finishing the paperwork I plopped down in the car with a satisfied sigh and said it aloud to myself:
"And that is why we do that!"
There's an old, sardonic saying: "When all else fails, lower your standards!"
This isn't one you hear often in aviation. We have high standards and we're proud of them! As pilots we're always striving to fly as well and as skillfully as we can. And as passengers, we certainly don't want our flight crew lowering their standards! The minimum standards for various pilot certificates and ratings are spelled out in the Practical Test Standards published by the FAA, but most of us are taught to strive for better.
In recent posts I've talked about holding myself to a high standard in my own training, the pitfalls of ego, and the frustration that often results. My most persistent bad habit is a perfectionism based on an old, stubborn belief that my performance determines my self-worth. When I feel that old frustration burrowing into my gut, it takes all I have (sometimes more than I have) to remember to drop the drama and just observe-act-observe.
But does that mean I have to lower my standards? Does letting go of that pernicious perfectionism require me to settle for sloppy flying? Not at all! I think we tend to feel that if we're not tense and slightly anxious in our pursuit of high standards that somehow we're not taking it seriously, just as we often have the vague feeling that we're not working hard enough unless we feel some strain or discomfort.
While it's true that a small amount of stress does make us more alert and perform better, it doesn't take much to overdo it. After a certain point, tension and anxiety degrade performance considerably. It's hard to fly well when you have a death grip on the yoke! We perform much better when relaxed but alert. Flying well is still "hard work" in that it requires paying close attention and making adjustments, especially when learning a new skill. I've come to realize, however, that most of the stress I've experienced in the cockpit over the years has been completely self-inflicted! As I described in last year's post Death Before Embarrassment, most of my stress has been due to a fear of making mistakes, rather than any kind of fear for my safety.
Without all the ego-drama, it's much easier to assess my own performance objectively. If there's no shame in mistakes, I'm much less likely to ignore and deny them. By being willing to freely make a full range of "mistakes" in my learning, I have more valuable data to learn from. Limiting my range of action in an attempt to avoid mistakes just limits my overall experience and makes learning harder. Naturally, there's a limit to the range of mistakes I can safely make in an airplane, but it's a much wider range than many people realize, especially in a typical trainer. Besides, so long as I'm paying attention and making a sincere effort to improve my performance, I'm actually much less likely to make a serious mistake while relaxed than when I'm tense, anxious, and over-controlling the airplane.
For most of us it takes practice to maintain concentration and attention without tensing up, but it is possible. It becomes much easier when we respect our limits, ask for help when we need it, slow down, and consciously release the excess tension in our muscles. And sometimes I can even remember to do it! It also helps to remember that I can just relax and fly the airplane—without having to lower my standards.
A few weeks ago, in the wake of the horrible crash at the Reno Air Races, I wrote an angry post in which I emphasized the responsibility that we pilots have for the safety of others. Ordinarily, I prefer not to speak or write publicly when I'm angry, but this time I felt it was important to express that anger. Sometimes it's appropriate.
I received a thoughtful comment from Reya Kempley, about whose book Flight Emergency I wrote a recent post. She rightly pointed out that it's impossible to guarantee complete safety in life; there are always risks that can't be eliminated. She also cautioned against rash regulatory action in response to the disaster, pointing out the positive role air racing has played in inspiring a passion for aviation in countless people.
Reya's right on both counts. No matter what we do, we can never eliminate risk from our lives, and certainly laws and regulations sometimes go too far in trying to do so. As I pointed out in my post, airplanes are by nature fast-moving projectiles, and partly for this reason it's illegal in some parts of the world for ordinary citizens to fly them. All of us who love flying and enjoy the freedom to fly would rightly condemn such regulation as excessive!
In aviation in the US, we are engaged in an ongoing balancing act between regulation and freedom, safety and risk, and for the most part I think we strike the balance pretty well. Our freedom to fly in this country is almost unmatched anywhere else in the world. I'm a strong proponent of wise regulation, but it's hard to do and it's susceptible to abuse and unintended consequences. Any aircraft owner who's ever been hit with an onerous airworthiness directive of dubious value understands that too well.
Still, just as it's easy to overreact and over-regulate, it's also easy to glibly dismiss risks that we can and should take steps to mitigate. It's important to note that the cause of the Reno crash has not yet been determined, but if speculations about the separation of the elevator trim tab prove true, this disaster combined with the history of trim-tab problems in racing P-51s point to an obvious opportunity to strengthen the design.
More troubling, however, is the issue of airplanes flying towards the crowd, which is currently unavoidable in this kind of racing. But with some creative thinking, we should be able to eliminate or at least greatly reduce this risk. How about putting spectators in the middle of the race course? That way, the momentum of any errant airplanes would carry them away from the crowd, not toward it. It might actually make for a more exciting spectator experience, being literally in the middle of the action.
I'm just brainstorming, of course. Those much more knowledgable about air racing might quickly shoot the idea down, but my point is that we must take a hard look at how to mitigate these very real risks so that those aviators with a "need for speed" can still push themselves and their craft to the limit and spectators can still thrill to the spectacle of powerful airplanes roaring past, wingtip-to-wingtip, fifty feet off the deck—and most important of all, they can do so safely.
It had been weeks since I'd flown. Between work commitments and urgent home repairs, I had been spread pretty thin. Finally I found a few fair-weather, daylight hours to spare, and I felt rested—and the Arrow was available!
I found myself tempted to get a quick weather briefing, jump in the car, and rush off to the airport, but I've come to recognize the siren song of impulsivity. After getting a full briefing and checking TFRs, I had a few minutes before I needed to leave for the airport.
"All right, what am I going to practice today?" I muttered aloud to myself. I opened the Practical Test Standards for the maneuvers I wanted to focus on and mentally rehearsed them. I also reminded myself that the flight was going to be about learning, not about proving anything to myself or anyone else.
My last flight in the Arrow had not been fun, and I mean "no fun at all." I think it was the first flight of my flying career that wasn't. I alluded to the experience in my last post, and it had very little to do with the flight itself. But by interpreting the usual (and necessary) errors required by learning as contrary to the image of myself as a "good pilot," I managed to have a perfectly miserable time. In short, I allowed my ego to get in the way.
Now I could say that flying requires a healthy dose of humility, and I wouldn't be wrong. The challenges of flying certainly can be humbling. But I think there's an even more important attitude that we can bring to flying, and that's respect. Both humility and its complement, arrogance, are points on an egocentric scale, and our pursuit of confidence in the cockpit often plays out entirely along this continuum. When following this program, it's easy to oscillate between extremes. But true respect transcends ego entirely.
Respect for what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry called "the craft" is probably the most valuable lesson I've learned in flying, and just when I think I've finally really understood it, I discover new depths and subtleties. At this point, I'm convinced that respect is a quality and an attitude that can always grow and deepen if we allow it to. In this context I realized that my reaction of frustration to perfectly ordinary mistakes was a sign that I could bring much greater respect to the situation.
It's easy to say that respect is in short supply these days, as we experience less and less respect in our daily interactions, in our public discourse, and even in aviation, as Thomas B. Haines lamented in a recent column in AOPA Pilot magazine. Even so, the craft of flying still provides one of the best opportunities I know for practicing a holistic kind of respect. Respect for the craft builds respect for oneself, which in turn brings deeper respect to our interactions with others.
This understanding of respect comes not from some kind of compulsion, coercion, or submission, but from a natural recognition of the truth about ourselves, our situation, and our role in it.
So with all this in mind I went flying—and it went just fine. I flew each maneuver, assessed the results against the Practical Test Standards, decided on any corrective action, and flew the maneuver again, repeating until satisfied with my progress or until deciding to come back to it another day. In short, I brought a healthy dose of respect to my usual observe-act-observe process.
But you know what was best of all? It was fun.
"Just what do you think you're doing?! Who do you think you are?!"
I think every child in every English-speaking country has heard these words at one time or another. I've always found them rather silly. They imply that if you were somebody else, somebody special, you could get away with what you're doing—but you're not! The very idea runs counter to our American ideals of democracy and egalitarianism. "Who you are" isn't supposed to matter. It's what you do that counts.
But this silly phrase got me thinking about a deeper question of identity. In fact, who we think we are might be the most important contributor to the quality of our day-to-day experience, including our capacity to develop confidence. We often speak of people as confident. "She's a very confident person. She just goes for it," we might say about someone we admire. But as I've said many times in this blog, I believe confidence is situational. No one is confident all the time in every situation—and if they were, we'd doubt their sanity!
There can be many reasons for an appearance of confidence. Sometimes it's just a carefully crafted performance. We've learned to project confidence even when we don't really feel it. (This is actually a useful skill, especially for the pilot of an aircraft carrying nervous passengers!) Other times, we sail blithely into a situation, confident of the outcome, while being totally oblivious to the risks we face. This is complacency, however, not a true confidence, and life has a way of letting us know about it promptly! Finally, there's a true confidence, grounded in real experience.
I realize now that when I started my Commercial training, I expected it would be pretty easy. I think of myself as a good and skilled pilot. My landings are generally smooth. My ILS approaches are pretty good. My VFR descent planning is usually dead-on. Hey, I know what I'm doing, OK?
So why did my chandelles suck so bad?
"Hold that back pressure—you need to keep increasing it. Use the trim if you have to," said my instructor Bill as I was trying to get the speed down to something close to minimum controllable. "And the rollout has to be much more gradual. At these speeds, it's almost all rudder—the ailerons don't do much."
So I kept at it, first rolling out too fast, then too slowly, and then with too much airspeed. Intellectually, I understood that this was just the process of learning: repeated trials with observation of results and continuous adjustments until the desired outcome happens consistently. So why did I find it so frustrating?
I think it's because I was approaching my training wearing the identity of a "good pilot." But this identity was inconsistent with the pilot who was flopping all over the sky trying to do chandelles. Which brings me to what I learned from the experience: identity, self-image, who we think we are, doesn't have to be immutable. It changes from moment to moment and from year to year. In fact, I argue that our sense of identity at any given moment is never the whole story—it's just a convenient abstraction that serves to guide our actions.
So if our identity is just a transient image that we construct and adopt in the moment, why not choose that identity consciously? Who do I think I am right now? How about, "a student of the chandelle?" In this moment, that's a much more helpful identity than "a good pilot." A student of the chandelle expects to be challenged and more easily accepts the reality of his performance, allowing him to attempt, fail, adjust, practice, and perfect the maneuver, and in so doing, develop a true confidence based on real experience. A good pilot expects things to come easily and just feels frustrated and embarrassed when they don't.
So maybe the real question, rather than "who do you think you are?", is "who do you choose to be right now?"