The Inner Art of Airmanship

Inner? Art? Airmanship?

Ever experienced the blinding brightness of near-perfection in the cockpit? Would you like to learn the hard-won techniques that define elite aviators? Modern psychology and neuroscience research has found that experts are truly different from average performers. The profound differences are not always easy to see, for they are found inside the mind. It is not talent or luck. But it can be learned. It is the Inner Art of Airmanship.

This website will not teach you how to fly. But if you are a pilot maybe it will move you a little closer to touching personal aeronautical excellence. This is a practical guide to peak experience flying, where some proven techniques and esoteric sounding ideas from psychology research and elite sports are translated into concrete cockpit terms. It’s all about the perpetual pursuit of piloting perfection.

Most books and magazine articles for pilots look down for flying lessons in fatal crashes; unconsciously copying the viewpoint of clinical psychologists that have studied unfortunate people with mental problems much more than they have researched experts and champions. Psychology journals traditionally cited studies of flawed reasoning about six times more often than they cited studies of successful reasoning (Christensan-Szalanski & Beach, 1984). But increasingly research is looking at how people get good at something. Famous professor of psychology Abraham Maslow long ago laid out this alternative methodology:

If we want to know how fast a human being can run, then it is no use to average out the speed of a ‘good sample’ of the population; it is far better to collect Olympic gold medal winners are see how well they can do. (Maslow, 1971).


Abraham Maslow.

Don’t get stuck accepting mediocre piloting performance. “What we call ‘normal’ in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don’t even notice it ordinarily” (Maslow, 1968). Here we will look upwards to examine what the most skilled connoisseurs of flight can teach us about acquiring aeronautical excellence. It turns out there are many more places to look for flying lessons than in twisted wreckage sitting in a smoking hole in the ground.

Part of the formal framework behind this site is the new and powerful branch of human knowledge called positive psychology. This field of study is now bringing exciting results that we can all use in our own lives. At Harvard University, Psychology 1504: Introduction to Positive Psychology, quickly became the most popular class on campus, with more students enrolled in it than any other course. The instructor of those overflowing classes, Dr. Tal D. Ben-Shahar, noted early in the first lecture in the Fall semester of 2006 that counting the subjects of psychological journal abstracts for over 30 years he found over 5,000 papers dealing with anger, but only 415 dealing with joy. There were over 41,000 papers dealing with anxiety but only 1,710 dealing with happiness. Over 54,000 dealing with depression but only 2,582 dealing with life satisfaction. That’s a depressing 21:1 ratio in favor of studying the abnormal or the malfunctioning rather than the excellent or the elite. But thankfully that ratio is changing, now there are many superb researchers focusing on the academically neglected side of human nature — how average people become amazing, and how a normal life can be spent happy.

This is not just rah-rah TV pop-psychology feel-good mumbo-jumbo, but real solid science with real solid results. It’s not Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura saying you can just do it right if you try harder, as that approach has never been found to work and is certainly looked down upon by professional psychologists (Arkowitz & Lilienfeld, 2010). The psychology bits here comes from solid, well-respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. And it’s stuff we didn’t know a few years ago. Psychology professor and Science journal publisher Alan Leshner has stated, “We have probably learned more about the brain in the past twenty years than in all of recorded history” (Leshner, 2007). Some of what we’re now learning is astonishing. Scientific findings have shown elite performers using some of the techniques discussed here “imply multiple unusual or even unique capacities … the extent to which certain psychological capacities can be developed has been underestimated” (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).

gold medal

Olympic gold medal gymnast Laurie Hernandez.

This website explores and explains the warm uplifting thermals of superior human ability. Sport psychology has long studied how athletes improve, and we’ll use their knowledge where it is appropriate. Many reviews of this research have found that “elite performers have been consistently shown to make greater use of psychological skills and strategies than their non-elite counterparts” (Hardy, Jones & Gould, 1996). There is a long tradition in Eastern practices such as archery to master the outer performance through inner processes, and we’ll see how these concepts are now being recognized and tested by Western psychology. We also draw from the extensive recent explosion of research into expert performance, the significant mental differences between the amateur and the skilled professional in many activates. It is a distillation of wisdom and spirit from successful pilots, athletes, astronauts, sailors, surgeons, race car drivers, neuroscientists, clinical and research psychologists, cognitive engineers, Zen monks, philosophers and — maybe the most tellingly named of all — martial artists.

Bird Wing Boat

It's something not quite like this.

Some of the names I quote from may not be familiar to you, but a mini-biography attached to every quote would soon get unwieldy. Know that I have sought and selected people who attempted and achieved excellence in whatever field of endeavor they practiced. And anyway, whatever the outer sport or profession, it is their common inner path that is important. The psychology studies are fully referenced for academic integrity, so as to credit the original researchers and to show I’m not pulling this stuff out of my … hat. And for every concept introduced, I will bring it back to how we apply it in the cockpit.

This is an attempt to study the mindset of a master pilot. There are some tools you can use to become the pilot you have always wanted to be, some tools to create the life you most want to be living. The prize is immense. The only real cost is your investment of time.

The Inner What of Who?

Inner?  We are investigating the most important airspace in aviation — the six inches between a pilot’s ears. New brain imaging technology and advanced neuroscience research is starting to make sense of the once unknowable neuronal nebulae in our skull. The human brain is made up of over 100,000,000,000 neurons that are dynamically linked together by maybe 100 trillion neural connections. That’s more than 1,000 times the number of stars in our galaxy. In our current silicon digital terms it has over a million gigabytes of storage, enough to hold three million TV shows. It’s incredibly fantastically complicated; the most complex structure in known existence. However this is an exciting time in history as we are increasingly aware of how our brain works, and how to improve individual functioning. The human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment, yet how many of those can we consciously attend to? There is a vast unconscious mind that processes information outside of our executive control. As a professor of clinical neurology and well-known neuroscientist put it, “we have learned more about the brain in the last decade than we did in the previous two hundred years” (Restak, 2009). And we have learned how to function better, partly by learning to shape the hidden unconscious.



This is a personal journey inward, with the goal of vastly increased performance in the cockpit. We are all familiar with the easy to understand outer goal of flight: going safely from A to B. There are boat-loads of books on navigation and aerodynamics and aircraft systems to help us with this goal. We take written exams and pass flight tests showing we have all the knowledge and skills to perform the external goal within certain safe standards. However planes still crash. Pilots get bored.

Enter the inner game. Played inside the mind of the aviator, it is a dance with lapses in concentration, complacency, weak decisions, hidden biases, errors in execution and our self-inhibiting bad habits. It is the start of a journey away from mere pilot proficiency, aiming instead at excellence in aviation, excellence in life. The journey inward may be the longest, but most satisfying, flight we will ever undertake. Crew Resource Management (CRM) talks of managing the many external elements; inner flying is the balancing of our own skills, knowledge, mind, body, dreams and soul with the goal of melding to the wing. Being one with the wind.

Art?  Not art in the meaning of gluing empty cigarette boxes into a statue of a naked George Washington, but rather art in the broader meaning of fine skills and creative imagination acquired by observation, study and experience. The Greek idea of techne, which encompassed the rational elements of craftsmanship as well as art (and is where we get the word technique from) could be used.



As pilots we spend a lot of time studying the individual elements of flight, but not much time thinking about being a complete pilot. There is a real art to integrating the many diverse skills required of the modern aviator. Art always involves the meeting of deliberate and accidental. We paint in the ever changing air. Flying may not be recognized as an art by some of the lovers of chamber music and ballet, but soaring in a tight desert thermal or landing a seaplane in rough seas or watching the Blue Angels perform is proof enough for me. We are highly skilled artisans. Piloting is endlessly challenging; different every time I takeoff. Because flying is an art it means the pilot can never stop learning, as we understand the impossibility of ever having the fully perfect flight.

Most of us have flown with the miserable jerk who knows every word of every paragraph in the flight manual; but at the end of the day must be considered a below-average pilot. There is no flexibility, no artistry. These poor people are painting by numbers — with predictably sad results — when they should be using an aeronautical paint box to boldly yet smoothly draw whatever they see in front of them. The highest level of piloting is to soar above the books to become an aerial artist. Dancing with the clouds.

Airmanship?  All pilots understand what airmanship is, even if they can not define it in words. Airmanship is the powerful combination of knowledge, skill, awareness and discipline in action that is the difference between passengers and pilots. It is our common heritage with birds and sailors. It links old captains of 500-seat airliners with new students in single-seat gliders. It links pilots of spaceships and Piper Cubs, it links fighter jocks and rotor-heads. It is the sweet central essence of piloting. Airmanship is the key to flight safety and efficiency.

Problems with airmanship are often at the core of the eighty something percent of aviation accidents that get blamed on what is called human factors. The exact percentage varies mostly with how we decide to define the term human factors, but the 80% number has not changed much since World War II (Hobbs, 2004). It’s about the same story and the same percentage for the older art of seamanship (Buck, 1989). Sometimes the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in reviewing an accident comes right out and identifies the cause of a fatal accident as “basic airmanship.” NTSB investigator Steve Demko used that phrase about a business jet accident where the crew demonstrated many lapses of professionalism before destroying a perfectly good jet, adding that the airmanship failures were a “flying 101 type of thing” (Collogan, 2006).

Airmanship can be hard to define. Aristotle would have recognized it as the intellectual virtue of phroness. The august Oxford English Dictionary notes it is an imitation of seamanship and horsemanship; which reminds me of how much we may be able to learn from these long-practiced disciplines. Seamanship, at least according to the 1886 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, is “the art of sailing, manuvring, and preserving a ship or a boat in all positions and under all reasonable circumstances.” The first page of the book A History of Seamanship (Phillips-Birt, 1971) states “Seamanahip may be defined as the alliance of art and science by means of which a ship is conducted from one part of the earth’s shoreline to another.”



For the better part of a century the OED stated that the first recorded use of Airmanship was on the 21st of July 1864 (yep, long before we had airplanes) by the British Daily Telegraph newspaper. It had the meaning of, “skill in managing a ballon; aeronautism.” I like the non-gender-biased word aeronautism, but since the word aeronaut never caught on, I think we are stuck with airmanship. However, the OED was off by a few years on the first use of the word.

It was an uncredited author who first used the word airmanship, in a New York Times article with the fun title ‘The Aeronautic Argonauts’ published on the 7th of July, 1859. The piece was about a balloon flight from St. Louis that “positively established the superiority of the air over the earth and the waters as a traveling medium,” and included the sentence:

In the voyage of Messrs. Wise and La Mountain … we see all the elements of what we suppose we must call airmanship; a distinct reference to the varying currents of the atmosphere, a quick eye to perceive the changing tendencies of the successive atmospheric strata; machinery for wielding the power of the air to the will of aeronauts; resources for meeting the violence of aerial storms. (New York Times, 7 July 1859.)

So I take from this that the word airmanship was created to mean awareness of the weather, understanding available resources and an ability in maneuvering the aerial vehicle.

More recently, the FAA defined airmanship as:

a sound acquaintance with the principles of flight, the ability to operate an airplane with competence and precision both on the ground and in the air, and the exercise of sound judgment that results in optimal operational safety and efficiency. (FAA, 2004.)

That’s a good solid update, but maybe not worth over 140 years of waiting. The chairman of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Human Factors Group, Carey Edwards, wrote the book Airmanship. He defines it this way:

The (technical and non-technical) knowledge, skills and attitudes aircrew employ to operate an aircraft effectively, efficiently and safely.(Edwards, 2008.)

That’s short and sweet. Tony Kern (former Chief of Cockpit Resource Management, United States Air Force, and author of the classic book Redefining Airmanship) went further when he wrote that:

Airmanship is the consistent use of good judgment and well developed skills to accomplish flight objectives. This consistency is founded on a cornerstone of uncompromising flight discipline and developed through systematic skill acquisition and proficiency. A high state of situational awareness completes the airmanship picture and is obtained through knowledge of one’s self, aircraft, team, environment, and risk. (Kern, 1997.)

AA Captain


So is airmanship a process, a state, a skill or an outcome? It turns out it is all of these things. A review paper presented at a NATO research and training symposium on military aviation human factors defined airmanship thus:

A personal state that enables aircrew to exercise sound judgment, display uncompromising flight discipline and demonstrate skillful control of an aircraft and a situation. It is maintained by continuous self-improvement and a desire to perform optimally at all times. (Ebbage & Spencer, 2003).

These two sentences contain several powerful understandings. Airmanship is a multi-dimensional concept that enables us to have skillful control of an aircraft, make good decisions about the flight, and is tightly linked to uncompromising flight discipline. It is not something outside of the pilot, but rather is a personal state or mind-set. Airmanship is an inner condition tied to continuous self-improvement and manifesting itself as optimal personal piloting performance. This is the airmanship we will strive for.

Studies have shown the vast majority of pilots believe they are above average in airmanship (Wilson & Fallshore, 2001, Greenwald, 1980). Of course, half of us are not. But we can all get better. Much better. Will you join me on a journey into the inner art of airmanship? Flying the plane, grooving with gravity …

Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakes.

Carl Jung

Aviators call it airmanship; mariners call it seamanship. These labels describe abilities that go well beyond the competent deployment of technical skills. They imply a capacity to see the broader picture, to think ahead and to draw upon a wide range of knowledge and experience so as to perform demanding work safely, elegantly and effectively. It means having a deep understanding of all the various factors that can impact upon task performance for good or ill. It also entails a willingness to engage in all aspects of the job — tedious or otherwise — to the best of one’s ability.

James Reason

No doubt if I suggest that driving a car at high speed is an art, along with music, painting and literature, I should be greeted by some very cutting remarks by students of the accepted arts; but I really do consider fast driving as an art, an essentially twentieth-century art, and one demanding as much theoretical study, natural flair, learning and practice as any of the classical arts.

Denis Jenkinson
First sentence of The Racing Driver, 1958.

Seamanship, just like anything else, is an art. It is not something that can be picked up on one’s spare time; indeed, it allows no spare time for anything else.

Speaking to the Athenian assembly, c. 432 BCE.

Flying is an art, an imperfectible art.

Harrison Ford

Self reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lead life to sovereign power.

Alfred Lord Tennyson
Oenone, 1829.

Much beauty exists beyond what we can see.

James Miller

C. coming out of the sky with a kind of directness, a kind of magnificence that is only his. And when he banks his plane around the field with that slow and absolute grace, it is as much him as a gesture of his hand. It catches my breath. I have always taken it for granted. But to see it in the sky … it is an act of creative beauty, a work of art.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Watching her husband Charles Lindbergh land.

He was persuading and willing and coaxing that airplane into doing what he wanted it to do, leaning it like a bobsled right down where it could safely land. He could feel its every movement as though it were his own body. My father wasn’t flying the airplane, he was being the airplane. That’s how he had always done it.

Reeve Lindbergh
Flying with her dad, Charles Lindbergh, in an Aeronca Champion after an engine failure.

Few in number though they be, we can learn a great deal about values from the direct study of these highly evolved, most mature, psychologically healthiest individuals, and from the study of the peak moments of average individuals, moments in which they become transiently self-actualized.

Abraham Maslow

There is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing. How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure in the outer game.

Tim Gallwey

Airmanship is generally a matter of practice and experience under all kinds of conditions …. He gets the feel of his machine in a high degree, it becomes in fact part of himself.

S. P. Cockerell

The risks in actual flying are really rather slight. Even the most dangerous sports, properly done, are exercises in risk management, risk reduction. Watch a good mountaineer prepare his ropes and map his route. He is no wild dice-roller in a game with God.

The real risk we need to face, the real hazard we must brave, is already present long before we launch the airplane, climb the mountain, shoot the rapids — or paint the picture, plant the flower, or whatever mode of searching we embrace. The bear we’re hunting is already within reach. He is waiting, neither fleeing nor hiding. We will find him when we are ready. First, we have to look in all the wrong places. If we learn to look attentively, we will learn, finally, to look inside.

Paul J. Sampson

What can we gain by sailing to the Moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.

Thomas Merton

There are things I can’t force. I must adjust. There are times when the greatest change needed is a change of my viewpoint.

C. M. Ward

Your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.

James Joyce

There is only one journey. Going inside yourself.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Real inner peace and inner satisfaction ultimately depends on our mental attitude.

Dalai Lama

At the controls of a small, high-performance aircraft day in and day out, you reach a point of oneness with the plane. Some people would call that the Zen of flying, but that’s too deep for me. You’re just a part of the plane, not separate from it, as if you are the brain and it is the body, doing some things you don’t have to think about, like breathing, and other things that are converted from thought to action in an instant.

John Glenn

To be ‘unhampered by senses and intellect’ is to dwell openly within the world of the creative imagination. The master of a traditional art represents this state where action and creation spring effortlessly ‘out of formlessness and soundlessness.’ Paradoxically, this state is reached when unrelenting discipline and practice have purged the rituals of the traditional art from the interference of both senses and intellect, so that the ‘isness’ of the simplest act, such as preparing one’s clay for the wheel, contains all that there is to being in the universe.

The master thus draws the apprentice slowly away from preconceived ideas, theories, and even history, toward life as fullness of present action. This profound lesson cannot be communicated orally, in the didactic or philosophical mode. We can know and share much more than we can say. In addition to head knowledge, there is hand knowledge, eye knowledge, and heart knowledge; and heart, eye, and hand fuse through selfless practice and example.

Kenneth Beittel

A thoughtfully flown traffic pattern; a perfect holding pattern entry; one of those greaser landings rewarded with the simultaneous chirp-chirp of the main gear just as the sun sets on a calm summer evening; a quiet no-bounce wheel landing on turf. Don’t tell me there’s no art in aviation.

Thomas B. Haines

Art is neither a profession nor a hobby. Art is a Way of being. 

Frederick Franck

Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.

Michael Baughman
Paraphrasing Henry David Thoreau.

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Thomas Merton

I think all art is about control — the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.

Richard Avedon

A night flight, almost over, with the blinking beacon of the home field already in sight, and overhead stars and stars. A good time to not think; to sit quietly, doing nothing. To be here now. No present or future, no self, no coming or going, origin or destination. Lights, a roar, a dipping wing, the chirp of a tire: let go of it all, and it will all go smoothly by itself.

John Shade