The Inner Art of Airmanship

How I Found Inner Art of Airmanship

I always wanted to fly. As soon as I knew what a pilot was, I wanted to be one. My family lived under a busy airway between London and Europe, so I spent a childhood with head turned skyward, watching for airliners aloft: silent flashes of silver leading lines of white. There were dreams of wings, an imagination full of jet power and three-dimensional freedom. In just the first few years of life I had learnt how to crawl, walk, and then run — so why now not fly? Yet at age twenty-one I found myself working as a car salesman five dull days a week.

When at twenty-three I finally decided to become a pilot, I became a pilot. Borrowed some money and went to the airport. They took the money and put me in an airplane, step-by-step led me to a commercial pilot certificate. It was all as I had imagined, a pure passion, looking down on clouds, controlling a magic carpet ride. Soon I was flying traffic-watch in a Cessna, then teaching, and after several years I was a pilot for a small airline.

Eventually I became an airline captain. But the thrill was gone. Lost amid regulations and boredom, life became a hundred nagging responsibilities. I was buzzed awake by the four o’clock wake-up call for the first flight out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, or Dubuque, Iowa. Cockpit conversation revolved around union work-rules, the stock market and would the hotel bar be open when we landed. The dream of flight had dimmed to become driving a bus.


First airliner I flew as a captain.

My friends tried the normal things: new motorbikes, new homes, new wives. We then had to fly more just to pay the bills that had piled up in trying to cover our boredom with flight. In the continued search for new thrills I headed to a little airport in the country, where someone said you could do a first parachute jump for cheap.

The pocked country road descended and bent hard right. Trees in full green plumage arched overhead, touching, forming a short tunnel of an entrance. I burst out into full sunlight, blinding me as I looked for the jumping school. It did not look promising: a decrepit trailer-home, a pick-up truck rusting its way back to being an iron deposit, and then the first sign that this really was an airport, an old empty corrugated hangar. I drove on.

There were six or seven cars parked on rough gravel, so I fell in line and decided to take a stroll. Relief loosened my stride as somewhere above I heard the chugging of a 100-horsepower Continental O-200-A engine. Memories I forgot I had suddenly became clear, the way it feels when you walk into your old High School. That engine must be attached to a Cessna 150 trainer. Being a pilot, I stopped walking and looked up. There it was, right there, a red and blue high-wing Cessna 150 bouncing around the traffic pattern. It looked great. That’s when I first met Sam. He was next to me, looking up and smiling.

“Want to fly?” he said.
“Umm, no, I, I already got a license.” Didn’t want to appear the big-shot airline pilot to this old enthusiastic general aviation booster. He was short, trim, and beaming with pride as he told me that the Cessna was being flown by a student. His student. On her first solo flight. Now we looked up in wonder together. He whispered, “She’s on her own, up in the garden of the Gods.”

The O-200-A’s throttle, mixture, and carburetor-heat controls were doubtless covered in sweat. The student was becoming a pilot, alone in the sky. Ten hours of flight instruction and now she was airborne as pilot-in-command, beyond the immediate help of this little old man. I hurried to the single short runway to witness her first landing. Sam prodded my flying background with gentle questions, making me feel important, and quickly touching on some shared flying experiences. He seemed to knew his way around airplanes.

The Cessna was on final approach. While the normal student landing looks like a drunk duck walking on a frozen lake, today the beat-up tin-can trainer seemed like a shiny new Boeing landing in a slow-motion dream. There was no wobbling. There was no hesitation. There was nothing extra, nothing not needed. Crab into the gentle crosswind, now a touch of rudder and the upwind wing comes down. The nose lifts up before the runway, the airplane so slow it appears to stop in the air, then the chirp of the stall detector right before the squeak of the tires. First the upwind, then the downwind, now the nose gear gently kisses the concrete.


Cessna 150.

I want to land like that. It looks so simple. Angels carrying feathers could not have landed smoother. Sam walked away to talk with his student, a few words in the cockpit before she takes off again, joining the sky she so obviously belongs in. Although having a good instructor helps a lot, in just a few minutes I had a strong impression of him as poised, focused, disciplined, yet patient. Still, must be nice for him to have such an amazing student.

The airport consisted of a 2,500 by 40 feet paved runway with grass at each end, a bumpy beat-up parallel taxiway, fueling spots for two aircraft, a set of hangars with a FBO office by the fueling pad, plus a few sets of ‘T’ hangars alongside. Several shiny winged playthings were visible through opened doors: a beautiful C-210 and a homebuilt aerobatic two-seater. On tie-down spots between the taxiway and the road was a collection of old Pipers and Cessnas. Some had long grass growing up around them; a few others had new ropes and trimmed grass. Signs of life.

There was no sky-diving school, so I joined the half-dozen or so folks lazing on wooden picnic tables outside the office. The solo student would be landing again soon. The warm sun and the smell of leaded av-gas played with my senses. A kid with red hair and a torn T-shirt discussed the mysteries of the downwind turn with a middle-aged fat guy. I slowly realized the only reason these people were here was love of flight.

The student did it again. Perfect approach, and landing, and roll out. The picnic table band of brothers were transfixed. Wanting to join the group, share the moment, I said to the fat guy, “Wish I had students like that when I instructed.”
He replied, “She‘s nothing special.”
“What? Come on, give the girl a break: she is doing great,” I said.
A pudgy finger (complete with gold pinkie ring) pointed as she taxied back for take-off. “See how she has the flight controls positioned into the quartering tailwind just right. Not dragging on the brakes. Looking around for other traffic. Running a cockpit flow then consulting the checklist.”
“Well don’t look at my ring, don’t look at Trudy, but wonder who taught her how to do all that. Who taught her to be a pilot. What is really special here?”

Sam. The little guy with the sparking blue eyes.

The locals were in love with their instructor.

Turned out that Sam the Cessna instructor knew a lot about flying. He was a skilful sailor of the sky. He insisted that he couldn’t teach people to be pilots — yet said anyone can learn to be a master of the wild blue yonder. This site is the start of my attempt to capture that magic. Inner art of airmanship isn’t about having an error-free flight, but about having right mind and right action. It’s about discipline beyond numbers, flowing flight, and the safety warrior for whom the wing becomes a Samurai sword. It’s about all the work that results in effortless elegance.

I hope you enjoy this journey inward. What do you have to lose but bad habits?


No matter how important a man at sea may consider himself, unless he is fundamentally worthy the sea will some day find him out.

Felix Riesenberg

If you deliberately set out to be less than you are capable of becoming, you will be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life.

Abraham Maslow

Nature understands no jesting. She is always true, always serious, always severe. She is always right and the errors are always those of man. She despises the man incapable of appreciating her, and only to the apt, the pure and the true does she reveal her secrets.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than 50 preaching it.

Knute Rockne

Although I have flown hundreds of times, probably with a hundred pilots, I have never experienced that sense of the poetry of motion which [Gustav] Hamel imparted to those who were privileged to fly with him. It was like the most perfect skater on the rink, but the skating was through three dimensions, and all the curves and changes were faultless …. Circling downwards so gently, so quietly, so smoothly, in such true harmony with the element in which he moved, that one would have believed that one wing-tip was fastened to a pivot. As for the grim force of gravity, it was his slave. In all his flying there was no sense of struggle with difficulties, or effort at a complicated feat; everything happened as if it could never have happened in any other way. It seemed as easy as pouring water out of a jug.

Sir Winston Churchill

He moves not through distance, but through the ranges of satisfaction that come from hauling himself up into the air with complete and utter control; from knowing himself and knowing his airplane so well that he can come somewhere close to touching, in his own special and solitary way, that thing that is called perfection.

Richard Bach

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.  At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred.  Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.

Ernest Hemingway

Archery, fencing, spear fighting, all the martial arts, tea ceremony, flower arranging … in all of these, correct breathing, correct balance, and correct stillness help to remake the individual.  The basic aim is always the same: by tirelessly practicing a given skill, the student finally sheds the ego with its fears, worldly ambitions, and reliance on objective scrutiny — sheds it so completely that he becomes the instrument of a deeper power, from which mastery falls instinctively, without further effort on his part, like a ripe fruit.

Karlfried Graf Dürckheim

After three hundred, a thousand, or three thousand hours in the air, there’s still plenty you can learn. Neat, firm turns. Smooth execution and recovery. Accurate approaching without side-slipping. Consistent gliding and turning speeds. Gentle use of the engine. Elimination of all jerky and violent manoeuvres. Gradually you’ll get nearer to the secret, the heart, the rhythm of this flying game. There’s rhythm in everything done superlatively well. Cricket strokes, dancing, hurdling, golf, prose, poetry, music, and flying itself.

Frank D. Tredrey

I believe most people are aware of periods in their lives when they seem to be ‘in grace’ and other periods when they feel ‘out of grace,’ even though they may use different words to describe these states. In the first happy condition, one seems to carry all one’s tasks before one lightly, as if borne along on a great tide; and in the opposite state one can hardly tie a shoe-string. It is true that a large part of life consists in learning a technique of tying the shoe-string, whether one is in grace or not. But there are techniques of living too; there are even techniques in the search for grace. And techniques can be cultivated. I have learned by some experience, by many examples, and by the writings of countless others before me, also occupied in the search, that certain environments, certain modes of life, certain rules of conduct are more conducive to inner and outer harmony than others. There are, in fact, certain roads that one may follow. Simplification of life is one of them.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry