The Inner Art of Airmanship

Week Two with Sam

A week after my introduction to Sam, I returned to the quiet country airport to get checked out in their Cessna 150. Had not flown a light trainer for several years, but before being an airline pilot I was a general aviation instructor at a small airport. And my first flying job gave me over 1,200 hands-on hours flying ‘traffic watch’ in Cessnas. I wanted to experience real flight again, to be free of airline schedules. And I really wanted to fly with Sam. To see what his secret was.

He was right ontime. Greets me like the warm sun bursting above the horizon on a crisp Spring dawn. And then cuts straight to asking what I would do if after takeoff at four hundred feet I had sudden and catastrophic engine failure.
“Let me think about that …”
“Not think. Do.” smiled Sam.
“Well. I would …. I would put the nose down, keep flying, look where to land, wind, terrain, obstacles, try a restart, call mayday on the radio, if I had time shut off the fuel, flare, and fly the plane till we stop moving.”
“Good,” says Sam, “Were you an instructor long?”

He had me pegged. The old routines were coming back. I was mentally returning to the C-150. Sam added that I could open the cockpit doors ajar before landing. In case the landing was violent, there would be less chance of being trapped in the (possibly now burning) airframe. Excellent procedure. But it brought clearly to mind that I could get very hurt in this little hop.

I think Sam saw my worry, “Are you not ready to die today?” he said.

“Well, I don’t want to. I think that as a pilot I work to prevent that.”

“Very good.” Said Sam. “For me, I have no attachment. I know that anytime I strap on an airplane, I might not come back. Best be ready so you are free to work the problem rather than worry about death on the way down.”
“You motivate a lot of students this way?”
“A few find me. With those I fly a great deal.”

I told him I had seen his students, and that I wanted to learn to fly like them. He said, “Their flying is nothing special.” I pressed that his students seemed perfect. That I wanted to learn the secret. He demurred. I pressed the point. He said, “We can only do the next thing. In flying, perfection means not perfect actions in a perfect world, but appropriate action in an imperfect world.”

C-150 Owners Manual

We reviewed the C-150 systems and procedures. We talked about the airport and the surrounding Wisconsin countryside. We got a weather briefing. Normal stuff. Or should be. I was impressed with his efficiency, but really wanted to just get going and add some fancy landing tricks to my cockpit collection.

Sam munched from a bag of carrots, watching me preflight, but as he strolled out to the airplane he leaped up on the strut and checked the fuel. I think he saw me try to hide my feelings, for I know he had seen me check the fuel.
“When flying, quietly and tactfully trust no one. Crosscheck each other. We’re a team: I will not let you down.”

Sam talks to me before engine start. Says he can tell almost all he needs to know about the pilot by the time we have taxied out and are ready to takeoff. But the owners insurance requires three landings, and so we will do three landings. And the real point of this is not for him to see what kind of a pilot I am, but for me to see what kind of a Cessna 150 pilot I am.

I fly pretty good. Steep turns easy for this jetliner captain. Slow flight gets my juices flowing, stalls the feel of the controls for landing. I fly three patterns, the last a simulated engine out. I love it! Working hard, but forcing the plane close to where I think it should be, landings not too bad. Then Sam takes the controls for one circuit. I am instantly humbled.

A simple childlike reading of the checklist. Almost no wasted movement. The airplane seems to fly itself. Up, turning, level, gentle, smooth. But not wandering, rather right on pattern altitude, now we are gliding, turning, the runway is already lined up, airspeed needle stuck on reference speed. Nose eases up, gentle puff of smoke, and the nose comes down on the runway like a delicate cherry topping off a sumptuous cream desert. The funny little pilot just sits there and gently pushes the carb heat off and puts the flap switch to ‘up’.

Perfect. I have got to learn more.

Puff smoke

“Sam,” I say, “You showed me up but didn’t teach me your tricks.”
“I do not know how to put it in words. I know only flying. Maybe I can not teach you. But you can practice here. If you really want.”

I stayed for another summer afternoon of watching and listening. Sam with students. “We don’t need jerks in aviation. Do not jerk the controls, move smartly but smoothly. Do what ever is required to be right on what you know is right. Do not accept being ten feet off altitude or two knots off airspeed or two degrees off heading. When you land, you either land on the centerline or you do not. Passengers land on the runway, pilots land on the centerline.”

“The goal is not to fly the plane, but rather to help the plane fly herself. In  flying, smoothly does not mean slowly; it means fluidly and purposefully. Just put the airplane where you want it expeditiously. Dream about flowing finesse, then think through how you will make all changes and corrections with soft control pressures. Not just the stick and rudder, but brakes and power should be just as gentle. Most inputs can be in expectation not in reaction. This is all energy management. Reach out and touch your universe, let it touch you.”

The pilots in the little Cessnas sometimes landed a little long, sometimes there was a bounce, sometimes someone went around to try again. There was no perfection, but no one cut into the pattern, no one exceeded safe limits. Some made curving descending turns from downwind onto base onto final and up into the flare that flowed like a pure silk dress.

“With repetition comes good habits, with good habits comes good airmanship, with good airmanship comes security, and with security comes enjoyment. Then joyful repetition starts mastery.”

“Every achievement is a bird on the wing. With practice you will became faster and better. Great pilots are faster than you can see, faster than you can think. Consider the major league baseball pitch. A fastball travels at about 95 miles per hour across the 60 feet and 6 inches of a regulation baseball diamond. That’s a grand total of four tenths of a second. If you count it out, you don’t even get to ‘Mississippi,’ by then the ball is already in the catcher’s mitt behind you. A good player can see the ball, adjust his swing, and hit the ball in that time. It seems impossible when measured in milliseconds. But it is done every day during the season. Practice piloting the same way hitters practice baseball, and eventually your speed and control in the cockpit will seem magical.”

Window view

“If you love flying, flying will love you back.”

“Body like an eagle, breath like the wind, mind like the sky.”

“The question is not what you look at, but what do you see.”

“The lapse of a moment can become the sorrow of a lifetime.”

“Be the best-prepared pilot. Use your situational awareness to know when to make the most timely adjustments. Analyze with skill and confidence. Your subconscious mind does not know the difference between fantasy and reality, so program it carefully with vivid visualizations of aeronautical excellence. If you’re not ready to do a go-around, you’re not ready for the approach.”

“Be master of mind, rather than be mastered by mind.”

Sam’s students talked of flying lessons without a Cessna. He would take students to a park and fly kites to feel the changing wind. He would take students on hikes, finding education in how much hard work it was to walk uphill. “This got me to understand, to really know and feel, the energy involved in altitude,” one told me. Another mentioned a ride in an open cockpit biplane, to just feel the air, to directly sense its mass, changing temperature and humidity. Sam said I can feel very comfortable in my jet drinking fresh coffee in shirt sleeves, but outside it is minus fifty six degrees centigrade, in air so thin the time of useful consciousness is measured in seconds. The pilot must understand the enormous energies of nature that is engaged in flight. We are small in a big sky.

“Birds fly so good because they practice every day.”

“We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn to surf.”

“A good pilot is not brave and daring — know, accept, and live with your capabilities and limitations. Connect the light to the molecule, the energy to the matter, fly the wing between the sun and the wind. Never push the river. It is easier to half-do a thousand things rather than being a master in one field. How do you land? In the flare you hold it off, hold it off, saying don’t land, don’t land, don’t land. Then the plane blends with the runway. You land best by not landing.”

Puff smoke

As the sun started to hide behind the trees, as the activity at the airport starts to wind down, I asked Sam again about his methods. I had seen the careful preflight, the extensive planning, and the smooth techniques. And I had also heard students talk of flying artfully and mindfully. So I wanted to know his secret, his method.

“No method.” He said.

“I don’t understand Sam.”

“Which do you think is the better carpenter: one who can only work with exactly the right tools, or one who can make do with whatever is on hand?”

I had no answers I understood, but I was hooked. I knew I would be back.

Learning the secret of flight from a bird was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician. After you know what to look for you see things that you did not notice when you did not know exactly what to look for.

Orville Wright

Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be expert in home-cosmography.

Henry David Thoreau

People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long course of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.

St. Augustine

We cannot live long enough to make all the mistakes ourselves…. We must learn from our own as well as others’ experiences.

Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give all our attention to the opportunity before us.

Mark van Doren

Being a good pilot is so much more than having lots of hours, flying different aircraft or being able to perform jaw-dropping aerobatics. Many people think I am an adrenaline junkie or a thrill seeker but I am really a very focussed risk manager. I firmly believe well considered and executed airmanship is the single best way to improve aviation safety.

Matt Hall

Master the art still more, fly harder and more often for your daily bread. Live all day in the air and carry flying into your dreams.

Frank D. Tredrey

Ordinary people focus outwardly; warriors train inwardly, making their inner world the project and the outer world the by-product. The warrior realizes that struggling against the circumstances of life is useless — the battlefield will present what it may. Rather than aiming to change their life, the warrior trains to change his or her mind — relaxing and opening to accept and move with what is. Once the dogfighting skills were there, this is what the F-15 was all about: operating without expectations or control in a three dimensional realm ruled by chaos, impermanence and death.

Mark J. Williams

Learning to fly … requires a willingness to participate in a self-revealing process that compares our ideal self to our actual self.

Rod Machado

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.

Rene Decartes

It is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storms … than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific ocean of one’s being alone.

Henry David Thoreau

One’s destination is never in a beyond of time or space but always here and now. If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.

Henry Miller

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust