The Inner Art of Airmanship

Mindset Seven: Up Down, Left Right, Yin Yang

Seen from the cockpit, flight controls work the same when the plane is inverted as they do in upright flight. So we must carefully define what up and down mean. In flying we must balance up and down, the technical and the artistic, left and right brain, System 1 and System 2, matter and spirit, Yin and Yang.

Charles Lindbergh wrote that aviation combined all the elements he loved: “Science, freedom, beauty, adventure.” As pilots we must be at least proficient in all the elements of flight. The air combat maneuvering 'ace of the base' can screw up the preflight. The best stick and rudder pilot can fly into a thunderstorm windshear so violent that no plane can recover from it. The best CRM facilitator at the schoolhouse may not be able to handle an unexpected V1 cut. The complete pilot must master many disciplines. This variety is one of the wonderful things about flying. When you get tired of studying the operating handbook, take a look at a weather video. When you get sick of regulations, think about CRM. Bringing all the aspects of flight together in harmony is what makes piloting an art.

It is important to understand that pulling back on the yoke does not make the airplane go up. For one, you must have enough energy to climb. For two, you could exceed the critical angle of attack and stall the wing, which will tend to make the airplane go down. And for three, you understand that if you pull back on the stick the nose (and thus the airplane) will dive towards the ground — if you are inverted (that’s upside down for the aerobatic inhibited).

The flight controls move air around the airplane and cause the airplane to move relative to the airmass. Pulling back on the stick tends to bring the nose up relative to the airmass. What happens to your altitude depends on your energy state and attitude. Think nose up. Nose down. If you have flown two-string stunt kites or radio-control model aircraft you understand the my-left/your-right mirror-image world we are talking of here. If you have the right frame of reference you will not get confused in aerobatic maneuvers. Or when your Cessna gets tipped upside down by B-757 wake turbulence.

While frames of reference are important for flying aerobatics — and the rigorously logical mind can take Einstein’s thought experiment of changing Newtonian frames of reference to get the special theory of relativity — the duality of up and down has more meanings for us.

Western thought sets us up for thinking one or the other. Opposing opposites. Left or Right. Body or Mind. However, it does not have to be this way. Eastern thought is not set on defining extreme ends, but more interested in the interaction and the center. Opposites less oppose each other as they define the element. Rather than the zero to redline world, it is the 360 degrees world, where looping around brings us back to the same place.

To describe direction we need north and south. To describe length we need long and short. In Chinese and Japanese you ask for the 'much-little' rather than ask for price. The polarities are diagrammed on the T'ai Chi (or 'Great Ultimate') symbol, which is what we know in the West as the Yin/Yang circle. The black and white becoming less and greater in a curve, with a dot of the other at the center of each extreme.

Yin Yang

Yin is black: the Moon, the yielding, the dark, or the feminine. Yang is white: the sun, the forceful, the light, or the masculine. Originally the word yin designated the northern slope of a mountain, that being the obscured side and was further associated with a cloudy sky. Yang meant the mountain slope facing the sun and so it was associated with sunny brightness. Bruce Lee wrote that, “The common mistake of most martial artists is to identify these two forces and Yin and Yang, as dualistic (thus the so-called soft style and the firm style). But Yin/Yang is one inseparable force of one unceasing interplay of movement. They are conceived of as essentially one, or as two coexisting forces of one indivisible whole.” (Little, 1996.)

One of the most important things about Yin and Yang is their representation of the changeless change. The snaking curve between them is dynamic, the unity and interdependency are flowing like a river, blowing like the wind. In reality things are wholes and cannot be separated into two parts by the knife of western rational thought. We must learn to accept and use the whole of things, and not try to use an extreme as leverage. Instead of opposing the natural patterns of the universe, it is far more productive to learn to flow and blend with them.

Every ground school teaches that the four forces must be in balance for level unaccelerated flight. We can gently blend the forces to make the plane do what we want. Control stick pressures are at the center of the diagram, in the middle of the river. There will be constant change. So use your trim. Blend soft and gentle control pressures with powerful and direct control movements.

Use the forces of the universe rather than fight them. Sam talked about being a kid on a playground swing. You get the biggest swings when you are in harmony with the swing, anything but going with the momentum of the swing is wasted effort. The biggest swings come with gentle pumping at the right time, we are not so much swinging as being swung. You can explain this by producing lots of equations involving impedance and resonant frequencies, but the reality is so simple every kid can feel it.

Put the gear down just before glideslope intercept, and the plane will start down on its own. Then you need just one trim change, rather than trimming for the gear, starting down the glideslope, and then trimming again. Plan ahead to be smooth. Sam understood how a new student could not see the wind, and may have thought him a little nuts for seeing it with such conviction. But soon a pilot watches the ripples on the lake, notices the waves of the trees, feels the drift on downwind, and starts to see the wind. Then rather than turning 90 degrees from base to final, the master pilot smoothly makes one turn, more or less than the square 90 to allow for the wind correction on final. Then only small adjustments are needed. Seeing and blending, rather than blind and fighting. It is hard to push water, it is better to guide its flow. Some flying lessons start on a swing set.

We want to yield with the universe rather than being inflexible. There is as much power on each side of the T'ai Chi. In air combat, if you think in one dimension, you will never understand how the bad guy got on your tail. You must use all of left and right, up and down. Sam used to tell how he would pick off new fighter pilots: “just know they will try to immediately engage you when they see you. They are young Marines and that is always their first instinct.” With some gentle yielding and a graceful curve, he said he could eventually come around to their six o'clock position and fire away. Old fox against young bulls.

On a rainy Wisconsin day, cold still at the start of July, I asked Sam Hamilton his thoughts on the pitch or power debate. Which controls airspeed? He joked that anyone who thought that pitch controls airspeed has not flown an airplane with a big enough engine. He then asked the pitch vs. power question for a glider. It’s a question of western thought using extremes, against feeling the interaction at the center. Fly a glider, ride a rocket, then enjoy being in the center with pitch and power and play.

Thomas Fakoussa was a Lufthansa pilot and flight instructor. He now conducts CRM and psychological training throughout Europe. He has written that:

Pilot error remains the primary addition to accident statistics. What was overlooked by the industry and the pilots? Could it be that standard pilot training is still not taking into consideration the root cause of all accidents? Is there possibly a solution to be found outside the horizon of aviation, in psychology and neurology perhaps? Could a possible answer be found somewhere between these three fields? (Fakoussa, 1999.)

Sam believed in this. He knew that being a master pilot involved the whole person — hands, head and heart.

Indeed, if we continue to find balance and seek wholeness — to examine up and down, left and right — we come upon something else interesting. One way the human brain is divided is into two sides. Left and right. The left/right brain idea is not as simple as many pop-psychology books would have you believe, but there are differences in the separated sides. It really is divided at a meaningful physical level, with each hemisphere developing somewhat separate modes of organizing and processing information, connected together by the massive corpus callosum bridge of nerve tissue. The left hemisphere tends to excel in verbal, linear, rational, and logical tasks. Think classic Western thought. The right hemisphere tends to excel in imagery, spatial, metaphorical, and intuitive tasks. Think Eastern mysticism. The left hemisphere sequentially processes a checklist. The right hemisphere simultaneously feels the wind and sees the approach to landing.

Flying, with its huge mix of technical detail and spatial reasoning, of human interaction and mechanical interplay, requires that we learn and think with both sides of our brain. I know we can not exercise each side of the brain separately like we can isolate the triceps or the deltoids in the gym’s weight room. But consider Inner Flying as right hemisphere whereas the flight plan is left hemisphere. Visualization exercises — flying the chair — strengthen mental and physical links between the two hemispheres. Allow the spatial right side of your brain to see the flight path relative to the flow of the wind, while the left brain calculates the fuel at the next waypoint. Exercise the right side, let it play the inner game, trust it, it’s OK; the left side of your brain will still be able to do its vital work. Practice like this may well make the corpus callosum work better, making you a more complete person. Interestingly, showing how physically real this mind game stuff is, brain scans have shown the corpus callosum to be significantly larger in musicians than non-musicians (Levitin, 2006). George Moffat won the Glider World Championships in 1970 and 1974, as well as winning five U.S. National titles, and when asked to comment about his inner game he said, “I would say the trick is in handling your several minds at once.”

An artist who is successful painting in oils has studied (among other things) perspective and the chemistry of paints and thinner. They have to follow a logical sequence of drafting and coloring and completing. All left hemisphere stuff. But what makes it art is the right hemisphere seeing the scene and letting the brush paint a picture. The musician has to understand the technicalities of scales and instrument technique as well as feeling the mood of a piece or being able to dream and compose a brand new melody. Bringing all this together as a harmonious whole is what makes it art. Bringing it all together in the cockpit makes flying an art.

Another way the brain is divided into two is the 'higher' functions of the cerebral cortex and the 'lower' functions of a part of the brain that really is lower, older, and more closely connected to the body called the cerebellum. The cerebellum manages all motor activity that we have 'over-learned.' These are activities so well trained and practiced that they no longer need conscious attention. Walking, talking, holding the wings level and reciting memory items are all handled by the cerebellum. The cerebral cortex is our conscious mind, the reasoning calculating higher functions of the brain. It figures retirement plans, learns new skills and flightplans for the best altitude considering the winds aloft, weather and terrain.

We must balance what we control consciously with the cerebral cortex and what we delegate to the cerebellum. We need both, in harmony. We can improve the coordination by understanding how they interact. The cerebellum learns to handle coordinated motor activities by mimicking the electrical patterns that occur in the cerebral cortex as you learn to serve a tennis ball or do an aileron roll. Once you’ve learned the procedure thoroughly, the cerebral cortex delegates the task to the cerebellum, which usually handles it just fine from here on out. The trouble starts when you become anxious about your performance, such as at a critical point in a tennis match or doing the roll at a lower altitude. Under anxiety, the cerebral cortex tries to take charge of the activity, not trusting the cerebellum to carry it out expertly. At this instant of conflict between the cerebrum and the cerebellum we lose the grace of the cerebellum and it’s a slow fumbling cerebral cortex in control. The tennis ball is outside the court, the aileron roll sucks.

By trusting the cerebellum we can execute with grace and power, in the zone, with effortless excellence. That is, of course, if the training was right and the practice leading to 'over-learning' complete. We must know when to let go. We must also know when to reason things out with conscious effort. We trust the frontal cortex to calculate fuel burns, not some gut instinct that we’'' have enough gas to make our destination. How do we balance this up and down brain? Meditation helps, quieting the noisy 'monkey mind' so we can get into the zone.

Another way this dichotomy of mind has been described is as System 1 (the fast automatic holistic self) and System 2 (the slow rule-based analytic self). This is the 'dual process theory' and was originally described by the pioneering American psychologist William James as associative (what is now seen as implicit unconscious processes) and true reasoning (now described as explicit conscious processes). This is more than motor skills residing in the cerebellum, it is a whole level of brain computation beyond rational thought. There has been much scientific research into dual process theory (see Stanovich & West, 2000 or Evans & Stanovich, 2013 for reviews), with several studies showing that for some complex tasks trusting System 1 results in the best decisions. While most of these are emotional choices like a picking a spouse or a work of art, a more concrete example is choosing an apartment based on detailed data (Dijksterhuis, 2004). A review of decision making in the respected journal Perspectives on Psychological Science found that recent decades have delivered examples in abundance for the dual process theory but called for more research on strategies for improving decisions by understanding when to best use our System 1 or System 2 modes (Milkman, Clugh & Bazerman, 2009).

System 1 is intuitative, and fast. It evolved early and is found in the older, more central parts of the brain. It is bottom-up processing, instincts and trained responses working automatically. System 2 is reflective, and slow. It evolved later, only really in humans, and is found in the newer higher layers of the frontal cortex in the brain. It is top-down processing, complex cognitive decision making. Rather than 1 and 2, for clarity I’ll refer to them as bottom-up (fast) and top-down (slow) modes.

One thing we have learnt is that the really remarkable power of unconscious bottom-up only comes with practice and expertise. If you know very little about a subject, the first guess may be as good as it gets for you. But experts in a subject have even more power in the unconscious bottom-up, and when given a little processing time in the background of our conscious it has been shown to result in better decisions. In 2009 — in the first experiments to investigate the relationship between expertise and conscious verses unconscious thought — researchers had 250 undergraduate students at the University of Amsterdam predict the results of soccer matches between the most popular Dutch league teams. The students who knew little about soccer more correctly predicted the actual results (as a win/draw/loss) when told to choose immediately, compared to when they were given an additional two minutes to think about the upcoming matches (or given a two-minute task doing something else and then asked for a prediction). That’s no real surprise. What was very cool was that among the knowledgeable soccer fans, two minutes of  unconscious thinking (while doing the other un-related task) significantly increased their performance compared to two minutes of conscious consideration. That is, two minutes thinking about the games was less productive than two minutes of background unconscious processing! (Dijksterhuis, Bos, Leij & van Baaren, 2009). In fact, the experts given more time to let the mysterious System 1 do its unexplainable work predicted the right result more than 50% of the time — the only group to do so good! These results are shown in the graph below:

Dijksterhuis 2009

The effect was reproduced with over 100 undergraduates who had to predict the results of five randomly chosen World Cup soccer matches, as well as estimating team positions in the world ranking list. Again it was seen that for non-experts the immediate response was the best, and for experts the unconscious condition of two minutes doing some other distracting task (giving bottom-up some time to work) gave the best results. The researchers concluded that among experts, unconscious thought leads to better decisions the either conscious thought or quick, immediate guess. So when you see some expert mulling a situation, maybe staring into the distance or fiddling with a fingernail, this may be giving the unexplainable bottom-up time to work. When an emergency happens in the cockpit, old-timer airline pilots say you should “cancel the bell” (silence the alarm) and then 'wind your watch'. They may have been onto something. Some conditions are best handled by giving our unconscious expert skills some time to work.

As pilots we have to find our own balance between conscious thinking and unconscious contemplation.

We check the flight plan using top-down, but we look at the thunderstorm using bottom-up. On downwind we do checklists, we plan the base turn and look for other traffic. Cerebral cortex is in control, while the cerebellum is holding altitude. In the flare, you have to let the cerebellum have a lot more control. But still we keep enough conscious oversight so that we can decide to do a go-around for whatever reason at anytime. There is artistry in this balancing act.

At a higher level, airmanship is also a balancing of many elements. Its multi-dimensional character can be traced back to Aristotle’s intellectual virtue of phronesis. While techne was the know-how, craft and art of doing something; phronesis was above techne, it was simultaneously the ability to balance changing conditions and determine the appropriate action. Phronesis is what directs us to select the appropriate techne from our toolkit. Phronesis is a situational process, something that unfolds over time within constantly changing contexts. It is flexible,  experience-based, action-oriented, and ultimately concerned with the practicalities of right and wrong results. A textbook describes it this way:

Phronesis is an umbrella cognitive capacity that coordinates judgment, understanding, and insight to result in effective action. A capacity acquired through experience, phronesis helps practitioners to ask penetrating questions, provide insight into the implications of actions and events, and to advise appropriate courses of action. (Halverson, 2002.)

To practice phronesis, to exercise airmanship, we must multi-task. We must let bottom-up and system 2 both work. We must question assumptions about weather, fuel, aircraft systems. We must understand the implications of our airbourne actions. And we must not just think, we must act.

There are other ways our brain is not one uniform processor, but is split into many systems. Sigmund Freud formalized the fundamental concepts of the conscious and subconscious mind. Carl Jung added introversion versus extraversion and the collective unconscious. Modern researchers believe there are many modes of operation in the brain, mirroring Maslow’s pyramid of needs, from the seemingly automatic to the almost mystical. Deeper than the cerebellum are biochemical and neurological processes, down the spine to the molecular level of thinking in the body. Higher than conscious thought is the fully actualized self, connecting with the cosmos in ways we can not yet understand.

We need all the traditional stick and rudder pilot skills. But we also need fuller understanding of psychology, personality and CRM techniques. And we need to know that visualization and diligent practice will program neuron connections in the cerebellum. The master pilot must manage the power of the whole brain, left and right, upper and lower, outer and inner. Sometimes trusting the ‘seat of the pants,' sometimes trusting what seems like a mystical force of the universe. All the time the conscious mind monitors, sometimes letting go, sometimes stepping in and taking charge. Sometimes letting the landing happen, sometimes seeing the windshear and deciding on a go-around.

If we want to learn the art of flying, we must use all of ourselves. The master pilot finds harmony and balance between not just up and down, left and right, pitch and power, but also between mechanical and human, technical and artistic. There is huge power available if you can touch self 1 and self 2, feminine and masculine energies, matter and spirit, Yin and Yang, joy and pain, sunshine and rain. The complete pilot blends conscious and unconscious to become a fully actualized psychobiological being flying between earth and sky. You join the duality of nature by making great landings.

Sword and mind must be united. Technique by itself is insufficient, and spirit alone is not enough.

Yamada Jirokichi

After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.

Albert Einstein

An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.

Charles Bukowski

There are all kinds of ways to get through a checkride. There’s the hard way, where you’re constantly searching for the pitch and power settings to make this baby behave, constantly fighting the airplane. And then there’s the easy way, where you know the tips and techniques that make the airplane an extension of your body, where you become one with the airplane.

George Nolly

A driver’s relationship with his car is something very sensitive. You must be feeling exactly what the care is feeling and constantly adapt yourself to the way the car is. It is like the car is an extension of your body.

Emerson Fittipaldi

Flying combines the technical and the holistic aspects of life. It is an activity that forces us to put together and to relate many parts of our lives that didn’t seem related before, along with a technical understanding of what is physically happening to the airplane. That’s why flying can be so beautiful. We get a grand view of the universe at the same time that we get a closer look at its parts.

Harry Bauer

Modern equipment and methods do not replace basic seamanship skills, they are simply aids — albeit very good ones.

Pete Goss

Try not not to localize the mind anywhere, but let it fill up the whole body, let it flow throughout the totality of your being.  When this happens you use the hands where they are needed, you use the legs or the eyes where they are needed, and no time or energy will go to waste.

Takuan Soho

The airplane is always talking to you, be it the vibration, a smell, a sound—I pay close attention to them all. You have to listen, to feel your aircraft.

Kevin LaRosa II

A dojo is a miniature cosmos where we make contact with ourselves — our fears, anxieties, reactions, and habits. It is an arena of confined conflict where we confront an opponent who is not an opponent but rather a partner engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully. It is a place where we can learn a great deal in a short time about who we are and how we react in the world.

Joe Hyams

The cockpit was my office. It was a place where I experienced many emotions and learned many lessons. It was a place of work, but also a keeper of dreams. It was a place of deadly serious encounters, yet there I discovered much about life. I learned about joy and sorrow, pride and humility, fear and overcoming fear. I saw much from that office that most people would never see. At times it terrified me, yet I could always feel at home there. It was my place, at that time in space, and the jet was mine for those moments. Though it was a place where I could quickly die, the cockpit was a place where I truly lived.

Brian Shul

When you fly fairly high-performance jets it’s demanding in a way that’s exciting when you do it well, so you feel that you’ve accomplished something extremely useful and extremely challenging — that’s a big part of it. The other part of it is just the physical sensation of flying that’s always attractive. So in that sense you are working with both sides of your brain. There’s a part of it which is highly technical, very demanding and requires precision and careful thinking, then there’s the other part which is a sort of sensual part — like dancing.

Sidney Pollack

To be completely honest with oneself is the very best effort a human being can make.

Sigmund Freud

One is always seeking the touchstone that will dissolve one’s deficiencies as a person and as a craftsman. And one is always bumping up against the fact that there is none except hard work, concentration, and continued application.

Paul Gallico

You may train for a long, long time, but if you merely move your hands and feet and jump up and down like a puppet, learning karate is not very different from leaning to dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter; you will have failed to grasp the quintessence of karate-do

Gichin Funakoshi

I fly bare bones routinely, relying on sight and sound and feel in favor of expensive, complex, and distracting gizmos.

Dale Masters

It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that, beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Certain contents issue from a psyche that is more complete than consciousness. They often contain a superior analysis or insight or knowledge which consciousness has not been able to produce. We have a suitable word for such occurrences — intuition.

Carl Jung

I still believe in Couper, Lasne or Détroyat, for whom an airplane in not merely a collection of parameters, but an organism that you examine. They land; they discreetly take a look around the plane. With the tips of their fingers they touch the fuselage and pat the wing. They do not calculate, they meditate. Then they turn to the engineer and simply say: “The fixed surface must be shortened.”
I admire science, but I also admire wisdom.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I ripped the plane through four and five G’s, climbing, descending, rolling, and falling through the hard air, switching blue sky for green earth a dozen times a minute as the smooth beauty of the whirling world filled me with wonder and joy. It didn’t feel as if I flew the plane. It felt as if I’d become the plane; the wingtips had nerves.

Laurence Gonzales

If a man wants to be of the greatest possible value to his fellow-creatures, let him begin the long, solitary task of perfecting himself.

Robertson Davies

He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.

Tao Te Ching

It is the individual who knows how little he knows about himself who stands a reasonable chance of finding out something about himself before he dies.

S. I. Hayakawa

Perhaps others can do it the first time; I must do it ten times; perhaps others can do it the tenth time; I must do it a thousand times. But he who really has the perseverance to go this way — be he foolish, he will become clearheaded; be he weak, he will become strong.


Think with the whole body.

Taisen Deshimaru

A man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once.


From the principle which is called the Tao,
the sky, the earth, and creativity are one,
the sky is clear, the earth is firm,
and the spirit of the inner world is full.

Tao Te Ching
Chapter 39, Stan Rosenthal translation.