> Last Flight with Sam

The Inner Art of Airmanship

My Last Flight with Sam

I had no idea this would be the last time I saw Sam Hamilton. However we were well aware that this was not an ordinary time. It was the middle of September, 2001, a few days after all civilian flying stopped in the United States.

I'd been at home since the eleventh in a dazed state. I held close to my girlfriend, both of us wondering what the future of the airline business would be. At the time we lived under the approach path for runway 7R at Milwaukee's Mitchell International, but there had been no jet noise for there had been no traffic in days. The silence was unsettling, broken only by the occasional military C-130 Hercules transport flying overhead. I headed out to the small country airport to see Sam.


We were alone in the airport lounge. The silence here was heartbreaking. No piston engines in the pattern, no students on the radio, no activity on the ramp or in the hangar. Nothing. The heart of this little airport had been ripped out, the flying of little airplanes for fun had been suddenly outlawed. No looking down at sunsets, no learning new skills, and no inner games or aerial art. I was sad.

Sam looked older. He remarked that the power of the wing, like a sword swung fast enough, is incredible. The power of a few airplanes was perverted by people pretending to be pilots. He had seen accidents in the military, and well know the penalties for failures on the flight deck, but was disturbed to see the amount of damage done on the ground. We agreed that you never know when your last flight may be, and to always, always — on every flight — take the time to drink in the sheer wonder and amazement of being in the sky. Always always work to make this a great fight, aspire to another level of aeronautical excellence.

He forced onto me his collection of quote cards. It was a huge cardboard box held together with safety wire and aluminum tape. Inside on 3 by 5 inch cards were hundreds of quotations, each with several little holes near the top where he would pin them onto the bulletin board over the sectional chart. Sam changed the worn cards on a seemingly random basis. On some of the backs were notes, references or lists of things to research. He said he had boxes of hand-written flash cards with limitations and memory items for all the airplanes he had ever flown, but the quotes and the Cessna 150 box were the only ones he kept at the airport. Sam knew I'd been copying the ones he pinned up onto my laptop computer, and now wanted me to have them all. I said I could not take these, he said had many more at home. Henry David Thoreau copied quotations by hand, ending up with five or six thousand pages of notes, so Sam said the box was of no great import, just a small peek into living a higher life.

Sam said he was thinking of taking a break from powered flight instruction and again flying a single-seat glider, sailing in the sky rather than powering around the pattern. "Getting back to the fundamentals of the planet," he called it. For good soaring he'd have to move from Wisconsin.

A student came in. It was time for his scheduled lesson and although he know all flying was cancelled, he came anyway for ground instruction and to see Sam. The three of us talked for a while in the furry armchairs surrounded by years of coffee-stained aviation magazines. Flap settings for gusty days, clearing turns, carburetor heat. The student asked about no-mind and situational awareness. How was the mind still while flying when it had to been constantly updating the 'Big Picture' by checking the weather, the engine condition, the fuel state, the flight plan progress, scanning for other traffic, and on and on.

"Ah, you maybe catch me talking both extremes!" said Sam. "Remember the inner world is vast and filled with many games. We have one head, only six inches between the ears, but there is room for many processes. We must learn to still the monkey mind, let the conscious step aside so our hands and eyes and ears and hearts can fly. Build strong habit patterns, accept whatever may happen and take the right action. By standing aside, the conscious mind is now free to review the big picture, free to build situational awareness. Here too, for us to see things as they are, we must take off our judgmental glasses. Look with the eyes of a child, for pure awareness allows us to just observe and just report and just act. Mushin no-mind is remaining calm and at ease in any situation, while Zanzshin situational awareness is knowing your environment and what actions are possible."

"Words will not let you understand this. Just as talking about water will not make you wet. Traverse and transcend, yaw string to Mach meter. Let us visualize steep turns, stalls and landings. Imagine feeling the gentle control pressures. Then we will be ready for when we can fly again."

Sam had come to believe more and more in the power of visualization exercises. Long, detailed, powerful mental rehearsals of every procedure and every maneuver seemed to use the same brain connections as doing the maneuver in the aircraft. Mirror neurons they call them now in neuroscience journals. The student and Sam were soon in a briefing room, talking about the sound the wind makes close to the stall, how the yoke of the C-152 becomes loose and sloppy, the hint of the start of the stall warning horn. He did visualization almost to the point of self-hypnosis during every brief. It was not an intolerably hard skill to learn, but many students resisted. It works best when you make pictures in your head that are detailed and vivid. Visualization works because for lots of states of consciousness the brain can't discern between an event vividly imagined and the real event. Exactly the same things are happening in exactly the same parts of the brain. Sam was building habit patterns, building neuron connections, training for excellence.

After the student left, Sam and I talked again. I asked him again about flying a perfect flight. I knew that measured most ways such a thing will never happen, but having a perfect attitude and not messing up too bad is a pretty good goal. Sam said that in all the most interesting, most absorbing, human activates we experience plenty of what could be called failures, and we almost certainly will fall far short of perfection. Baseball batters make outs more than they get hits. Basketball players normally have shooting percentages under 50%. And how often do champion golfers get a hole-in-one? But this constant falling short creates the eternal challenge to do better. If you think it was a perfect flight, your competition standards are way too low. Each new flight, each new event within the flight, each action of the event, is a fresh exhilarating opportunity to experience a higher level of success, and maybe just maybe a moment of perfection. I wrote this down as Sam said it, "flying better is motivation derived from possibility."

Talking with Sam about what we've noticed about the really good pilots we've flown with, we agreed the greats all seem comfortable in the cockpit, relaxed in the sky. What else could I do to be like that? "Go get some instruction in whatever it is that scares you," said Sam. Spend some painful time learning what you are weak on, what in your deepest, most private thoughts you know is your weakest aeronautical link. This will give you the real confidence you need to be comfortable. You will stand a chance of being safe in an unsafe place.


Tired of just talk, Sam declared he was going to do some real flying. The airport owner and I looked at each other nervously, worried Sam would ignore the closed airspace rules and end up being tailed by an F-16. Sam laughed at us. He'd bought a kite that morning. He was going to break some regulations, but since there were no airplanes he decided it was OK to fly a kite at the airport.

Soon we were enthralled with the gorgeous acrobatic flying of a cheap two-line kite. He let me play, — don't grip so hard, relax, feel the wind ebb and flow. Feel how powerful the pull is on such a small simple wing. — He was teaching me the wind, not from reading or looking or thinking, but by directly feeling it. Closer to the wind than a glider or ultralight pilot. I did multiple loops. I climbed straight up. I did a vertical dive and pulled out at less than two feet above the runway. It was a blast.

By direct sensing in my hands and arms I felt how crisp the turning performance was with the kite in the center of the wind. But maneuver the kite more to the left or right, away from the wind blowing over the surfaces, the turns become slower and sloppier. The controls feel less sure, somewhat more spongy. This is part of that special — seat-of-the-pants — feel. It is flying.

By trying to fly the kite out of the wind, away from the center, it was like a wing stalling as I reached an invisible limit. The lines sagged and I lost most control. Steering back into the wind and I am flying again. I did this again and again. Playing with wing and wind. Soon the control lines seemed to disappear, my mind is directly with the kite, I am receiving a learning directly into hands and brain and heart that no aerodynamics textbook could teach me. I am one with the wing. Sam said an inner game being played without me knowing was the deactivation of the parietal lobe of my brain. Apparently it's the part of the brain that handles the sense of self, the three-dimensional body space and its orientation in space. By letting go of the mindless chatter, by being in the zone, flowing with the feeling, I was the kite, alive in the sky. As my boundaries dissolve, as I meld with the wind, Sam said it feels exactly the way the brain behaves during transcendental meditation. I told Sam I just liked flying a kite and getting good at it. Bold but smooth.

I had to get back home. I handed the handles back to Sam. He wanted to play with the kite, feel the play of the wind and the wing again. He wanted to resonate with the harmonies of the universe. He said we'd fly airplanes again soon.

That was the last time I saw Sam. After a real busy two months flying out of the Caribbean in November and December, I was paid to sit at home for the whole of January 2002, awaiting training in a smaller airplane as American Eagle downsized post 9/11. This was when I started placing my notes into an online form, and first started these webpages. Later, I read that in Afghanistan after the Taliban were forced out of power, one of the first signs of happy freedom was simple one-line kites flying high in the sky. The Taliban had prohibited kite flying. I don't know if Sam knew this or not.

If you talk with Sam, see him at an airport or maybe get to fly with him, please email me.

Isn't it strange that we talk least about the things we think about most?

— Charles Lindbergh


Who has no faults? To err and yet be able to correct it is best of all.

— Yuanwu


There is no medicine against death, and against error no rule has been found.

— Sigmund Freud


See first with your mind, then with your eyes, and finally with your body.

— Yagyu Munenori


Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.

— John Lubbock


There's a difference between interest and commitment. When you're interested in doing something, you do it only when circumstance permit. When you're committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.

— Art Turock



It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction.

— Pablo Picasso


Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson



We become what we do.

— Madame Chiang Kai-Shek



Let us train our mind to desire what the situation demands.

— Seneca


The highest reward for a man's toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.

— John Ruskin


The great thing and the hard thing is to stick to [a] thing when you have outlived the first interest and not yet the second which comes with a sort of mastery.

— Janet Erskine Stuart


God does not judge us by the multitude of works we perform, but how well we do the work that is ours to do. The happiness of too many days is often destroyed by trying to accomplish too much in one day. We would do well to follow a common rule for our daily lives — do less, and do it better.

— Dale Turner


A knowledge of the path cannot be substituted for putting one foot in front of the other.

— M. C. Richards


Better I remain silent than deceive you.

— Yunmen Wenyan


That which does not kill me makes me stronger.

— Nietzsche


If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

— William Blake


Whether outwardly or inwardly, whether in space or time, the farther we penetrate the unknown, the vaster and more marvelous it becomes.

— Charles Lindbergh


The seat of the soul is there, where the outer and inner worlds meet.

— Novalis

Sam's Life Story



Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

— H. Jackson Brown

A good riding teacher teaches not only how to handle a horse, as well as equestrian technique with the necessary corrections, but he will point out to his students over and over that the best teachers for gaining equestrian tact are only the horses. Listening to them, learning to understand their language is the most important and also the longest part in the training of the rider.
However, the best teachers, human or equine, are powerless if the students do not possess a certain mental attitude, especially the necessary understanding to recognize and correct their own mistakes quickly, in other words to learn self monitoring, self criticism, and self control. Consistent, diligent practice and the acquisition of equestrian tact on the one hand, and perseverence on the other hand, are of the utmost importance. False ambition at the horse's expense, however, must never arise.

— Dorothee Faltejsek

The sky is filled with ultimate truth;
Other and self are both forgotten.
Having a mind like iron,
Why care that my hair — s grey as frost?
A clear spring follows the valley far,
An old cottage lies deep in the clouds.
This is where I'm at peace,
Blissful delight without end.

— Wen-siang

Those who seek the truth by means of intellect and learning only get further and further away from it.  Not till your thoughts cease all their branching here and there, not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking for something, not till your mind is motionless as wood or stone, will you be on the right road to the Gate.

— Huang Po

This is what I admire in a pilot: She makes her choices based on her own evaluation of all the conditions, and has a plan for every eventuality. She cares first of all for the safety of her passengers, last of all for the opinions and pressures of others. And of course she flies her airplane like a second soul.

— Richard Bach

There is one purpose to life and one only: to bear witness to and understand as much as possible of the complexity of the world — its beauty, its mysteries, its riddles. The more you understand, the more you look, the greater is your enjoyment of life and your sense of peace. That's all there is to it. Everything else is fun and games. If an activity is not grounded in 'to love' or 'to learn,' it does not have value.

— Anne Rice


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