> Week Three

The Inner Art of Airmanship

Week Three

I returned to the airport the next week. Flew around and around the pattern in the C-150. Trying to make each approach and landing perfect. And while I was not as good as Sam last week, I did start to think that I was getting the hang of the little Cessna again. It felt pretty good. Sam and I talked.

I asked him about where I could go to be a better pilot. Maybe aerobatic lessons or some time in a glider? Sam agreed that both experiences would make me a better pilot. If I paid attention to the experience. He then said the real place I needed to go was inside myself. Be a better pilot in the Cessna. I politely nodded.

Sam told me a story. The young flight instructor is pounding the pattern in a basic trainer. Half watching his student and half thinking of getting a real flying job. Some twin-engine time, a little cross-country IFR. Boy would that be sweet, that would be real flying. Above him at 8,000 feet a freight-dog in a beat-up Beech Baron bounces along. Cursing the turbulence and the heat and the holes in the instrument panel, he thinks about one day getting a turbine job.

At 18,000 feet the crew of a King Air are droning along on autopilot, enjoying the air-conditioned cockpit. But the noise and vibration of the propellers is annoying, and the turbine-twin will not climb out of all the weather. The lady PIC is close to a jet job, and keeps looking up above the tops of the building cumulus. At flight level 390 dinner is being served to the major airline captain. Life is sweet. But his schedule sucks again next month, stupid recurrent training, and the mustard for the steak is too spicy again. He looks out the windshield as a glint of sunlight catches his eye strangely above the horizon. "It's the space station," says the first officer. "Now that would be sweet."

Floating over to a window, the astronaut looks down on the colorful blue and green quilt set amongst the void of space. A former fighter and test pilot, the Space Shuttle commander is picking out ground features as he orbits over middle America. "You see those two rivers, just east of the city?" he says. "There is a little airport down there. I first soloed in a Piper Cub right there."

"Now that is real flying."

Sam noted that with all the time, money and energy spent on the space program and getting to Moon, the most interesting photographs and the most instructive research was all done looking back towards the Earth. It is as though the longest journeys give us the best perspective on ourselves. In the same way, we should look inward to travel the furthest.

Almost all instructors tell students to stay mentally ahead of the plane. Sam put it this way, "One day you are going to crash if your vision reaches no further than where your body is." Be one with the wing, but know where the wing is going. Your thinking must be faster than your airspeed, while you are centered in the sky. Instead of always dreaming of a perfect flight, inner art of airmanship means living the perfect flight, shifting the dream from future to present. As I discussed this with him, talking a little about my magazine writing and time as an instructor, he suddenly changed. Sam said he wanted me to do what he said he could no longer do, having long gone past mere words and approved methods. He wanted me to write about his gentle martial art approach to flying.

We sat down on the bench to watch Trudy solo again. Sam pulled out his old near worn-out copy of the FAA Aviation Instructor's Handbook, and opened it to page with psychologist Abraham Maslow's pyramid of human needs:

US DOT FAA AC 60-14, 1977, page 16

As someone who once prepared students for the flight instructor exam, I remembered that humans — whether we are aware of it or not — are first concerned only with the base needs for oxygen, food, rest, exercise, sex and protection from the elements. Until these physiological needs are satisfied to a reasonable degree, it's hard to concentrate on other things. Next up Maslow's pyramid is the need to feel secure and safe, out of danger. If you are physically comfortable and have no fear for your safety, then the social needs of acceptance, belongingness and love then become more motivating. Higher still are the esteem needs: self-respect, respect from others, recognition, status, reputation.

Above all these needs, at the apex of the hierarchy, there is what the FAA manual says is the need for, "self-fulfillment, or for realizing one's own potentialities, for continued development, for being creative in the broadest sense of that term" (FAA, 1977). According to Maslow, many people may reach into this level but very few, if anybody, ever masters the apex. Sam read from the many scribbled notes in the margins of his manual:

Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization. (Maslow, 1943.)

The real top of the pyramid refers to this complete understanding of the self. To be self-actualized means to truly know who you are, where you belong in the greater society, and to feel like you have accomplished all that you have set out to accomplish. It means to no longer feel shame or guilt, or even hate, but to accept the world and see human nature as inherently good.

From my flight instructor days I already knew that this is the area that expert pilots should aim at. However Sam said that there are levels that blow the ego away. Maslow later went much higher than the FAA wants to admit or write about. The top of the government approved pyramid is self-fulfilment — the feds apparantly didn't want to even use Maslow's term self-actualization — but we can fly into and high above that by using ancient Eastern techniques and modern training philosophies. Sam excitedly quoted Maslow again:

I consider Humanistic, Third Force Psychology to be transitional, a preparation for a still "higher" Fourth Psychology, transpersonal, transhuman, centered in the cosmos rather than in human needs and interests, going beyond humanness, identity, self-actualization, and the like…. We need something "bigger than we are" to be awed by and to commit ourselves to in a new, naturalistic, empirical, non-churchly sense, perhaps as Thoreau and Whitman, William James and John Dewey did. (Maslow, 1968.)

I think my face must have looked quite blank as he read this to me. Trudy squeaked another nice landing. So Sam filled out my education, quoting a little Henry David Thoreau:

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. (Journal entry of March 31. Thoreau, 1842.)

She taxied past us on the way to take-off again. Big smile and easy wave. He told me that John Dewey wrote that we look for happiness in possession of the external — in money, a good time, and so on. Then we are impatient, hurried and fretful because we do not find happiness where we look for it. Sam said more recently a professor of psychology called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been studying something he calls flow and has found people find happiness and meaning in doing certain tasks mindfully. Sam said I was wasting my life flying an airliner while dreaming of a buying a boat. I could learn to love being a real pilot. Be a better pilot. Be a happy person.

We grew silent watching Trudy's takeoff. Bumpy roll down the runway, smooth rotation, instant little corrections, settling into climb, then the Doppler shift of engine noise as she flew by, now not seeing us but concentrating totally on flight. As the engine noise receded, Sam quoted William James:

In the dim background of mind we know what we ought to be doing but somehow we cannot start. (James, 1892.)

Sam said that he had spent years working on Hikou-dou, or his Way of Flying, techniques in harmony with the nature of the sky and the aircraft and the brain, uniting the wind and the wing and the mind. An Inner Art of Airmanship beyond the pilot's ego, blending the science of flight with Maslow's Fourth Psychology. A way to release our very highest human potential. But he had problems now expressing it in words. Would I help?

There might be a magazine article here I thought. I started taking notes.


This website is of course the result of my short flights and long conversations with Sam. His wanting to talk all about learning airmanship and see what it looks like laid out in print. I've read many of the texts his notes referred to, and used quotes from them to try to bridge the gap between usual pilot texts and Sam's inner art teachings. He seemed happy with my progress, interested to see the three-dimensionally colorful ideas he lived everyday projected into words on my little laptop computer.

I asked several times what aspect was most important, what comes first — psychology, Samurai techniques, inner discipline, regulations, flow or something else — and he told me he would just use what resonated with the student in the moment. Some pilots needed more discipline, some needed to relax, while others benefited from the ancient Chinese teachings of the Tao, and yet more needed to learn more about Chuck Yeager. One time I asked Sam what worked best for me. He said reading and writing. I think one of the reasons he encouraged me with this project was that I was not soaking up his way of flying like a beginner does. Maybe for me research and revision was the way I started to learn the inner art of airmanship.

That Sam couldn't explain techniques he spent a lifetime acquiring is not, I've since discovered, actually that unusual. Greek philosopher Socrates unhappily found that skilled craftsmen, poets and statesmen could not articulate the rules that they used. Try explaining how you tie your shoes! We now use the term Implicit knowledge for skills or knowledge that experts have but cannot describe in verbal terms. Cognitive researchers call this the paradox of expertise: "As individuals master more and more knowledge in order to do a task efficiently as well as accurately, they lose awareness of what they know." (Johnson, 1983.)  Talking with perceptual psychologist Professor Mike McBeath, I've learned that baseball players describe catching a fly ball in terms that fundamentally do not agree with video recordings of how they actually move to catch a fly ball. There are different streams of information being processed simultaneously in different parts of the brain, some of which we can verbalize (from the ventral, or side, parts of the brain) and some of which we just act on (found in the dorsal, or crown of the skull). Another great example here is as easy as riding a bicycle. I bet you can ride a bike with ease. But try to describe how to balance and ride a bike to a child for the first time. Saying it's easier when you go faster to a frightened five year-old doesn't help the five year-old much! My notes started as my attempt to describe how Sam flew a plane. They have grown into more. I have attempted to forensically deconstruct how Sam learnt to fly like he did. Learning to ride a bike involves training wheels that fall away with practice, so I spent time talking with Sam about the stages he used to teach inner flying.

After hanging out at the airport for two summers, I felt that I was starting to 'get it.' Then soon after 9/11 suddenly he was no longer at the airport and I lost contact with my laughing guru. I had known Sam two years and two months. I wish now that I'd spent many more afternoons with Sam; I wish I had not wimped out of flying in the Wisconsin winter. Since accepting that he was gone, I've spent a lot of time researching what he already knew. I've taken fancy courses at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in aerospace safety, I'm now a graduate student in the Applied Psychology department at Arizona State University. I've sat Zazen and practiced Aikido. I've been a flying student, a flying instructor, a first officer and and a captain. I've sat behind airline crews and completed detailed profiles of how we handles flying threats and human errors. I've discussed Sam's ideas with neuropsychologists and fighter pilot instructors. I continue to learn.

It was Franz Kafka who wrote, "How pathetically scanty my self-knowledge is compared with, say, my knowledge of my room…. There is no such thing as observation of the inner world, as there is of the outer world." This is not true anymore. What was once closed inside our skulls is becoming open to detailed observation. CAT scans and PET scans and fMRI scans and more are allowing us to peek inside the workings of the brain like never before. This is an exciting time for humans, as we start to really understand how we think and act. Our inner world is becoming known.

I live now in Phoenix, Arizona, where the weather is almost always perfect for soaring into the sky from a rocky gliderport. Work is now in New York, inside an Airbus airliner where the many computers take my mere suggestions and — if they do not disagree — send electronic signals to the flight controls. But thankfully the wonder and joy and passion is back in aviating for me. It is in the details, the machines, the people, the gentle breeze on final approach. I get out of flying what I put in; so I put in my full awareness, heart and soul. Sometimes, when descending into Los Angeles or San Diego, I see mountains floating in the air. Above the hazy clouds there are whole hills aloft in the sky. It is magic to me. Sometimes, as I look out of the cockpit at night, I get to fly above the Moon. I am again safe in an unsafe place.

If you talk with Sam, see him at an airport, or maybe get to fly with him, please email me or use the Facebook page to share your story.

Twelve flights of Inner Airmanship


By now you understand we are not merely speaking about flying. This is every high-performance challenge we have ever accepted, every limit we have ever dared and the thresholds we've yet to cross. This is mortal human reaching for that harmony found in perfection. It astonishes some people that we could build such magnificent machines and, having built them, that we could do such extraordinary things with them. As you watch this creature of the skies, it loses its mechanical identity. The plane is flying the pilot as much as he is flying it. Together, they reach for those limits for which we strive to touch with music, with dance, with painting, with sculpture …

This is an exercise in being alive!

— Frank Herbert

We fear our highest possibilities (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under conditions of greatest courage. We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.

— Abraham Maslow

There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming.

— Søren Kiekegaard

Space flights are merely an escape, a fleeing away from oneself, because it is easier to go to Mars or to the Moon than it is to penetrate one's own being.

— Carl Jung

The hardest thing for human beings is to know themselves and change themselves.

— Alfred Adler

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a long time.

— André Gide

Not I — not anyone else, can travel that road for you. You must travel it for yourself.

— Walt Whitman

The winds of grace are always blowing, but it is you that must raise your sails.

— Rabindranath Tagore - graphic -

Raw flying aside, there's another aspect of formation flying that develops with experience. When you find that special place — the sweet spot in both your position and skill, where that intense focus comes naturally — the meditation begins. Though the image of a guru in loose pants sitting in a mountain retreat at first clashes with four oil-breathing Nanchang CJ-6As in tight formation, for a pilot who has found this zone, the peace is the same.

— Julie Boatman

Between the amateur and the professional … there is a difference not only in degree but in kind. The skillful man is, within the function of his skill, a different psychological organization…. A tennis player or a watchmaker or an airplane pilot is an automatism but he is also criticism and wisdom.

— Bernard De Voto

Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.

— William James

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

— Leo Tolstoy

It is a true miracle when a man finally sees himself as his only opposition.

— Vernon Howard

I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.

— Henry David Thoreau

There are joys which long to be ours. God sends ten thousands truths, which come about us like birds seeking inlet; but we are shut up to them, and so they bring us nothing, but sit and sing awhile upon the roof, and then fly away.

— Henry Ward Beecher

When people of the world look for this path amid the clouds, it vanishes, with not a trace where it lay. The high peaks have many precipices; on the widest gulleys hardly a gleam falls. Green walls close behind and before; white clouds gather east and west. Do you want to know where the cloud-path lies? The cloud-path leads from sky to sky.

— Hanshan

Twelve flights   |   Inner Airmanship   |   Sam

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