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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
— 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
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.