The Inner Art of Airmanship

Mindset Two: Flying Can Not Be Taught

But it can be learned. You are a pilot: It is a state of mind as much as a seat in the cockpit. You will not master the myriad skills without practice. But the good news is you can — in fact you must — practice outside of the cockpit. Visualize flight. Only when ready should you go up in the sky and fly.

The FAA’s Aviation Instructor’s Handbook contains this wonderful picture on the second page:

US DOT FAA AC 60-14, 1977, page 2

US DOT FAA AC 60-14, 1977, page 2.

The caption is Learning cannot be achieved in this manner. (FAA, 1977.)  Once I got over the scary image, I read that, “Learning and knowledge cannot exist apart from a person.” Wow. Deep stuff. So how did Sam teach flying?

Of course he used the normal instructor stuff that is laid out in many publications (such as that excellent FAA manual), he emphased the concept of proper practice, but beyond that he knew that the student was more important than the master. He excited students. He created a safe environment in which to learn. And he set an absolute example of attention to detail.

Whatever the student’s background or previous flying experience, from his actions and not-so-gentle words, Sam made it clear that complete concentration and respect for the wing and the wind were required. No skipping steps. He knew he could not condense Marine Corps or Zen temple training into ten minutes, but he could require all paperwork for a flight to be filled out completely. A real weather briefing. A thorough review of risks. A well-paced preflight briefing. You came to treat airplanes as something very special.

He called the cockpit his dojo, his training place. It’s where the Zen master contemplates. It’s where the warrior trains. It’s where the student learns. Sam told me to never believe the old ‘flying is safer than driving’ line; he repeatedly said the best chance for killing yourself is by making a couple of mistakes in the cockpit. Always treat entering the cockpit with respect. It is here that we determine our immediate fate. It is here we work magic. It is always another chance to grow.

There are many great books and videos on how to fly, but the essence of becoming a pilot is learnt the way Zen or martial arts is transmitted: master to student one-on-one with the student going off to practice alone. It is the only way. The cockpit must become your dojo. You must trust a master and then practice with complete focus. Practice again and again.

A scientific study of general aviation pilots and airline pilots with varying amounts of experience measured their situational awareness (SA) in various routine flight and decision making scenarios (Prince & Salas, 1997). It found that general aviation pilots (with an average of 720 hours of flight experience) were more likely to be passive recipients of information, mostly aware of only that which was close to hand in time and space. Commercial airline pilots (with an average of 6,036 hours) were much more active in seeking out important information and acting on it accordingly. Senior check airline check airman (with an average of 12,370 hours) were most likely to have a global situational awareness of the flight environment and be able to execute the complex actions sometimes required to succeed. It may not be earth-shattering news that pilots with more experience perform better, but there is more to this story. SA is a near mythical awareness that can be quickly defined as the perception of the elements of the flight environment, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future. Important stuff! But outside of experience, what are the other factors we can measure that lead to an increase in SA?


F-15 fighter jet.

In the mid-1990’s the USAF Chief of Staff directed the air force research laboratories to investigate all the human attributes that enable a pilot to develop and maintain SA, which was seen by many as crucial to flying success. Armstrong Laboratory at Brooks Air Force Base completed a study of 171 active-duty F-15 A/C pilots (at the time the premier air superiority fighter) at several front line squadrons, with pilot ages ranging from 24 to 45 years (Carretta, Perry & James, 1996). They compared an extensive test battery with supervisor and peer ratings of SA. This was a huge undertaking, carefully conducted with a rigorous scientific research methodology. It found no predictive power when looking at psychomotor or personality measures. Statistical analysis showed the fighter pilots with higher general cognitive ability based on items like working memory and spatial reasoning did tend to have slightly better rankings of SA. But what accounted for an amazing 92.5% of the variability in SA rankings was something pretty simple. It was flying experience measured in number of F-15 hours! The study concluded the best way for F-15 pilots to acquire more of the seemingly magical SA was to have them spend more time flying in the F-15.

Military or commercial, hours aloft are overwhelmingly vital to achieving aerial excellence. I’m too old and fat to fly an F-15, but I can use these results to become a better pilot in whatever aircraft I want: I fly it more! Sure it sounds obvious. But now we know nothing else the USAF can think of has been proven to be better. If I really want to get better, I must fly more.

You must also fly before you reach the cockpit; train the mind before entering the dojo. A 2010 study in the International Journal of Aviation Psychology found that pilots who “engaged in case-based reflection made more appropriate and timely decisions” in a subsequent simulator flight than similar pilots in the research study who just recalled the flying stories presented them. (O’Hare, Mullen & Arnold, 2010). All pilots watched a video explaining the rules and dangers of continuing to fly VFR into deteriorating weather. Some then received positive outcome case studies, while others had negative outcome case studies. Some were instructed to ‘write down as many details as they could recall”, while others completed a five-question quiz designed to have them reflect on the how, why, and what of each flight into deteriorating weather incident or accident.

It didn’t matter if the presented to the participants ended in a crash due to inappropriate actions, or a save due to appropriate actions. What matters is that the participants who recalled the case studies did worse than the pilots who were instructed to complete a reflection task. Researchers have found this to be true in medical, law and in case study based business schools (Lee and Hutchison, 1998), and now we know it’s true for pilots as well. Just reading the rules or skimming accident reports is not enough. Our time is better spent in case-based reflection. How did the accident happen? What did the pilot in a story do well? Why? This active reflection is a way that experts learn decision making skills beyond their hours aloft:

A repertoire of perceptual-motor skills and formal rules are necessary, but insufficient, to become a fully proficient pilot. A hallmark of expertise is the ability to compare current situations with other situations that have been previously experienced or encountered in some form. (O’Hare, Mullen & Arnold, 2010).

This behavior has been seen to work in trainee commercial pilots. The better pilots had a deep learning approach, they engaged in self-questioning, monitoring, and evaluating. (Moore and Telfer, 1993). One way shown to accelerate the development of knowledge from which we make better decisions and judgments is to write in a reflective journal. At the end of every flight don’t just put the times in a logbook, but record the flight in a private journal. Reflect on why things happened as they did, consider alternative actions and outcomes, attend to associated feelings. (Henley, Anderson & Wiggins, 1999). So read accident reports with a critical eye. Think about why and how, then consider why not and how not. Read flying books and magazines. Reflect. What did the pilots do good (or bad), how and why did they do what they did. Reflecting on case-based stories will make you a better pilot, for when it’s your life on the line you really don’t want to be found lacking.

Gene Cernan

Gene Cernan, in the Gemini IX spacecraft.

Fighter pilot, test pilot, astronaut and moonwalker Gene Cernan knew this. Getting ready to fly 240,000 miles away from Earth as the commander of the Apollo 17 space mission, he reported:

I trained for every possible failure I could think might happen — you don’t think of them all, like Apollo 13. But I knew I could handle any failure that came my way within reason. (Wynbrandt, 2010)

There is another way to simulate flying more. Sit in a chair and go through all the actions and motions of normal, abnormal, and emergency checklists and procedures. Do it till you know where to look, what to do. Do this in real time. Sports psychology studies have shown that this mental practice is most effective when you picture yourself actually accomplishing the feat from your mind’s eye, not watching yourself from the outside looking in. Don’t just talk through a procedure: imagine actually doing it. The powerful thing to remember is that it really works. A scientific study at the United States Air Force Academy that tested different preparation techniques for a simulator mission found that, “the Chair Flying Group showed less time to accomplish the mission, a more precise take off speed and a better situational awareness than the control group.” They noted that chair flying is “an effective preparation technique.” (Roth & Andre, 2004).

Psychologists Jacqueline Golding and Steven Ungerleider surveyed 1,200 track and field athletes who had made it to the Olympic Trials, specifically comparing those who qualified for the games and those didn’t quite make the cut. There were many similarities. They all had ‘the right stuff’. In fact there were nearly identical in every respect except for one thing:

Those athletes who actually made the team and competed in the Olympics were doing more mental practice in the final stages of preparation than their less-successful colleagues… . We learning for our studies with Olympians that mental preparation and the timing of mental preparation are the keys to who succeeds

Other studies have found that 90% of athletes at the US Olympic Training Centre used mental imagery (Murphy, 1994), and that elite athletes are more proficient at imagery than non-elite competitors (Hall, Rogers & Buckolz, 1991). There are whole books published just on the science of imagery in sports (Sheikh, & Korn, 1994, Morris, Spittle & Watt, 2005).

Do not cheat yourself. Drill yourself repeatedly. Make the images of flight as realistic as possible by including all your senses, in full color and clear detail. The mechanical motions and the cockpit flows will become second nature. See the wind. Think of a Samurai warrior endlessly exercising with his sword. It is long hours alone. Only you can do this for yourself. Practice regularly as it may take months before seeing improvement. However the result will eventually be close to perfection.

In your mind’s eye, right now, pretend that you have been given a big ripe yellow lemon. Imagine yourself examining the lemon, looking at it closely, feeling its dimpled texture, smelling its distinct sweet tart aroma. Now, see yourself taking a sharp kitchen knife and cutting the lemon into four juicy quarters — watch for that juice squirting out! — then taking one of those moist quarters and putting it into your mouth and taking a huge bite.

Did your lips pucker up? Was your mouth watering? Consider that your body was maybe producing saliva, a physical reaction, to a lemon that only existed in your head. The outer world has been controlled by the inner mind. Sam told me that as far as how your mind translates meanings and trains reactions, there is no real difference between an imagined event and a real event that you physically experience. As MIT’s Kathleen O’Craven and Nancy Kanwisher reported in highly cited paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, there is a:

Striking correspondence between imagery and perception by demonstrating that many of the same regions that are selectively activated during perception of a particular class of stimuli are also activated during imagery of that same stimulus class…. At a macroscopic level, the neural instantiation of a mental image resemble the neural instantiation of the corresponding perceptual image. (O’Craven & Kanwisher, 2000.)

This is powerful stuff. It means you can either imagine eating the lemon or really eat the lemon — in many ways your brain will consider that the same thing is happening. Chair flying is using mostly the same bits of brain that get used when you are in a simulator or flying an aircraft. This is proven science. When performance in many sports has measured in controlled experiments, the results have consistently shown the benefits of using imagery (Smith, Wright & Westhead, 2007). In fact, in just one chapter of the book Advances in Applied Sport Psychology there are references to over 140 scientific studies that deal with mental imagery (Cumming & Ramsey, 2008). Many champions already make extensive use of mental imagery. It’s one of the reasons they are champions!

In the book Drive to Win: The Essential Guide to Race Driving Carroll Smith tells us, “for untold millennia primitive hunters have ritually pre-enacted the hunt. Prior to take off for every flight the Blue Angels visualize, together, the entire coming routine — they call it the Zen flight.” He described a driver visualizing the race this way:

Admittedly the scene looks a bit strange — a grown man sitting in a chair twisting his arms and kicking his legs to no discernible rhythm while accompanying himself with “vroom, vroom” noises. If a normal person were to walk in on the act, the loony bin collection squad would arrive pretty soon.

That driver was Price Cobb, who would go on to win the La Mans 24-hr race in 1990. It might not look so strange to another amazingly successful race car driver, Frenchman Alain Prost. He won over 50 Formula One races and was a four-time F1 Drivers’ Champion. Once described as, “capable of a level of mental discipline beyond the comprehension of most people,” he shared with us how he achieved this in his book Competition Driving:

As a champion skier might envisage his two- or three-minute descent as he waits at the top of the mountain, so the driver must focus his attention on what might happen when the lights turn green., bearing in mind his grid position and who the other drivers around him might be. You should also imagine every precise detail of the lap to come, each bend, every gear change, so that you’re already racing in your mind when the event starts.

Alain Prost

Alain Prost.

One more racing car driver and we’ll get back to flying. Niki Lauda (who is also a jet pilot) was the F1 World Champion three times. In his book The Art and Science of Grand Prix Driving he states that for a driver on top of his job, “the more he has gone over the different possible situations in his mind’s eye beforehand, the better he will react when the time comes.” So the fastest most capable drivers in the world, who command cars faster than many small airplanes, practice visualization. Shouldn’t you?

When you spend time flying the chair, train yourself to just do what is required. Do not day-dream. And absolutely do not sabotage yourself by allowing thoughts of negative outcomes to pollute your mind. Positively do the right procedures, keep your imagery detailed and in the present. Never sit and think ‘don’t do this’ or say ‘I won’t flip this switch before checking this gauge’. It is important to picture good performance. Not for some rah-rah half-baked feel-good  positive dreaming pseudo-reason. But for real tested and proven concrete performance reasons. Science even has a high-tech sounding acronym for it — VMBR (for visual-motor behavioral rehearsal).

In one example of VMBR (of the many that have been published) researchers found an increase in tennis first serve performance after two weeks of VMBR (Noel, 1980). Others have found a significant improvement in free throw shooting of intercollegiate basketball players (Onestak, 1997) and in karate performance (Weinberg, Seabourne & Jackson, 1981). In another study, the subjects that had mentally practiced dart throwing by thinking about darts landing towards the centre of the board had a 28% improvement in actual dart throwing performance. The group that was told to practice by imagining darts barely hitting the board had a 3% decline in actual dart throwing performance (Powell, 1973).  The lesson for pilots is clear — imagine great landings. Don’t think about sliding off the runway, but rather mentally practice safe go-arounds.

We are setting up and strengthening patterns in your brain, affecting what neurobiologists call long-term potentiation. This is a long-lasting enhancement in efficacy of the synapse between two neurons, the very building blocks of the mind. You are rewiring your brain. We used to think this was a figurative saying, blithely saying “you are building your mental muscle, it’s like you are rewiring your brain.” But since the late 1990’s neuroscience has discovered that this is real. A large collection of different studies have shown the adult brain can significantly change, resulting in new and modified connections between neurons (Ellison, 2007). Even new neurons can be added, something thought impossible by doctors and brain researchers just a few years ago. Doing VMBR wrong will set you up for failure. Practice the correct procedure until it it second nature. Then practice until it is your only nature.

If you could not fly the chair, Sam would cancel the lesson. Waste of time to be in the air he would say, if you are not prepared. People did not like to look him in the eye when he calmly said this. They knew they had tried to cheat the sky. And the sad look of disappointment in Sam was too much to handle.

As it was, his left eye was normally slightly off focus — not enough to be readily perceptible, but enough to be disconcerting. It was focused ever so slightly to the center, giving his steady blue eyes a penetrating quality, almost as if he were looking at you from two vantage points at once.

Klaus Schrodt, three-time world aerobatic champion, told Plane and Pilot magazine that, “mental preparation is very necessary. The entire flight has to be imagined, seen, felt, smelled, heard. The actual flight needs to be a copy of the mental preparation.”

Klaus Schrodt

Klaus Schrodt.

Neuroscientists know that this is because the shape and strength of your neurons and their synaptic connections — the very nature of your brain — is changed by visualization. Fran Tarkenton, the famous Minnesota Vikings quarterback, said that a few days before an important game he would, “run whole blocks of plays in my head and try to visualize every game situation, every defense they’re going to throw at me. Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus wrote that:

I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie. First I ‘see’ the ballwhere I want it to finish, nice and white and sittling up high on bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes and I ‘see’ the ball going there: its path, trajectory and shape, even its behaviour on landing. Thene there is a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the images into reality. (Nicklaus, 1974).

World champion alpine skier Maria Walliser said in an interview:

There’s never enough chance to practice. But I can run the course in my mind hundreds of times till I’m perfect. I think about how I enter each turn, each jump, each ice patch. On race day I must have no doubts.

Olympic gold medalist and four-time world record holder discus thrower Mac Wilkins said about inner practice, “it boils down to the fact that if you’re trying to accomplish something, a particular athletic movement, if you can’t visualize it then it’s pure chance you will be able to perform the movement. If you visualize it and can really see it … you have a clear target to aim for and a much better chance of realizing that target.” Nicole Haislett won several gold medals swimming in the Olympics, she told Steven Ungerleider in an interview, “I played the race over and over in my head in order to see myself winning and winning strong. I would visualize a constant routine, see myself accelerating off the wall, my perfect turns, my kick, and my finish. Visualization was very important to me.”

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans said about inner practice, “I continue to visualize all my races days and weeks before they happen. I have never been to a competition … where I didn’t see myself win in my mental images before I got there.” Olympic marathoner Nancy Ditz said once, “Rather than always hoping for the best to happen … you must ask yourself what is the scariest of most intimidating part of your race … and then visualize it in a positive light. If you have had something awful happen to you, visualize it and change the scenario. You have the power to change the outcome.” Sprinter and hurdler Shirley de la Hunty reports:

I enjoyed thinking out the bio-mechanics of how to run faster, clear the hurdles better and to work the scientific side of it. I learned how to generate intense concentration and intense adrenalin and was also able to adjust my body balance so as to get the maximum out of my run…. For hours in my room I’d mentally rehearse this. There’s not much room for error. I ran 11.3 seconds for 100m and I was just delighted with that. It stood as a world record for nine years. (Hemery, 1986.)

Kirby Chambliss

Kirby Chambliss.

Kirby Chambliss, captain of the U.S. Aerobatics Team, a three-time winner of the National Aerobatic Championship, and a B737 captain for Southwest Airlines, put it this way in a TV interview:

I think the better your visualization skills are, if you can make yourself think that you are in the airplane, and you walk through it and you go I’m going to see this reference here, and that reference there, that you’re going to go up there and it’s like you’ve already flown that flight. So you’re probably going to end up beating the next guy. Because it is so mental — and that’s the challenge. And when I say beating the next guy, usually when I don’t win a competition the guy that beat me was myself.

Mike Goulian

Mike Goulian.

Mike Goulian is a US National Aerobatic Champion, a popular airshow pilot and Red Bull racer. In the book Advanced Aerobatics (that he co-wrote with Geza Szurovy) he described in detail his technique:

I visualize my sequence about 45 minutes to half an hour before a flight. I listen to music on a headset while I’m doing it. The music is white noise that drowns out the surrounding environment and helps me concentrate. I visualize the sequence three times, I walk through it once, I visualize it sitting in the cockpit, and I visualize it from the judge’s perspective.

I visualize the view as it would look from the cockpit looking outside. I look in the appropriate directions, I imagine the control inputs and the G forces, and I concentrate on the position of the wings at the appropriate points in the maneuvers. I do the whole sequence uninterrupted. If something breaks my concentration, I start from the beginning. (Szurovy & Goulian, 1997.)

Military pilots are taught to practice for a jet that costs a hundred million dollars with a dollar store toilet plunger for a control stick and a wobbly metal folding chair for the zero-zero ejection seat. U.S. Navy Blue Angel Mark Dunleavy says that, “in the preshow briefing demo pilots have eyes closed, visualizing as the boss is giving the calls; sometimes you’ll see them move their hands for the controls of the jet in a way that’s appropriate for the maneuver being executed. They’ll actually ‘fly’ the entire demonstration in the brief. Go to an aerobatics meet and you may be lucky enough to see Patty Wagstaff, in a quiet corner, with eyes closed, head moving and arms waving. Looks like t'ai chi on drugs. In real time, she is visualizing her entire routine, playing the piece in her mind, chair flying. If she feels the need after flying the same routine hundreds of times, I think we should not question the value of chair flying.

The motor skills — you realize that even soaring in a glider requires motor skills — and mind to eye to hand coordination skills of flight can only become second-nature by training. It’s just like learning skiing or golf or Judo: you can not just read about it. You must train. Visualize. Mentally and physically practice. Then with full concentration, respectfully play with your skills in the air. Sam always said that amateurs practice until they get it right, but that professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

That you get better at something if you practice is of course pretty obvious. There is a more to this subject than just that idea however. Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory in the late 19th century, formalizing the learning and forgetting curves. One of his major findings was that if we continue to practice something that we are already perfect at, then performance is improved at a later date (Mazur, 2006). This is the now accepted idea that vigorously overlearning something pays a dividend in the future, even if it cannot be seen right now.

If we practice enough, complex tasks become automatic, and they actually occur in different parts of the brain away from conscious awareness. Martial artists have known this for centuries, and the earliest scientific paper I’ve found on the subject was published in 1899. (It studied how telegraph operators gradually went from sending individual letters to being able to send and receive whole words, phrases, and then other groups of words  (Bryan, 1899.)) Cognitive psychologists now call this well studied process automatization, but are still unsure exactly how it occurs. One widely held view is that during the course of practice, implementation of the various steps becomes more efficient. Then each of the steps is combined into integrated components, and then the components are integrated so that an entire process becomes a single highly integrated procedure. A newer possibility is that automatization occurs as we store knowledge about specific responses to specific stimuli in the brain (Logan, 1988).

What we do know is that practice makes real brain changes. New synaptic connections between neurons in the brain are made by experience. Rats that spent just four 10-minute periods in an enriched environment have been shown to have small, but significant, increases in brain weight (Ferchmin & Eterovic, 1980). Other studies have shown significant increases in the number, size and complexity of synaptic connections with exposure to learning experiences (Jones & Schallert, 1994). It used to be thought that once the building block of the brain, the neuron, dies that it can never be replaced. If you went to medical school in the eighties or nineties this is what you were still being taught. But recently it has been repeatedly shown that neurogenesis can actually occur during a learning experience (see for example Gould, Beylin, et al., 1999). This is a huge step forward in neuroscientific understanding of the brain, and in our own ideas of our personal potential. As adults we can grow new neurons. There is hope for all of us that can’t hop into a time machine and go back to study more in grade school!

With modern scanners can see the brain change as it learns something new. A 2008 study of 20 adults tasked to learn three ball cascade juggling showed measurable brain changes in as little as seven days (Driemeyer, Boyke, et al., 2008). The graph below shows averaged changes in gray matter volume of certain brain regions. On the far left, observation one is before starting juggling practice. The gray bar is the average, the red line shows the variation between the 20 subjects (90% of all measurements were within the red lines). Observations 2, 3, and 4 were taken at weeks 1, 2 and 5 of practice. After just 7 days we can see the significant growth in cerebral gray matter volume (in the midtemporal area hMT/V5 and in the frontal and temporal lobes and the cingulate cortex bilaterally to be exact).

Driemeyer et al 2008

Driemeyer, Boyke, et al., 2008.

After the 5 weeks, the participants were asked to stop juggling. Scans 5 and 6 were taken after two and five months, and show a significant decrease in gray matter volume in the same areas. They could still juggle, but it was now stored somewhere else, What we are seeing is the old idea of the brain as a muscle, and as we exercise the brain by learning something new it really does grow in the regions applicable to the new skill.

Over time, we make even more impressive changes in our brain structure. An article in the Journal of Neuroscience showed how several small regions of the brain used in motor and auditory functioning are different in size between professional musicians and both amateurs and non-musicians (Gaser & Schlaug, 2003). There are now many studies showing similar results, but in addition to the complex brain scan images understandable only to experienced neuro-smarty-pants this one included some particularly clear graphs:

Brain changes pic

Schlaug, 2003.

For brain region fans: PrecG L is the left precentral gyrus, HG L is the left Heschl’s gyrus and SPC R is the right superior parietal cortex. The vertical lines show a measure of the range of values found in the study, while the solid bars are the averages. Another study used 3D-surface renderings from the latest in brain scanners to actually see external changes in brain structure due to a lifetime of practice in different types of musical instruments. Sixty-four brains were examined and changes in the Omega Sign (an anatomical landmark of the precentral gyrus associated with hand movement representation) were clearly detected with type of instrument played. These pictures (with a white line along the central sulcus added for folks not used to looking at the brain) show typical results. See how string players have a straight valley while piano players develop a curvy valley:

Brain shape changes in OS

Bangert & Schlaug, 2006.

The changes in left and right sides of the brain were consistent across the 64 brains studied (Bangert & Schlaug, 2006).

Only very recently have we been able to see the powerful changes in the brain that practice makes. This is not just one or two small research groups with some speculative results. This solid science has been repeated by many different universities around the world using different groups of people who learned different skills, comparing different brain regions with different types of brain scan machines (Jäncke, 2009). Some studies look at size changes, others look at changed neurophysiological activation patterns. Some studies are cross-sectrional, others are longitudinal.

Changes in both gray matter and white matter volume were seen in the left and right precentral gyrus areas by Swiss researchers studying female ballet dancers (Hänggi, et al., 2010). Larger gray matter volumes were found in skilled golfers (in a fronto-parietal network including premotor and parietal areas) when compared to novice and less practiced golfers (Jäncke et al., 2009). It’s also been seen that the gray matter volume in the hippocampus (a specialized brain region used in spatial memory) increases in London taxi drivers who have spent years acquiring the vast amount of local geography knowledge needed to pass the licensing requirements of the City of London (Maguire, Woollett & Spiers, 2006). Researchers compared the brains of London bus drivers to London cab drivers, and were able to see differences in their hippocampal gray matter. If you spend some time in London you may see folks on scooters with maps clipped to the handlebars. They are not lost, rather they are spending a few years learning every road and every hotel and major building in the city. The exam for London cabbie starts with an intense oral exam along the lines of “I’m at the Savoy hotel at five in the afternoon on a typical weekday, describe in detail the best route to Broadcasting House.” The brain changes seen in London taxi drivers, but not London bus drivers, shows that it is not merely driving in London all day that changes the brain — it’s the thousands of hours of study spent learning ‘the knowledge’ compared with being assigned set routes that rarely change year over year. (Not that I’m insulting London bus drivers, many of my forefathers drove red doubledeckers around those streets). What the brain science does show is that inner skills will literally change your brain in ways we can see on a modern scanner.

One group of researchers in Istanbul, Turkey, looked at professional mathematicians using a whole brain MRI scanner. They found that the PhD mathematicians had significantly increased cortical gray matter in the bilateral inferior parietal lobules and left inferior frontal gyrus compared to the control subjects (Aydin, et al., 2007). These areas are known to be involved in arithmetic calculations and visuospatial processing. What was interesting here is that the techniques were sensitive enough to see that the size of one relevant brain area (the right inferior parietal lobule) gets bigger and bigger with more years of study and practice. The process of re-wiring the brain continues for years when advanced or complex mental processes are being exercised. The diagrams below show actual right inferior parietal lobule scans from the study, and their graph of increased gray matter density in this region plotted against years in academia (the lines on the graph are best-fit linear regression in the center and two 95% confidence intervals, the dots are the actual results):

Aydin, et al., 2007
Aydin, et al., 2007

Aydin, et al., 2007

And this linear relationship result does not stand alone either. A completely different university team working with experienced typists found a similar linear regression correlation between grey matter volume and duration of practice in certain brain regions known to be involved in the programming of motor tasks (Cannonieri, et al., 2007).

Practice a lot and we expand our brains in the regions we use most. You don’t get the brain changes just by reading one book or sort of practicing a little once a month. The brain change doesn’t happen from some teaching, it happens from real learning and practice. And now there is research showing that mental imagery can promote the healing of physical injuries. What used to seem new-age wish-yourself-better stuff is becoming science. Greek and British university teams have found that mental imagery promoted the recovery of muscular endurance in athletes who sustained a grade II ankle sprain (Christakoua, Zervasa & Lavalleeb, 2007). Mental imagery has powerful effects that medicine is just now starting to believe.

It’s not just sport or musical skills that change us as we practice. Flying does. Expert pilots make decisions differently from beginners. A study of expert pilot aeronautical decision making suggested that training could be improved by explicitly building the experiential situational repertoires of students (Stokes, Kempler & Kite, 1997). In addition to conventional complex flight simulators they recommend simple ‘event-based simulators’ to actually practice decision making rather than just learning ideas and rules in ground school. We can do this ourselves. We think though situations in our mind on the ground before it happens in flight. The ‘Hero of the Hudson’ did that long before he lost power in both engines of an A320 at 3000 feet over New York. Captain Chesley 'sully' Sullenberger says that, “long before Flight 1549, I read about and learned from the experiences of others. It matters.” He continues, “it takes time, hour after hour, to master the science and art of flying a commercial jet.” He had 19,700 hours of practice when he was suddenly faced with the biggest challenge of his flying career: “Flight 1549 wasn’t just a five minute journey. My entire life led me safely to that river.”

Whatever parts of the brain get bigger or however they connect better; it has been proven that there is a lawful, direct relationship between the amount of time spent in high-quality practice and the resultant level of achievement. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson — who literally wrote the book on how people acquire expert performance in the arts, sciences, sports and games — found that successful performers are distinguished by the amount of intensive, deliberative practice they devote to their disciplines (Ericsson, 1996). Interestingly many of the characteristics of what Ericsson observed as high quality practice are the same factors that generate in-the-zone sensations. Ericsson found that good practice includes challenge, clear goals, and rapid feedback. The long hard work of practice can eventually become its own reward.

The Japanese have a word for orderly, gradual and continuous improvement. It is Kaizen, a culture of sustained improvement that focuses on eliminating waste in all systems. The five Japanese ideas that define Kaizen are Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke. In English we can make them Sort, Straighten, Scrub, Systematize and Standardize.  Kaizen can improve a fast-food kitchen, a computer programming team, or a cockpit.

     Seiri (sort): Separate out all the things that are unnecessary and eliminate them.

    Seiton (straighten): Arrange the essential things in order so that they can be easily accessed.

    Seiso (scrub): Keep machines and working environments clean.

    Seiketsu (systematize): Make cleaning and checking a routine practice.

    Shitsuke (standardize): Standardize the previous four steps to make the process one that never ends.

Take a good look at your paperwork procedures, your cockpit routines, even your mental disciplines. Discover what is waste and remove it. Organize what is left. Look after your tools. Make these steps a constant practice.  Much of flying can be boring routine, but by applying Kaizen we can make the routine a safer more efficient smoother routine, and keep the boredom away by staying active in the process of improvement. Only you can do this. It’s an inner art of simplification, honing the aeronautical craft, making every aerial task graceful.

At my previous airline I received several checkrides with a former Marine Corps F-4 hell-for-leather hardcore nutcase I will call Bill (that being his name). He believed that he should be allowed to come down to the crew room and give surprise oral exams at any time. He loved to intimidate examinees, sick stuff like getting a pink failure slip out of his briefcase and placed on the table so it was 'handy.' Have a problem with a question and he'd quietly look at his watch slowly shaking his head. Bill would stare straight at you from under his steel-gray close-shaved high-and-tight haircut and tell you that his granddaughter is taking one of your flights next week. And that he loves his little granddaughter a lot. Maybe he'd show you her picture. “Do you think she deserves a captain who knows the entire electrical system or just part of it?” You'd look down, only to see on his finger a gaudy skull ring with a snake coming out of an empty eye socket, and wish with everything you had that you could go back in time and study harder.

That was Bill’s intent. To push. Hard. To see that you never gave up. In the simulator session you'd go to your breaking point. He wanted to inspire confidence in the airplane and yourself, but also let you know that both the airplane and the pilot have limits. A Samurai swordsman would recognize Bill’s rides as a shugyo. A severe training event that the warrior staggers away from feeling purified. You should train as if you are going to face a shugyo at any time.

Tomas Gonzalez-Torres

Tomas Gonzalez-Torres.

Tomas Gonzalez-Torres was the lead spacewalk Instructor at NASA for the last mission to repair the Hubble space telescope. It was a dangerous, difficult, multi-billion dollar mission with a one-time chance to improve one of the most productive scientific tools ever built. He said, “Things will go wrong on orbit. They always do. It’s our preparation for those things that will allow us to do a good job.”

Sam would demonstrate something once, with such ease and precision — paradoxically in complete control yet relaxed — that the student would spend a month practicing the one maneuver. He said that you don’t really have a new skill until you have performed it correctly nine times. It’s not in you until then. Practice it smooth and sure, until there is no doubt. Someone can not teach it to you, only you can learn it.

So maybe Sam didn’t teach me to fly, but he sure did show me a lot of neat things.

Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.

Chinese Proverb

You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself.

Theodore Geisel
(a.k.a. Dr. Seuss)

A mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.

Plutarch of Chaeronea

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

Henry David Thoreau

Motive power and force are numerically limited, but not so skill.

Otto Lilienthal

I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one object at a time.

Charles Dickens

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First by reflection which is the noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.


The road of Zen is a road of do it yourself — teach yourself Zen.

Christmas Humpheys

Seamanship is an entirely different matter. It is not learned in a day, nor in many days; it requires years.

Jack London

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.

Galileo Galilei

Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time

Mark Twain

If you want to get to the top, you’ve got to start at the bottom, same with anything …. I would just play every spare moment I got. People describe me then as being oblivious to my surroundings — I’d sit in a corner of a room when a party was going in or a family gathering, and be playing…. I was never parted from my guitar. I took it everywhere and I went to sleep with my arm laid across it.

Keith Richards

All wish to be learned, but no one is willing to pay the price.


Skill comes by the constant repetition of familiar feats rather than by a few overbold attempts at feats for which the performer is yet poorly prepared.

Wilbur Wright

Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

Martha Graham

It’s not the will to win that matters — everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.

Paul 'Bear' Bryant

I practiced hard and I know that the more I’d practice, the more I’d win.

Jimmy Connors

I worked hard. I worked late. I went in early. I did everything I could to gain an advantage.

Joe Theismann

I just love to practice and drill.

Monica Seles

For every pass I caught in a game, I caught a thousand in practice.

Don Hutson

Perhaps the single most important element in mastering the techniques and tactics of racing is experience. But once you have the fundamentals, acquiring the experience is a matter of time.

Greg LeMond

If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices.

Vladimir Horowitz

The only thing that helps you win the game is preparation and getting your mind ready to go to battle. That’s what you’ve got to do.

Mark Richt

It was practice that built my confidence. I would prepare so that I would know exactly what would happen. My father was a great teacher… . He would encourage practice through creating little challenges to make it fun. I felt like I could do anything if I worked hard enough.

Nancy Lopez

Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.

Serena Williams

For me, winning isn’t something that happens suddenly on the field when the whistle blows and the crowd roar. Winning is something that builds physically and mentally every day that you train and every night that you dream.

Emmitt Smith

Act like a warrior who is obliged to carry on through thick and thin.

Joe Frazier

What the mind generates, the body fulfils. It’s probably 90% of the game at top level. All those that get there physically can play the game, the ones that are able to stay there and perform at a high level for a long period of time are the ones that can do it mentally.

Greg Chappell

Why do some people who are born with so much, achieve so little, while some who are born with so little achieve so much? The answer is desire. You must have a great desire.

Lou Holtz

Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.

Bruce Lee

Begin to act in your physical world as if that person whom you would love to be were already here.

Wayne Dyer

For me, winning isn’t something that happens suddenly on the field when the whistle blows and the crowds roar. Winning is something that builds physically and mentally every day that you train and every night that you dream.

Emmitt Smith

Never regard study as a duty, but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.

Albert Einstein

Given enough time, any man may master the physical. With enough knowledge, any man may become wise. It is the true warrior who can master both …. and surpass the result.

Tien T'ai

The appeal of a physically perilous sport … isn’t the inherent danger of it. It’s about the process of managing risk and anticipating challenges. You need to figure out how to prepare and control everything you can, and then you need to be ready for the things you can’t control.

Ashley Merryman

Before every aerobatic performance, I go through a ritual that is aimed entirely at making certain the focus is there. I isolate myself from everybody for an hour and literally try to become the performance. So far, it’s never happened, but if I ever found my head wasn’t where it was supposed to be during that hour, I wouldn’t fly. As simple as that. If it’s not there, I know I will die, and I never let myself forget that.

Sean D. Tucker

The only thing that separates successful people from the ones who aren’t is the willingness to work very, very hard.

Helen Gurley Brown

By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.


Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.

Jerry Rice

Hard work has made it easy. That is my secret. That is why I win.

Nadia Comaneci

Everything is practice.


In anything that has some level of risk I like to be well practiced. I don’t like to wing anything, so to speak.

Vicky Benzing

You can’t make a great play unless you do it first in practice.

Chuck Noll

It would be extremely difficult to race downhill at 88 miles per hour without a mental blueprint of very specific images of the course.

Picabo Street

You have to prepare yourself mentally so that you never arrive anywhere on the course somewhere where you haven’t been a couple of seconds already in your mind. So you’ve got to be a little bit ahead of the airplane.

Nigel Lamb

I got into a zone where I could see every shot before I hit it, and every shot was perfect in my mind.

Nancy Lopez

I have to be focused. I have to do my mental preparation. I have to feel that I’m ready…. When it’s coming up to a big match, rugby is the only thing in my head. Driving around, I visualise certain scenarios, different positions on the pitch, different times when the ball is coming to me.

Ronan O'Gara

By game time I’d already seen the whole game ten times over, exactly what was going to happen, like a video that I was part of, where I would see the ball and I’d see opponents driving at me, or I’d see teammates wide open who I’d be passing to, or I’d see how a center was going to guard me. I’d see his shots so I’d know how to go for the rebound, or how I was going to cut a guy off if he was penetrating. I’d seen it all before.

Bill Walton

We all visualize on the way to altitude. That’s part of the training … We do twelve jumps in a day — that’s only 12 minutes of skydiving, but if you visualize every time you go to altitude, that’s another two hours. The benefits of visualization are no secret.

Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld

Every great shot you hit, you’ve already hit a bunch of times in practice.

Martina Navratilova

Visualising things is massively important. If you don’t visualise, then you allow other negative thoughts to enter your head. Not visualising is almost like having a satellite navigation system in your car, but not entering your destination into it. The machinery can only work if you put everything in there.

Darren Clarke

Professional golfers have the ability to create a shot in their mind and execute it precisely with their bodies.

Chuck Hogan

I sail the course over and over in my mind, slowly building up the picture until it is 3-D, in full colour and I can even imagine the smells and noises. I leave nothing out …. By the time the start gun goes, I am taking on something that I feel I already know intimately.

Pete Goss

When I train, one of the things I concentrate on is creating a mental picture of how best to deliver that ball to a team-mate…. That is my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game.


I’ve already visualized the course a hundred times and know exactly what I have to do.

Lindsey Vonn

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.


Lying in bed at night, for a while I’ll be looking at myself doing something at full speed, doing it correctly and simulating the situation in my mind as close to the game as possible…. Sometimes your sub-conscious comes in and you do something bad, so you repeat it without the error.

Peter Sterling

[Before flying] I visualize everything, from what I see outside to controls in the cockpit.

Pilot #5 in a university study of elite RCAF pilots. (Hohmann & Orlick, 2014)

You have to practice, you have to have your game plan related to all situations, practice and repeat it thousands of times until it becomes instinctive. You just Don’t want to have to think during the game itself. If you have to stop and do a lot of thinking, you’re always going to be a step behind.

Bill Walsh

When the task is done beforehand, then it is easy.


You can not plan a flight enough. There’s no such thing as over-planning a flight. You could say airmanship is what if. What if this happens. What if the weather isn’t very good. What if the grass is waterlogged. What if the fuel drain shows water in it. What if.

If you have a plan for every what if, then you’re going to be pretty well prepared.

Paul Bonhomme

You start getting the science right behind you when you walk it and soon before I start to ride, I will find a completely quiet place, shut my eyes and think. Starting from the beginning, I’ll go right through and see every bit of land I’m going to cover and every single approach at each fence, like a film.

Lucinda Green

You can teach a student a lesson for that day but if you can teach him to learn by creative curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.

C. P. Bedford

If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.


If someone asked me what a human being ought to devote the maximum of his time to, I would answer, “training.” Train more than you sleep.

Masutatsu Oyama

The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses — behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.

Mohammed Ali

First, master the fundamentals.

Larry Bird

It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts; it’s what you put into the practice.

Eric Lindros

Merely to copy the actions of your instructor is not enough. You must develop your knowledge of flying and your reactions until piloting is an instinctive series of movements.

Dick Merrill

A good athlete always mentally replays a competition over and over, even in victory, to see what might be done to improve the performance the next time.

Frank Shorter

I always like people who have developed long and hard, particularly through introspection and a lot of dedication. I think that what they arrive at is, usually … deeper and more beautiful … than the person who seems to have that ability and fluidity from the beginning… . And, yes, ultimately it turned out that these people weren’t able to carry their thing very far. I found myself being more attracted to artists who have developed through the years and become better and deeper musicians.

Bill Evans

We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.

Marcel Proust

The road to happiness lies in two simple principles: find what interests you and that you can do well, and put your whole soul into it — every bit of energy and ambition and natural ability you have.

John D. Rockefeller III

Flying is an art that takes knowledge, time, intensity, concentration and self-discipline. In the beginning there are likely to be deficiencies in knowledge and self-discipline. There will be excesses of intensity and concentration. A student’s perception of success and failure is often based upon erroneous assumptions. Making mistakes is part of the process. Asking questions is part of the process. Being upset with yourself and the instructor is part of the process. A mistake is not a failure. It is a survivable learning experience. The worst thing that can arise from a mistake in judgment or performance is for the person to believe that he can ‘get away’ with it again.

Gene Whitt

Since flight is not a natural function of man, since it has been slowly built and not suddenly discovered, it can not be suspended as the word freedom is suspended in the mind. It rests firmly on a structure of laws. Laws to which plane and man alike must conform. Not only must a man know how his plane is made, what it will do, how it must be cared for, but also whether it will will go high enough to clear any elevation en-route. He must know how to navigate through a seamless sky, what weather conditions he may meet on his way. All this he must know before he can win the freedom of a bird.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

“Wouldst Thou” — so the helmsman answered —
“Learn the secret of the sea?
Only those who brave its dangers
Comprehend its mystery.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow