The process of learning to really fly seems magical, the results superhuman. While soaring above the clouds is living a great dream of mankind, it is what we do. Clouds and mountains are still clouds and mountains. There are no tricks to being a pilot, just flying in the moment right now. Nothing special.
It can seem like there must be some clever trick to being an awesome pilot. Some secret power that turns mere man into piloting legend. Some people say that Chuck Yeager, the man who defined ‘The Right Stuff’ of test piloting, became an ace in combat because he had good eyes. He’s a natural good stick they say. In a 1985 speech he said he saw himself as “just a lucky kid who caught the right ride.” But it wasn’t luck. If you read more about Chuck, or if you get to know some other expert pilots, or maybe if you are even fortunate enough to fly with a master pilot, then you will eventually figure out that there is no special trick. It is not all luck or natural ability.
Chuck does have good eyes, and he sure does have some natural ability, and yes, anybody who flew fighters in WWII and lived has some element of luck with them. But master pilots have thought a lot about flying. They have thoroughly trained themselves. And they just fly right.
Consider some of these quotes I’ve collected over the years from the first man to fly past Mach 1 and live to tell about it, a double ace in WWII (including downing a German jet) and later head of the United States Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School, a man who also went over Mach 2 and got to fly an F-15 supersonic 50 years after first breaking the sound barrier, Brigadier General Charles Elwood Yeager. The swaggering right-stuff best-of-the-best, 'Chuck' Yeager:
“I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.”
“There’s no such thing as a natural-born pilot. Whatever my aptitude or talents, becoming a professional pilot was hard work, really a lifetime’s experience.”
“You can’t watch yourself fly. But you know when you’re in sync with the machine, so plugged into its instruments and controls that your mind and your hand become the heart of its operating system. You can make that airplane talk, and like a good horse, the machine knows when it’s in competent hands. You know what you can get away with. And you can only be wrong once.”
“Arrogance got more pilots in trouble than faulty equipment.”
“You’ve got to understand systems. Even in today’s airplanes, you have to understand systems. The better you understand them, the better off you are in case an emergency arises.”
“In the end, experience is what counts. The more experience you have, the better you are. And that’s true of anything you do in airplanes, dogfighting in combat, or anything like that.”
“The best pilots fly more than the others; that’s why they’re the best.”
“They don't build airplanes that take superhumans to fly them. If they did, they wouldn't sell very many of them.”
“If you are going to fly, do it right. What I really admire in a flyer is professionalism and consistency. I’m really impressed by a guy or gal who goes out there day after day and does it right — not fancy or flamboyant, but just constantly good performance. Lots of pilots talk a good game, and sometimes their stories get better with each telling. Don’t measure yourself by the stories of others. Seek to improve yourself — that’s the mark of a true pro.”
“All I know is I worked my tail off to learn how to fly and worked hard at it all the way. And in the end, the one big reason why I was better than average as a pilot was because I flew more than anybody else. If there is such a thing as ‘the right stuff' in piloting, then it is experience.”
“I have flown in just about everything, with all kinds of pilots in all parts of the world — British, French, Pakistani, Iranian, Japanese, Chinese — and there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of them except for one unchanging, certain fact: the best, most skillful pilot has the most experience.”
“Do something that you like. Forget about the pay for Christ’s sakes … Everybody that I’ve ever seen that enjoyed their job was very good at it. That included flying airplanes too.”
“I never let myself be afraid. I would just focus on the dials and concentrate on flying.”
“Being afraid is just a waste of time. You live your life and you die when it’s time.”
“I found you don’t want to react too quick to an emergency, because a lot of times you'd do the wrong thing.”
“The more knowledge you have about your airplane — your systems — the better your chances are of surviving when things start falling apart around you.”
“It’s almost impossible to describe the feeling: it’s as if you were one with that Mustang, an extension of the throttle…. You were so wired into that airplane that you flew it to the limit of its specs, where firing your guns could cause a stall … Maximum power, lift, and maneuverability were achieved mostly by instinctive flying … Concentration was total.”
“If you want to grow old as a pilot, you’ve got to know when to push it, and when to back off.”
“You do not waste time being scared. You concentrate on what is important.”
“I concentrated on what I had to do. If you panic, you die.”
“Never wait for trouble. You do what you can for as long as you can, and when you finally can’t, you do the next best thing. You back up but you don’t give up.”
“Rules are made for people who aren’t willing to make up their own.”
“The reason probably I spent 55 years and one month in Air Force cockpits and still survived is because I made it a point to learn everything I could about the airplane and the systems. Because that’s what keeps you alive when you have an emergency.”
Chuck doesn’t sound so special. He was even air sick when he started flying, physically throwing up the first time he was in an airplane. Read his quotes again. Notice that he doesn’t talk of talent or super-human skills or magical powers. Yet elite aviators with extensive testing/teaching experiences speak of him as one of the best pilots they ever flew with. Sure, like any fighter jock he had a huge ego, but when it comes to flying, he pulled on the same yoke as we do. He was tied to the same laws of physics. He had no ultra-secret pilot knowledge that he kept hiden from us.
Sam liked to tell students that the airplane doesn’t know who you are. The wing does not care that you are a well-respected doctor with a loving wife and four kids that need you. The aircraft does not know or care how big your house is, or how many degrees you have, or how you are going to work harder tomorrow. The wing will only do what you tell it to do. Nothing special. It doesn’t matter how many hours you have in your logbook. The wing will stall at exactly the same angle of attack every time. And if you do not recover you will die. All you can do is learn all you can, eliminate what is not required, and apply it every time. Nothing else counts.
Replica of Phoenician boat that circumnavigated Africa in 600 BC.
We've known about airmanship for a long time. Long before airplanes. It was disguised as seamanship. In about 330 BC an unnamed Phoenician seaman was busy while his boat was docked in harbor. Asked what he was doing, he said, “I am looking to see whether anything is out of order. There will be no time to look for what is missing or out of place when a storm comes up at sea.” Our ancient reporter describing the scene over 2,300 years ago continues, “I saw this man in his leisure moments, examining and testing everything that a vessel needs when at sea.” (Xenophon, 2013). Prepare. Practice. And then play.
In the 1973 Vince Lombardi coaching film The Science and Art of Football, the winning coach of the first two Superbowls said:
There are approximately 150 plays in a football game. There are only three or four plays in any game that make the difference between winning and losing. No one knows when the big play is coming up. Therefore every player must go all out on every play.
What is true for football is deadly true in aviation. The big plays are less frequent, but they importance can not be overstated. It’s coming, we just don’t know when.
Steve Fossett set 116 world records in aviation, including feats of flying, gliding and ballooning. He was the first person to fly solo around the world without stopping for fuel. He was an expert in risk management. He crashed and died during a routine pleasure flight in a simple light aircraft. Fletcher Anderson wrote the book Flying The Mountains, had 4,700 hours, yet died flying in the mountains. Bertil Gerhardt logged over 31,000 hours over a career that included flyng the Saab J29 and the Mach 2 Saab J35 Draken for the Swedish Air Force. He was a glider pilot, an airline instructor, and Sweden’s top historic aircraft display pilot. Landing a Spitfire at the Tynset airport in Norway after a routine flight he veered off the runway, flipped over, and died.
Two of the most experienced pilots in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol (CAP) crashed flying a light airplane together over familar terrain at night south of Las Vegas. Edwin Lewis had over 28,000 hours flying in the USAF, CAP, Pan American Airways and as a NASA research pilot. He was NASA-Dryden’s aviation safety officer and had an outstanding record that included the Distingished Flying Cross and many other awards. His flying partner was Dion DeCamp, the commander of the Nevada CAP wing, who had over 27,000 hours flying in the USAF, CAP and American Airlines. That’s over 55,000 hours of worldwide experience in one cockpit. The mountain didn’t care. They both died.
Pete Conrad, Apollo 12 commander.
Charles 'Pete' Conrad got a pilots license before he graduated high school, went on to earn a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Princeton University, excelled in Navy flight school and became a test pilot. As an astronaut he flew on Gemini 5, Gemini 11, Apollo 12, and Skylab 2, accumulating more than 1,170 hours of space flight. He was the third man to walk on the moon. He was the first commander of NASA’s first space station. He died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident in July 1999. No other vehicles were involved.
You might not know the names of NASA astronauts and elite test pilots Charles Basset, Theodore Freeman, Elliot See or Clifton Williams. The reason they are not famous names is that before getting to make history in space, they were all killed flying NASA T-38 training aircraft on routine flights. Space Shuttle astronaut, test pilot and fighter pilot S. David Griggs died after crashing a propellor T-6 trainer during a practice flight for an aerobatic demonstration.
Scott Crossfield, X-15 test pilot.
Famed pilot Scott Crossfield, the first man to go Mach 2, the first man to go Mach 3, and widely known as one of the best pilots/aeronautical engineers/educators in the world, died flying his piston-powered Cessna 210 going less than 200 knots. Legendary pilot Dale 'Snoot' Snodgrass was the highest time F-14 Tomcat pilot in the world, and after retirement from the Navy a highly-respected airshow display pilot in many aircraft. In 2021 he died right after takeoff, stalling and crashing a single-engine taildragger with the control lock engaged. Vicki Cruse, president of the International Aerobatic Club and a former US national aerobatic champion, fatally crashed during a 2009 qualifying flight. Sparky Imeson, a renowned pilot and instructor who had just passed 20,000 hours logged, the author of the authoritative Mountain Flying Bible, Shirt Pocket Mountain Flying Guide, Taildragger Tactics, and many other books, died in a 2009 crash in a Cessna 180.
There is no such thing as a routine training flight. The unforgiving physics of flight can’t read your resume. All these outstanding pilots are no longer with us because of a momentary event that didn’t care about how good they had been on other thousands of flights. We are all nothing special in the eyes of physics. Don’t let the distraction or mistake of a moment become the regret of a lifetime.
Steven Callahan was sailing across the Atlantic solo when his 21-foot sloop Napoleon Solo was holed by a whale during a storm. He had to abandon ship, and so entered the vast ocean alone in an inflatable nylon life raft. He survived an incredible 76 days drifiting lost at sea. It was not luck. He started sailing as a Boy Scout, and decided to become a solo sailer at age 12. He was a naval architect and highy experienced ocean-going sailer. He lived and breathed sailing. He wrote articles for sailing magazines. He had built the Napolean Solo. He had thought ahead about worst-case scenarios, specifying what was advertised as a six-man raft for his one-man boat, a decision based on a realistic appraisal of real-world requirements. And he had a surviviors mindset that knew in the eyes of the sea he was nothing special:
I’ve got to do the best I can, the very best. I cannot shirk or procrastinate. I cannot withdraw. That torn blue desert outside will not accommodate me. I have often hidden things from myself. I have sometimes fooled other people. But Nature is not such a dolt. (Callahan, 1986).
Sam said when he started flying, mountains and wings were just mountains and wings. Then he delved deep into meditation and psychology. He didn’t know what mountains and wings really were. What they represented. What the infinite possibilities were. But now, years later, mountains and wings are again just mountains and wings. A small mountain kills as good as a big mountain.
A USAF Armstrong laboratory study of F-15 flight lead pilots found that expert pilots when stretched to their limits don’t make procedural flying errors. They make cognitive errors (Waag & Bell, 1997). It is our minds that fail us. For master pilots, flight errors are a deadly inner game.
While he may not be as famous as Chuck Yeager, Captain Frank Tullo also learnt a lot about flying. After 33 years at Continental Airlines he retired as a DC-10 check airman. He has taught at California State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He was the chairman of the Air Transport Association Human Factors Committee. In an influential magazine editorial he wrote:
Errors are an inevitable part of flying. No matter how good our training is, we can never hope to eliminate errors. Nowhere in life can we ever muster enough brainpower and diligence to make mistakes impossible…. Even at our very best, we see a shadow cast by our own brilliance. (Tullo, 2001)
Sounds a little depressing. But once you accept that you are nothing special, and that you will make mistakes, the game becomes spotting them and correcting them and moving on. You need to develop a seventh sense for trouble. (Seventh? Remember that the vestibular system is your sixth sense — as in flying by the seat of your pants.) Has the groundspeed changed? That might mean a change in winds aloft, which in turn means a change in the larger weather pattern and a change in the destination forecast. Did the oil pressure needle move? Did I change fuel tanks? Did I consider the drift-down chart during pre-flight?
Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” It’s true. The quieter we are, the more we hear. Hold the stick more gently, and we feel the airplane more. And one of the senses we need to cultivate is a feel for trouble ahead. Gerry Bruggink, a former deputy director of NTSB Aircraft Accident Investigations, considers that being on the alert for hidden, unanticipated and unreported threats is one of a pilot’s most important responsibilities. He defines this inner art as, “accident sense: the cultivated capacity to foresee and forestall the development of potential accident scenarios.”
Sam told me I need to breathe deeply through my airmanship nose for things not being right. Feel for a disturbance in the Force. Notice when my accident sense picks up that something is not quite right. If I am not positive of my position, if I am not positive of the terrain, then I need to go to high alert. Head on a swivel. Climb away if there is any question of impacting terrain. Get more facts, become sure.
One of the best Airbus captains I flew with when I joined my current airline includes this in every flight attendant pre-flight briefing, “you are our ears and eyes in the cabin. You know the normal sounds and sensations of flight. So please call us as soon as you sense something is not right.” Great CRM, using all resources, expanding his awareness of the flight environment, and making this ‘accident sense’ a group effort.
Taxing out at the DFW airport in an old American Eagle ATR-72 for a flight that was already running late, we had a 'FLT CNTL' central alert come on then return to normal. Both the first officer and I start looking around the the cockpit for what was wrong. The system that locks the flight controls at the gate to prevent wind damage had flickered in and out of alert. A dirty microswitch in the indication system? Not unknown with this system on the ground. Hum. I engaged and disengaged the control locks several times. We exercised the flight controls. All was fine. I tested the lamps. We waited five minutes. There was no repeat of the indication. I was inclined to continue. The first officer casually says, “sure would hate the have the ailerons and elevator lock up right after takeoff.” Doh! I taxied back to the gate and we called maintenance. I trusted his nose for trouble, or the hairs on the back of his neck, or whatever other inner accident sense he was using.
No flight will be perfect. The best we can hope for is close to a perfect mind-set during the flight. You are nothing special. But it is the practice that counts. Always looking for errors, anticipating and accepting them as human. It is the pilots that don’t see and correct their errors that are truly dangerous. Love your errors, as they are one of the things that make each flight unique. You accept and correct, you live and learn, then move on to fly another day.
If you continue this simple practice every day, you will obtain some wonderful power. Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you attain it, it is nothing special.
Magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.
Skill is something you develop through cultivating an open mind, leaving your ego at home and using a methodical system of practice. Skill is where you learn there are no mistakes and only lessons. It’s where you learn that nothing is given to you, and it’s up to you.
I’ve seen people walk away from competition aerobatics before they had a chance to develop any real skill due to frustration. Skill takes grit and perseverance and is where you find what you are capable of, what you're made of. Skill is also where you start to appreciate and enjoy the process instead of just waiting to see what happens.
There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.
It’s just about going out there and doing the work. You leave no stone unturned. You don’t leave anything to chance. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But if you’ve given it your all, then you feel good about the effort.
The price of excellence is discipline. The cost of mediocrity is disappointment.
William Arthur Ward
One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.
To me it’s all about preparation. My team and I put years into my voyage to ensure it was as safe as possbile and to reduce risks.
It’s not like astronauts are braver than other people; we’re just meticulously prepared. We dissect what it is that’s going to scare us, and what it is that is a threat to us and then we practice over and over again so that the natural irrational fear is neutralized.
There are no shortcuts. If you’re working on finding a short cut, the easy way, you’re not working hard enough on the fundamentals. You may get away with it for a spell, but there is no substitute for the basics. And the basic is good, old-fashioned hard work.
I’m always thinking about what if this happens; what will I do? And the minute I don’t have any more options, I’d rather be on the ground.
Pilot #13 in a university study of elite RCAF pilots.
(Hohmann & Orlick, 2014)
Always expect failures — in systems and humans. Don’t let either kill you.
All my life, I’ve simply challenged myself to fly more precisely each time I step into the cockpit.
R. A. 'Bob' Hoover
Not perfection, but completeness is what is expected of you.
Flying a military jet is not a skill thing, it’s a head thing. It’s planning ahead, making the right decisions. Jets are very easy to operate, but the penalty for making a mistake is way higher.
Nature’s way is simple and easy, but men prefer what is intricate and artificial
The secret of skiing isn’t secret.
I like to do what I’m gong to do in competition over and over again … I like to have done the whole routine many times so I know that, whatever happens, I can do it.
They throw the ball, I hit it.
They hit the ball, I catch it.
When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
Great pilots don’t think they're the best. Only the mediocre are always at their best.
We cannot change our past. We can not change the fact that people act in a certain way. We can not change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.
Charles R. Swindoll
I stay focused in the airplane because I know right now that it is the most important thing going on…. I have to kinda become one with the airplane, I have to know where the airplane is all the time and what it is doing.
Like it or not, this moment is all we really have to work with. Yet we all too easily conduct our lives as if forgetting momentarily that we are here, where we already are, and that we are in what we are already in. In every moment, we find ourselves at the crossroad of here and now.
Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Mary Jean Iron
When we pay attention, whatever we are doing — whether it be cooking, cleaning, or making love — is transformed and becomes part of our spiritual path. We begin to notice details and textures that we never noticed before; everyday life becomes clearer, sharper, and at the same time more spacious.
I really felt comfortable doing the same thing over and over and over and over again. And that is one of the reasons I became good at cooking is because I enjoyed the repetition.
No matter who you are, no matter how good an athlete you are, we’re creatures of habit. The better your habits are, the better they'll be in pressure situations.
The more good behaviors you have, the better things turn out. It’s just, do people have the discipline to repeat those behaviors? That’s the tricky part.
Habits — good and bad — become instincts under pressure. In other words, the choices we make every day become our reflex on bad days.
Tammie Jo Shults
First we form habits, then they form us. Conquer your bad habits or they will conquer you.
How you live the minutes of each day is how you live your life.
We do not err because truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. We err because this is more comfortable.
The basic principle of spiritual life is that our problems become the very place to discover wisdom and love.
I’ve learned that it is what I do not know that I fear, and I strive, outwardly from pride, inwardly from the knowledge that the unknown is what will finally kill me, to know all there is to be known about my airplane. I will never die.
Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths.
A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.
By our errors we see deeper into life.
Flying is just a constant correction of errors, that’s all it is. you’re always fixing something that’s going wrong.
Pilot #12 in a university study of elite RCAF pilots.
(Hohmann & Orlick, 2014)
Listen, sense, receive. Become aware of that which is both within and without, of the spaces between your thoughts, of the blue sky behind the clouds. Listen, as if for a sound in the night. Enter the passive receptive and learn.
I don’t think I possess any skill that anyone else doesn’t have. I’ve just had perhaps more of an opportunity, more of an exposure, and been fortunate to survive a lot of situations that many others weren’t so lucky to make it. It’s not how close can you get to the ground, but how precise can you fly the airplane.
R. A. 'Bob' Hoover
Life is mostly about mundane experiences. When you start thinking that only your most thrilling experiences are significant, you have already lost the most precious thing in life, the ability to fully immerse yourself in every experience.
We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our
exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the
first time …
When the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire. And the fire and the rose are one.
T. S. Eliot
The sky does not misunderstand. The sky does not judge. The sky, very simply is.
Whatever religion we follow, as aviators, we have only one revered mother: Mother Nature. Love her, understand her, and respect her.
You’re very, very present, which has always been my favourite part of the sport. To feel connection with a very powerful force.
Know your capabilities, and those of the airplane, and don’t exceed either one.
R. A. 'Bob' Hoover
The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes closest to perfection.
We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us are everything.
At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport that the ‘C’ swimmer finds unpleasant, the top level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring — swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say — they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals.
Coming into the 5:30 A.M. practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.
The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers, 1989.
This thing we call luck is merely professionalism and attention to detail, it’s your awareness of everything that is going on around you, it’s how well you know and understand your airplane and your own limitations. Luck is the sum total of your abilities as an aviator. If you think your luck is running low, you'd better get busy and make some more. Work harder, Pay more attention. Study your [flight manuals] more. Do better preflights.
The Intruders, 1994.
The whole exercise was to be as good as you can get. On the limit. And Jimmy drove in such a way that he was never over the limit, he was never erratic, he was never spectacular. He was spectaculally fast, but in an unspectacular fashion. He was smooth and clean and beautifully handled.
Talking about how F1 champion Jim Clark drove, interview in the documentary 1.