Soaring above Fear

I donated an hour flight to a non-profit organization ( several months ago and the auction winners and I took to the skies yesterday morning. It was the first time in a small plane for one of them, and like most who dare to ascend to the heavens above with me, they did great!

One of the things I like to do in a familiarization flight (once my passengers are comfortable) is to show them how well a plane can fly with the power essentially off, in a simulated engine failure. To the surprise and delight of most, little changes apart from the noise level. The plane continues to fly as before. The plane does not (and neither does a helicopter) fall out of the sky.

The reason behind this non-event is relatively simple. The wings of an aircraft must move through the air if the airplane or glider is to produce sufficient lift to balance the weight of the aircraft. Engines produce thrust, which moves the aircraft forward, causing airflow past the wing and producing lift.

A glider, however, relies on the force of gravity to move it through the air. Think of a beach ball rolling down a gentle slope. The ball moves forward because gravity pulls it downward. If the ball was on flat ground, gravity would push it straight into the ground and it would remain stationary. A glider simply inclines its wings slightly downward, tracing an invisible slope downward, and gains lift from the movement of the air past its wings. To continue to produce lift, a glider must always move downward relative to the air mass through which it is moving.

This simple lesson teaches passengers many lessons. First and foremost, it shows how an understanding of the underlying laws can remove doubts and allay fears. Second, it provides a safe and controlled example of an experience that is typically described as “eerie, yet strangely soothing.” Put differently, comfort comes packaged in many ways. Finally, it proves that the line between terror and confidence is an easy one to cross if you approach it correctly.

Many live their lives shackled by irrational fears which are typically held to be well-founded or justified. Most fears, however, are groundless paper ceilings through which you can move swiftly and safely with the right attitude and information, especially when you invest sufficient trust in the process of overcoming.

At a certain point in relation to any fear you hold, you have to invest more trust in the possibility of overcoming than you do in the likelihood of failure. At the end of the day or the year or your life, the fear either leaves you or you leave with the fear. Why not conclude In victory?

The choice is yours.

Against the Wind

Don’t be afraid of opposition. Remember a kite rises against, not with the wind.” – Hamilton Wright Mabie

I received a silver pin today from the Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association congratulating me on 25 years of membership. Unbeknownst to me, I have now officially been a pilot for a quarter of a century. Man, do I feel old!

Pilots have a more intimate relationship with the wind than the average person. They think about it often. The most critical phases of flight – takeoff and landing – are performed into the wind as takeoffs and landing performed downwind can be quite dangerous. If I learned anything from my early flight training, it was this: that headwinds, when you are leaving or settling back onto the ground, are your friend.

So it is in life. Once you realize that headwinds – the forces that oppose your progress when you’re doing the right thing – give you more lift, you are suddenly in position to turn that which used to annoy you into something that you relish. The energy carried for the forces that oppose you can be put to use in the accomplishment of your aims. It’s a beautiful thing, really.

The good news is that you don’t have to bang your head against the wall for 25 years to figure it out. You can start here and now. Don’t be afraid of opposition. It can always be used to advantage.

The Value of Decision

Lexi, my Red-tailed Hawk hunting partner, has taught me a great many things over the last two-and-a-half years. I have a deep respect for her hunting style, which centers around an uncluttered capacity for decision.

Human beings have it relatively easy. We don’t, generally speaking, have to risk life and limb every time we eat. We don’t, in our homes or at a restaurant, have to perform death-defying feats that push us to the edge of our physical and mental envelope to keep our food from escaping before it is served. Hawks do, each and every meal.

There’s nothing like facing a life-or-death situation to test your capacity for decision and your resolve once you’ve committed. Lexi approaches the split-second decisions she must make when chasing her quarry with with an intense focus and an inimitable grace. She is not, of course, endowed with the complex (and often overly and unnecessarily complicated) consciousness that her falconer and his fellow humans possess; nevertheless, her majestic example serves as an inspiration and a challenge, a call to continuous refinement of the capacity for decision.

The greatest single impediment to decisiveness is found in a troubled heart. The mental faculties are not typically the root of indecision, in fact, it is the overly and unnecessarily complicated emotional environment in which we tend to flail around as we move pillar to post instead of steadily forward on our journey through time. A troubled heart disrupts the normal thinking processes, creating a state akin to hypoxia.

As a pilot who has had specific training in hypoxia-awareness, I can aver to the fact that hypoxia’s debilitating effect on the mental processes is secondary to the peril of the false and misleading sensation of well-being that accompanies it. The problem with hypoxia is that you tend to feel great, if not euphoric, at the very moment that you should be most concerned.

So it is with a troubled heart. When your heart is troubled – either overjoyed or dejected – your perception of what is really occurring, that is, the truth of the matter, is skewed. As such, when you are faced with a difficult decision you are wise to first come to the point where your heart is as untroubled as possible. When your heart is at rest your mind has a much better chance at working as it was designed to work, i.e. a tool for rational thought rather than a tool for rationalization.

When your heart is troubled your mind will tend to waste its energies trying to make sense of the distorted and unreliable information it is receiving from your heart. Like walking through a hall of mirrors or making your way through a busy room while wearing a pair of your friends glasses, you have to think extra hard to find your way through the situation and the course you take is rarely optimal.

How you let your heart come to rest is for you to decide. Sometimes a couple of deep breaths and counting slowly to ten will do it. Other times indulging in a brief distraction to “take your mind off of it” for a moment can help. Some, I’ve heard, even benefit from “sleeping on it” as the opportunity permits. There are many techniques that can help you in this regard, but ultimately you’ll find that deliberately cultivating an unflappable appreciation for the privilege of decision and adopting a radiant stance in all that you undertake is the key to maintaining an untroubled heart every waking moment of your life.

If you have a better day today because of what you’ve learned, don’t thank me. Thank Lexi. Thank the natural world around you. Give thanks and give freely of yourself and better days will no longer be the exception, but the rule.

Flaming Enthusiasm

Flaming enthusiasm, backed up by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for success.” ~ Dale Carnegie

Swiss pilot Yves Rossy is making history as the first person to achieve sustained human flight using a jet-powered wing strapped to his back. While his accomplishments to date are impressive, three points in particular stand out to me as being worthy of personal consideration and application.

The first two were points Rossy made during a Fox News interview in 2008. Rossy jets along at an average of 125 mph, with no flight controls beyond subtle movements of his body, and he says that he must work hard to relax in the air because “if you put tension on your body, you start to swing around.” I’ve found this principle to be valuable on many levels. It works mentally, physically, emotionally and is the secret to unlocking genius, original thought and unmistakable self-possession.

The second is similarly instructive: “I’ve had many ‘whoops’ moments,” Rossy said. “My safety is altitude.” Altitude is almost always your friend in aviation. It buys you time to think, time to plan, time to act. The same is true in relation to every phase of living. Your attitude determines your altitude and altitude is your friend. When you are possessed by flaming enthusiasm, when your heart and mind are caught up unto the spirit of victory, you gain a cushion of air that helps you to keep you from crashing to the ground when the usual factors that provide lift in your life fail you.

The final point is Rossy’s brief mention in the TED video clip below of his translation of the principles learned at the controls of the airplanes he’s flown into practical application while he’s wearing the jet pack. Life is full of such synergies, and the more successfully you parlay the breakthroughs and victories in in part of your life into the other, the more likely it is that you will shorten the learning curve in your next endeavor.

I hope that you have a few minutes to enjoy this interview. The feeling might come up in you that Mr. Rossy is crazy and that his enthusiasm borders on madness; such is the fate of an aviation pioneer who is obsessed with defeating the “flying problem.” After all, the Wright brothers were viewed by the locals at Kitty Hawk as two crazy nuts who thought that they could fly.

Slow and Steady

Valuable is the the person who can maintain a sense of calm in the midst of any storm.

I had the opportunity to fly through a mild rain shower last night over the mountains, a triple threat that tested my ability to stay focused, to remain calm and to keep myself ahead of the airplane. While the plane flies the same at night, in the rain and over mountains as it does on a clear day over the flatland, more care is obviously taken whenever flights are undertaken that have less “outs” than others, and last night was no exception.

Emotions can creep up on you, especially if you are in the habit of giving any feeling that wanders by a room in the inn of your heart. Your heart must be open for you to enjoy life, but you must be specific as to exactly what you open it to. Those whose hearts are open 24/7 to any and every spirit that comes along eventually land themselves in a heap of trouble.

One of the goals to which I aspire and toward which I have often pointed in my daily blogging is that of self-possession. This is a far cry from self-obsession, in fact, it requires that you relinquish self-concern long enough to see that your composure is born from within, and is not a reflection of what is going on round about. It’s not too hard to see where you stand relative to this measure, for at any given point in time you are either self-possessed or, for lack of a better word, possessed.

Every time you remain strong and self-possessed in times of trouble you reveal to yourself and others that it is possible to remain equanimous in any, if not every circumstance you face in life. If you’ve ever had an axe or a hammer come loose from the handle mid-swing, you know from practical experience that flying off the handle never does anyone any good. Neither does panic. Have you ever seen someone make good choices while panic-stricken?

Whether you’ve experienced this or not, you can choose which feelings you give weight to. Sure they might rise up in you like a beast out of the dark and stormy sea, but you have a choice in the matter. After all, while you may be “all heart,” you also have a brain, don’t you? Whenever obviously destructive feelings well up in you, put your mind to work. Think about it. Consider the likely repercussions of rolling in that cactus bed. Make an informed decision as to which feelings you will give your precious attention.

Those who are self-possessed make no excuse for their actions. They never justify careless expressions, cruel words, spastic reactions with blame, for no matter how impertinent, foolish or irresponsible those around them might be, they always assume responsibility for not only taking, but maintaining the high road.

There are endless opportunities in the day through which you can develop new and more constructive habits of reaction. My favorite are the little ones, for they afford you easy victories with little risk and they tend to be more abundant than the big, once in a lifetime, make-you-or-break-you moments.

To someone who is afraid of flying my little victory last night might seem daunting, but to me it was just another chance to employ composure at a new and deeper level. Watch out for your opportunities today and in the week to come. Look to keep your calm, not because you are suppressing emotions, but because you are choosing to back a winner and not the same old approach that has gotten you into trouble before.

On Parenting and Flying

Prepare for the unknown, unexpected and inconceivable . . . after 50 years of flying I’m still learning every time I fly.” ~ Gene Cernan

I’ve learned a great many lessons as an aviator over the years, all of which have left me a better pilot. What I didn’t expect, however, is that those experiences would also improve my parenting skills.

Here are a few of the lessons I discovered in the air that, properly heeded, can make a you a more capable parent on the ground:

  1. A good pilot doesn’t manhandle the controls. A good many pilots are “Type A” personality and they must learn to resist the temptation to force the aircraft to submit to their will. Most aircraft are inherently stable and as such respond more favorable to a gentle touch. Lesson learned: Just as a thumb and a finger on the yoke are almost always more effective than two clenched fists, finding the least forceful intervention when dealing with children provides for an overall smoother experience for both parent and child.
  2. A good pilot uses all available resources. This is true in both pre-flight planning and during the flight. In small aircraft a pilot may even enlist the help of his passengers to keep an eye out for traffic on a busy day. Lesson learned: children love to participate, long to be helpful and love new challenges. Look to include them creatively in what you are doing, especially around the house. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from others who have more experience than you.
  3. A good pilot stays ahead of the aircraft. Many aviation accidents occur because an inexperienced (in relation to the craft or the mission) pilot gets behind the aircraft in his thinking. This is an uncomfortable and unsafe position that every pilot finds himself in at some point in his flying career. In such critical moments he must take a deep breath and say to himself: “Fly the airplane.” Lesson learned: Your children are going to get out ahead of you every now and again. Don’t sweat it! You’re an adult and there is no better time than this to take a deep breath and bring your experience (both to-do and to-not-do) to bear on the situation.
  4. A good pilot learns not to let distractions consume his focus. Distractions are inevitable. A strange noise, an unfamiliar sensation, an unusual sequence of events can happen when you least expect it (if not during every flight over large bodies of water). Take note, keep it in perspective, but don’t forget to…yes, you guessed it…fly the airplane! Lesson learned: Be willing to be surprised by your children. They will inevitably come to you out of left field, despite your best attempts at making them good little girls and boys. Stick to the basics where you can…there is no replacement for a loving, caring and attentive parent. By the way, don’t be afraid to do the unexpected with your children. They will love it!

As I mentioned previously, parenting is a sacred trust and there are many lessons which can be translated from other activities in your life if you are observant and keen to connect the dots. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

Goals, Strategy and Tactics

I remember being somewhat daunted in my early flying days at the prospect of taking a long cross-country flight. When I first began doing solo cross-country flights as a student anything longer than 50 miles from my home airport was a long way. Nowadays, I regularly fly to locations up and down the East Coast, to destinations as far as upstate New York to the north and Key West to the south. I have yet to take a cross-country flight in the literal sense of the term, but I am sure that day will come and when it does, I will be well-prepared.

A thought crossed my mind shortly after I began making longer flights on my own that has stuck with me ever since: the epic, long-distance flights are nothing more than a series of short flights strung together. For instance, a 1,500 mile flight in a small plane is naught but three flights of 500 miles, one made after the other. A simple thought, really, but one that makes flights of any distance comprehensible, if not within reach.

So it is with anything in life. Even the most ambitious goals can be broken down into their component parts. Such thinking requires a combination of holistic and linear perspectives; on the one hand, you must be able to envision the entire project or plan, on the other you must be able to define the steps that must be taken to move from where you are to where you’d like to be.

When I take on a large project, such as learning a language or to fly, I state the goal and its accompanying parameters (time frame, cost, etc) as soon as possible. From there I articulate the various strategies I could employ to achieve the stated goal. After considering, weighing and ranking the strategic approaches I pick one and then develop the tactical approach to accomplishing my strategy. My thinking, then goes from the general (goal) to the specific (tactics) by way of an intermediary (strategy).

All of it, of course, is subject to change. I make it a point never to be so rigid that I break when the winds of circumstance blow differently than hoped for or anticipated. The mighty oak’s strength is derived not from its rigidity but from its pliability.

Winston Churchill once cautioned: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” In all my years of piloting I have only had to abandon my strategy of flying home to northeast Georgia in my own plane once. An equipment malfunction precipitated a precautionary landing in Washington D.C. and I had to get back for meetings sooner than the timeframe necessary for the repair. I didn’t balk, hesitate, whine or whimper. I booked a commercial flight and made my way back. Any time you have to adjust your strategy it can be as simple as that…or not. The choice is yours.

The wonderful thing about the circumstances around you is that they offer feedback on how effective your well-intentioned strategy and supporting tactics are working. I have had to make a number of course deviations over the years to avoid unexpected weather. Most of the time I can fly around or over the weather ahead, but occasionally the conditions ahead worsen beyond my comfort level or my airplane’s operational limitations. Again, when conditions change, don’t be so foolish as to assume that your strategy or tactics are set in stone. Remember that flexibility is an essential component of strength.

If your strategy leads you to a brick wall or a cliff, where one step further would result in tragedy or loss, stop where you are. Assess, modify your approach, but don’t give up! Chances are that the obstacles require nothing more than a minor change to overcome, though occasionally you might be required to scrap an entire plan and start in a new direction. Rather than see it as a failure on your part or confirmation of your stupidity or lack of vision, realize that no amount of prior planning can completely insulate you from the vicissitudes of life which come largely as a result of the free will of each and every person on earth at any given time.

When you are faced with a challenge, don’t buckle under the pressure. Use the pressure to your advantage. Look for the baby steps in your immediate circumstances that will allow you to inch your way to your goal. When it comes to forward progress, every inch counts!

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” ~ Albert Einstein