The Inner What of What?
Ever experienced the blinding brightness of near-perfection in the cockpit? Would you like to learn the hard-won techniques that define elite aviators? Modern psychology and neuroscience research has found that experts are truly different from average performers. The profound differences are not always easy to see, for they are found inside the mind. It is not talent or luck. But it can be learned. It is the Inner Art of Airmanship.
This website will not teach you how to fly. But if you are a pilot maybe it will move you a little closer to touching personal aeronautical excellence. This is a practical guide to peak experience flying, where some proven techniques and esoteric sounding ideas from psychology research and elite sports are translated into concrete cockpit terms. It's all about the perpetual pursuit of piloting perfecton.
Most books and magazine articles for pilots look down for flying lessons in fatal crashes; unconsciously copying the viewpoint of clinical psychologists that have studied unfortunate people with mental problems much more than they have researched experts and champions. Psychology journals traditionally cited studies of flawed reasoning about six times more often than they cited studies of successful reasoning (Christensan-Szalanski & Beach, 1984). But increasingly research is looking at how people get good at something. Noted Professor of Psychology Abraham Maslow long ago laid out this alternative methodology: "If we want to know how fast a human being can run, then it is no use to average out the speed of a 'good sample' of the population; it is far better to collect Olympic gold medal winners are see how well they can do" (Maslow, 1971). Don't get stuck accepting mediocre piloting performance. "What we call 'normal' in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don't even notice it ordinarily" (Maslow, 1968). Here we will look upwards to examine what the most skilled connoisseurs of flight can teach us about acquiring aeronautical excellence. It turns out there are many more places to look for flying lessons than in twisted wreckage sitting in a smoking hole in the ground.
Part of the formal framework behind this site is the new and powerful branch of human knowledge called positive psychology. This field of study is now bringing exciting results that we can all use in our own lives. At Harvard University, Psychology 1504: Introduction to Positive Psychology, quickly became the most popular class on campus, with more students enrolled in it than any other course. The instructor of those overflowing classes, Dr. Tal D. Ben-Shahar, noted early in the first lecture in the Fall semester of 2006 that counting the subjects of psychological journal abstracts for over 30 years he found over 5,000 papers dealing with anger, but only 415 dealing with joy. There were over 41,000 papers dealing with anxiety but only 1,710 dealing with happiness. Over 54,000 dealing with depression but only 2,582 dealing with life satisfaction. That's a depressing 21:1 ratio in favor of studying the abnormal or the malfunctioning rather than the excellent or the elite. But thankfully that ratio is changing, now there are many superb researchers focusing on the academically neglected side of human nature—how average people become amazing, and how a normal life can be spent happy.
This is not just rah-rah TV pop-psychology feel-good mumbo-jumbo, but real solid science with real solid results. It's not Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura saying you can just do it right if you try harder, as that approach has never been found to work and is certainly looked down upon by professional psychologists (Arkowitz & Lilienfeld, 2010). The psychology bits here comes from solid, well-respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. And it's stuff we didn't know a few years ago. Psychology professor and Science journal publisher Alan Leshner has stated, "We have probably learned more about the brain in the past twenty years than in all of recorded history" (Leshner, 2007). Some of what we're now learning is astonishing. Scientific findings have shown elite performers using some of the techniques discussed here "imply multiple unusual or even unique capacities . . . the extent to which certain psychological capacities can be developed has been underestimated" (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).
This website explores and explains the warm uplifting thermals of superior human ability. Sport psychology has long studied how athletes improve, and we'll use their knowledge where it is appropriate. Many reviews of this research have found that "elite performers have been consistently shown to make greater use of psycholgical skills and strategies than their non-elite counterparts" (Hardy, Jones & Gould, 1996). There is a long tradition in Eastern practices such as archery to master the outer performance through inner processes, and we'll see how these concepts are now being recognized and tested by Western psychology. We also draw from the extensive recent explosion of research into expert performance, the significant mental differences between the amateur and the skilled professional in many activates. It is a distillation of wisdom and spirit from successful pilots, athletes, astronauts, sailors, surgeons, race car drivers, neuroscientists, clinical and research psychologists, cognitive engineers, Zen monks, philosophers and—maybe the most tellingly named of all—martial artists. Some of the names I quote from may not be familiar to you, but a mini-biography attached to every quote would soon get unwieldy. Know that I have sought and selected people who attempted and achieved excellence in whatever field of endeavor they practiced. And anyway, whatever the outer sport or profession, it is their common inner path that is important. The psychology studies are fully referenced for academic integrity, so as to credit the original researchers and to show I'm not pulling this stuff out of my … hat. And for every concept introduced, I will bring it back to how we apply it in the cockpit.
This is an attempt to study the mindset of a master pilot. There are some tools you can use to become the pilot you have always wanted to be, some tools to create the life you most want to be living. The prize is immense. The only real cost is your investment of time.
Inner? We are investigating the most important airspace in aviation—the six inches between a pilot's ears. New brain imaging technology and advanced neuroscience research is starting to make sense of the once unknowable neuronal nebulae in our skull. The human brain is made up of over 100,000,000,000 neurons that are dynamically linked together by maybe 100 trillion neural connections. That's more than 1,000 times the number of stars in our galaxy; incredibly fantastically complicated; the most complex structure in known existence. However this is an exciting time in history as we are increasingly aware of how our brain works, and how to improve individual functioning. The human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment, yet how many of those can we consciously attend to? There is a vast unconscious mind that processes information outside of our excutive control. As a professor of clinical neurology and well-known neuroscientist put it, "we have learned more about the brain in the last decade than we did in the previous two hundred years" (Restak, 2009). And we have learned how to function better, partly by learning to shape the hidden unconscious.
This is a personal journey inward, with the goal of vastly increased performance in the cockpit. We are all familiar with the easy to understand outer goal of flight: going safely from A to B. There are boat-loads of books on navigation and aerodynamics and aircraft systems to help us with this goal. We take written exams and pass flight tests showing we have all the knowledge and skills to perform the external goal within certain safe standards. However planes still crash. Pilots get bored.
Enter the inner game. Played inside the mind of the aviator, it is a dance with lapses in concentration, complacency, weak decisions, hidden biases, errors in execution and our self-inhibiting bad habits. It is the start of a journey away from mere pilot proficiency, aiming instead at excellence in aviation, excellence in life. The journey inward may be the longest, but most satisfying, flight we will ever undertake. Crew Resource Management (CRM) talks of managing the many external elements; inner flying is the balancing of our own skills, knowledge, mind, body, dreams and soul with the goal of melding to the wing. Being one with the wind.
Most of us have flown with the miserable jerk who knows every word of every paragraph in the flight manual; but at the end of the day must be considered a below-average pilot. There is no flexibility, no artistry. These poor people are painting by numbers—with predictably sad results—when they should be using an aeronautical paint box to boldly yet smoothly draw whatever they see in front of them. The highest level of piloting is to soar above the books to become an aerial artist. Dancing with the clouds.
Problems with airmanship are often at the core of the eighty something percent of aviation accidents that get blamed on what is called human factors. The exact percentage varies mostly with how we decide to define the term human factors, but the 80% number has not changed much since World War II (Hobbs, 2004). It's about the same story and the same percentage for the older art of seamanship (Buck, 1989). Sometimes the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in reviewing an accident comes right out and identifies the cause of a fatal accident as "basic airmanship." NTSB investigator Steve Demko used that phrase about a 2005 Challenger business jet accident where the crew demonstrated many lapses of professionalism before destroying a perfectly good jet, adding that the airmanship failures were a "flying 101 type of thing" (Collogan, 2006).
Airmanship can be hard to define. Aristotle would have recognized it as the intellectual virtue of phroness. The august Oxford English Dictionary notes it is an imitation of seamanship and horsemanship; which reminds me of how much we may be able to learn from these long-practiced disciplines. Seamanship, at least according to the 1886 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, is "the art of sailing, manuvring, and preserving a ship or a boat in all positions and under all reasonable circumstances." For the better part of a century the OED stated that the first recorded use of Airmanship was on the 21st of July 1864 (yep, long before we had airplanes) by the British Daily Telegraph newspaper. It had the meaning of, "skill in managing a ballon; aeronautism." I like the non-gender-biased word aeronautism, but since the word aeronaut never caught on, I think we are stuck with airmanship. However, the OED was off by a few years on the first use of the word.
It was an uncredited author who first used the word airmanship, in a New York Times article with the fun title 'The Aeronautic Argonauts' published on the 7th of July, 1859. The piece was about a balloon flight from St. Louis that "positively established the superiority of the air over the earth and the waters as a traveling medium," and included the sentence:
In the voyage of Messrs. Wise and La Mountain . . . we see all the elements of what we suppose we must call airmanship; a distinct reference to the varying currents of the atmosphere, a quick eye to perceive the changing tendencies of the succesaive atmospheric strata; machinery for wielding the power of the air to the will of aeronauts; resources for meeting the violence of aerial storms. (New York Times, 7 July 1859)
So I take from this that the word airmanship was created to mean awareness of the weather, understanding available resources and an ability in maneuvering the aerial vehicle.
More recently, the FAA defined airmanship as, "a sound acquaintance with the principles of flight, the ability to operate an airplane with competence and precision both on the ground and in the air, and the exercise of sound judgment that results in optimal operational safety and efficiency" (FAA, 2004). That's a good solid update, but maybe not worth over 140 years of waiting. Tony Kern (former Chief of Cockpit Resource Management, United States Air Force, and author of the classic book Redefining Airmanship) went further in describing airmanship when he wrote that:
So is airmanship a process, a state, a skill or an outcome? It turns out it is all of these things. A review paper presented at a NATO research and training symposium on military aviation human factors defined airmanship thus:
A personal state that enables aircrew to exercise sound judgement, display uncompromising flight discipline and demonstrate skillful control of an aircraft and a situation. It is maintained by continuous self-improvement and a desire to perform optimally at all times. (Ebbage & Spencer, 2003).
These two sentences contain several powerful understandings. Airmanship is a multi-dimensional concept that enables us to have skillful control of an aircraft, make good decisions about the flight, and is tightly linked to uncompromising flight discipline. It is not something outside of the pilot, but rather is a personal state or mind-set. Airmanship is an inner condition tied to continuous self-improvement and manifesting itself as optimal personal piloting performance. This is the airmanship we will strive for.
Studies have shown the vast majority of pilots believe they are above average in airmanship (Wilson & Fallshore, 2001, Greenwald, 1980). Of course, half of us are not. But we can all get better. Much better. Will you join me on a journey into the Inner Art of Airmanship? Flying the plane, grooving with gravity . . .
Master pilots share thoughts on the Inner Art of Airmanship
Captain John Wiley
Many have written about this and I believe there can be little doubt that there are aerial artists. Having done some painting, I was surprised to find how much science and how many disciplines are involved in putting paint on canvas. It is more than just slopping color onto a surface. The really good painters are also very disciplined and learned. And, in many cases, they continually seek to improve their efforts. They are not satisfied with maintaining a skill. They want to enhance and broaden it.
From this, it is easy to see from walking into any art show, there is a wide range of people passing themselves off as artists when in fact, they are dilettantes, dabblers and impostors. They can talk all day about art but are unable to demonstrate mastery. From that, they seek to obscure their inabilities in new babble. Thus we get people smearing chocolate on themselves and calling it "art."
In the aviation community, I believe there are three groups, much like any other community. There are the hackers who do it for various reasons, who are mostly competent and can demonstrate some skill. Like any bell curve, this group is a minority. The second group is the largest. The ones who want to improve and who have more than basic skills, but like the local artist and Leonardo, there is a huge chasm between the talents and abilities. The final group, smaller than the hacker's group, is made up of the aerial artists. They are able to blend science, ability, discipline, skill, and a myriad of other components into a work of art. Those who see them perform know they have been in the presence of greatness. The hackers are intimidated. The second group is inspired and awed. The artists view it with astonishment and wonderment, knowing the effort it takes to excel.
— John Wiley
John was a UASF pilot in Vietnam and retired from US Airways as a 19,000 hour check airman typed in the A-320, B-707, B-727, B-737, B-757, B767, CE-500, DC-9 and Lear Jet. He wrote this for Inner Art of Airmanship in 2002.
Master pilots share thoughts on the Inner Art of Airmanship
Captain George Lee
To me airmanship is all about the big picture and situational awareness. It is very much about being one step ahead of events, acting proactively rather than reactively and I would say that is a common thread through each of the types of flying that I have been involved with.
In my opinion the most important ingredients contributing towards [piloting] excellence are:
— George Lee
George won three World Gliding Championship titles, flew the F4 Phantom in the RAF, and was a 747 check airman for Cathay Pacific. He wrote this for Inner Art of Airmanship in 2013.
Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakes.
— Carl Jung
Aviators call it airmanship; mariners call it seamanship. These labels describe abilities that go well beyond the competent deployment of technical skills. They imply a capacity to see the broader picture, to think ahead and to draw upon a wide range of knowledge and experience so as to perform demanding work safely, elegantly and effectively. It means having a deep understanding of all the various factors that can impact upon task performance for good or ill. It also entails a willingness to engage in all aspects of the job—tedious or otherwise—to the best of one's ability.
— James Reason
No doubt if I suggest that driving a car at high speed is an art, along with music, painting and literature, I should be greeted by some very cutting remarks by students of the accepted arts; but I really do consider fast driving as an art, an essentially twentieth-century art, and one demanding as much theoretical study, natural flair, learning and practice as any of the classical arts.
— Denis Jenkinson, first sentence of The Racing Driver, 1958
Seamanship, just like anything else, is a an art. It is not something that can be picked up on one's spare time; indeed, it allows no spare time for anything else.
— Pericles, speaking to the Athenian assembly, c. 432 BCE
Flying is an art, an imperfectible art.
— Harrison Ford
Much beauty exists beyond what we can see.
— James Miller
Self reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,—