We can’t be flying all the time, though some would prefer it. I admit I’m a lousy spectator. I’ve always wanted to jump into the ring and be a part of the action, but even I realize that it’s not all about doing. There’s more to flying than just physical requirements of stick, rudder and throttle. Life gets complicated when you’re on the ground, but the more cerebral aspects of aviation are part of its magic.
Enjoying the mental aspects of flying is just as rewarding as learning the physical skills. Becoming a better pilot is a process that constantly changes as we incorporate physical skills into muscle memory. Whatever stage we’re in, as we become more experienced, much of the satisfaction comes from thinking about our lessons and incorporating them into our mental memory.
Aerobatic pilots practice a lot, but they also do a lot of thinking. You could say they use their heads! A tank of fuel doesn’t last, but mentally processing the flight does. When you see an akro pilot doing a dance and walking through their routine on the ground, they’re using creative visualization. And, while visualizing a perfect aerobatic flight doesn’t always guarantee a gold medal, it helps us be more prepared when flying in the box.
Creative visualization is thinking about what you want to do, visualizing a positive outcome and using mental power to affect the results. Our minds can work against us when we’re stressed out or not in the “flow”—the state, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of “completely focused motivation.” Visualizing success can help us overcome negative thinking, like fear of failure. Aerobatic pilots gain confidence by visualizing a perfect routine on the ground. By the time they get in the air, they’ve already flown it.
At air shows, you see performers of the high-performance sport airplanes walking forward, backward, turning and spinning through their routines with their hands. This isn’t just for show. This helps the pilots visualize their flight.
When I competed and especially before a big contest, I fell asleep every night, not by counting sheep, but by closing my eyes and visualizing my aerobatic routines.
Sometimes, I would add a crosswind or a strong headwind that would want to blow me out of the box. I never practiced mistakes, only what I was trying to create—a perfect flight. I had many more perfect flights in my head than I ever did in the air, but I’m certain that this practice improved my performance.
The harder you train, the luckier you get. The more I visualized the routines, the easier it became to get into that meditative state where I could picture my airplane tracing perfect lines through the sky. The cool thing is that each of us has the ability to create the energy to affect a positive outcome.
It’s exciting to think about how you can use the power of the mind. One of my favorite books is Eugene Herigel’s Zen in The Art of Archery, where the sport of archery is the vehicle that brings the practitioner to greater understanding of archery and potential for enlightenment. Swimming, archery and golf all apply to sport aerobatics and perhaps to aviation in general because they’re solo endeavors supported by a team and depend on one successful move at a time.
Every pilot faces challenges along the way. A new taildragger pilot can visualize landing with a crosswind; an instrument pilot can plan an approach beforehand. In an article on Flight Log called “Visualization in Aviation,” the author says: “Whether we know it or not, we visualize all the time in aviation. Our briefings, for example, are designed to reinforce a particular departure/arrival procedure to be flown. When we brief a complicated approach chart, we’re visualizing the procedure to be flown—effectively increasing our performance while flying it. The same procedure applies to briefing emergencies. By visualizing the net result of an abnormality, we are more prepared to handle it, should it occur.”
The more laid-back cousin of visualization is simply watching. Don’t we all love watching airplanes? When I was a little girl, my mother would take me to San Francisco International to watch DC-8s take off and land. Aerobatic pilots watch airplanes for hours drawing lines in the sky. We have enough fences around airports to fence ourselves to China, but I still see people parked outside the fence looking skyward while eating their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.
The art of watching is seeing. If you’re learning to land or improve your landings, you can learn a lot about flying from watching airplanes land. This is how I learned the three-step Beechcraft Baron landing technique. Some Baron pilots, I noticed, landed a little too fast and seemed to “clunk” on to the runway, but then others land just above the stall speed and greased the landings. The pilots who greased their landings descending to the runway leveled the airplane just a few feet off in ground effect, and then let the wheels kiss the pavement just above the stall speed. I tried it out and learned that’s the way to land a Baron!
Mindful watching or watching with a purpose is called “critiquing.” Critiquing requires an observer—a coach or judge —on the ground to point out errors and techniques that help us tune-up the finer points of precision flying. This is the main way we perfect lines and angles. My coach, Sergei Boriak, is Russian and grew up in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Boriak was on the Soviet Aerobatic Team when I first met him in 1986. He didn’t speak a word of English, and ditto for my Russian, and the KGB didn’t encourage any friendly socializing. He emigrated to the U.S. and has been coaching aerobatic pilots ever since. I love listening to him on the radio saying, “Wait, wait, wait…now!” or, “Welcome back!” when I’ve flown a particularly good maneuver.
There are other ways of thinking about flying, like remembering, surrendering and trusting. Once, when I told a friend about other risky sports I like to engage in as a hobby, like horse riding, he told me it was too unsafe and that I’d hurt myself. This friend flies a lot of exotic airplanes, and so I responded that he doesn’t deny himself the thrill of flying his big boy’s toys. He told me that while he feels he indulges his desire to fly exotic machines, he likes to think about some of the more extreme things he has done and enjoy them from a better vantage point rather than repeating them. At first I thought he was being silly, but the more I thought about that statement, the more I realized it made a lot of sense. When we do things in airplanes that push our limits—say, scud running for example—we don’t have to repeat the experience. We can think about it in a deeper, more meaningful way, and relive the experience and learn from it.
A few years ago, I was flying at an air show at a large military base and had a conversation with a highly qualified U.S. Navy test pilot. He told me he had stopped enjoying flying and started fearing it because it was hard to shut out all of the engineering data. He asked if I had any advice on how he could relax and enjoy the flying more. I thought about how when I fly an air show, I have to focus on the big picture of spatial orientation while keeping the details in sight. I don’t consciously “think” about the details—they’re second nature, and low-level flying ultimately has to be visceral rather than techno oriented. An engineering test pilot, though, has to have a very narrow focus on the technical details, so enjoying the big picture might be more difficult. Our discussion eventually got around to “surrender” and “trust.” There’s only so much you can control. This is what I tell people who are afraid to fly on a commercial airline. Sit back and enjoy the ride, and place your trust in the pilot’s skill and the technology.
And what about dreaming? I’ve had vivid flying dreams my entire life. Just the other night, I was flying a King Air. It was dark and I had no cockpit lights, but I could see the runway up ahead where I was landing. I felt confident and in control. The landing lights were bright, and as I came in to land, I made a perfect touchdown but realized as I was rolling out I wasn’t on the centerline, but on the runway edge.
Who knows what it meant, but I believe that dreaming, thinking, visualization, watching, seeing, critiquing, discussing, remembering and surrendering are all ways to enjoy flying more deeply. Just like learning a foreign language, it’s in this way that aviation starts to become a part of you. Before you know it, the first thing you’ll do in the morning is look up at the sky and wonder which direction the wind is blowing. Then you’ll start thinking like a pilot.