Monday, September 27, 2010

Who's Got The Touch?

What is it about flying that feels so good? We've both puzzled over this for years, right?

I appreciate a pretty mountain valley, breaking out of an ILS at minimums, sunrise over the Tetons, and the other wonderful sights we see from the air. Circling with other gliders is a beautiful, dynamic (and dangerous: there was a fatal mid-air in Texas in August) delight for the eyes.

I appreciate the wonderful people I've met through flying, and even the not-so-wonderful ones (I remember thinking "Now I know why your wife divorced you" while one difficult student flew.) I wouldn't give that up for anything.

Instead I wonder about how flying feels.

The aeronautical engineer wannabe in me has a rational reply: Flying straight and level means that you don't feel anything. It's no different from sitting in the living room. There are no accelerations or forces. In gliders there is little vibration. No, there is nothing to feel about flying.


Some kind of feeling is coming back to us through the stick or yoke. No, that's not right, you don't even have to have your hand on the controls. Once, back in the pre-9/11 days, I was jumpseating (that is, riding in the cockpit) in a Boeing 737 from San Francisco to San Diego. The 73 was familiar, as were both airports, and I was focused on the transportation (and being in San Diego for Spring Break!), not flying.

We taxied to runway 1L, all very familiar, while the captain and first officer ran their checklists. "United blah-blah-blah turn left heading two-niner-zero, runway one left, clear for takeoff." Oh this is just too boring and routine. Yawn.

The captain advanced the power levers. Wait, there's no flight director; she's staring at a plain attitude indicator. Is this a mistake? Should I say something? I decide to keep my peace. We start to roll. "V1," says the FO, then quickly, "Rotate!"

And then I knew: she had the touch. As I looked out the side window at the familiar GA parking area, although from an unfamiliar angle, I felt that this airplane was in the hands of a master. The rest of the flight went the same way.

So what is this "touch" that you can feel even from the jumpseat? I think it's related to another touch, the healing touch. I've felt this from a few physicians. My childrens's pediatrician is a former big-10 quarterback. Once as I left his office with one my children he patted me on the shoulder to wish me well. He has the touch! He can heal just by "laying on hands." Send your children to this guy.

Most of us don't have this touch. That does not mean that we cannot be good pilots, and it does not mean that we cannot fly smoothly; it just means that we have to to work harder at it.  And it means that we have to find joy in that work.

But what kind of work? I had a recent revelation about this. I have practiced Tai Chi Ch'uan, the Chinese martial art, for many years. I don't make a big deal of this, and many people have no idea that I do it. Tai Chi has improved my balance and proprioception, and I am at least a little more relaxed. I've also made good friends through Tai Chi.

The center of Tai Chi practice is the form. Different schools have slightly different forms, but no matter the specifics the form is essential. One of the too many things we try to be aware of in practicing the form is what one teacher calls "The Tai Chi ball": At certain points, your hands (relaxed into the beautiful lady's wrist position) face each other. You can feel something there, which of course you cannot see. That's the Tai Chi ball. Some days it's large, some days it's smaller, some days it's vibrating. But there's nothing there!

In Aikido there is a similar concept of the unbendable arm: Imagine water shooting out your fingers to a point across the room, and suddenly your arm becomes infinitely strong. I use this during the trickier balance portions of tehe Tai Chi form, shooting water to the ceiling and using that to hold myself upright. I once described this to a teacher as "cheating", but she just shrugged.

Many martial arts have forms that one tries to master, always falling short. Some days I practice the Tai Chi form, some days I practice the ILS. Are these so different? One friend, a straight-arrow farm boy who now captains an RJ, once remarked that he flew a lot better when he didn't let his shoulders tense up. Musicians say the same thing.

And the connection between martial arts and Chinese calligraphy go back for centuries. My friend's relaxed his shoulders before hand-flying an ILS in 1/4 mile visibility (yes, I was in the airplane), and the great calligraphers have to reach that same state in order to draw that expressive line.

The point? Flying can be an art like any other. And while we need to master the technicalities, we also need to master the art. As the current cliche goes, "right brain - left brain." Or "yin-yang." Take your pick.

Dave English uses his site to explore the Zen of Flying. It's worth a look.

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At September 28, 2010 at 11:30 AM , Blogger Sarah said...

Huh. Tai Chi, eh? I should have guessed from previous mentions of "Sam Hamilton". Coincidentally, I recently restarted my own Aikido practice. It's been a whole two weeks now, including an intensive seminar weekend. I'm surviving, though not getting any younger, and resolved to try to get back into reasonable shape so I can do this. So far so good!


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