Mastering The Zen Of Flying

To have options, one must be single-minded.


Around 600 BCE, Lao Tzu quit a good government job to seek his fulfillment in nature. He summarized his resulting thoughts in the Tao Te Ching, which can be translated as something like The Way of Nature. Its central tenet is that wisdom can be achieved by accepting reality and its causes, and responding accordingly. Questioning or pushing back against nature causes disharmony. In essence, one must go with the flow of nature to avoid unhappiness.

We can apply Lao Tzus precepts to our flight planning and ultimately our aeronautical decision making. We can, and should, plan a narrowly defined trip with a specific departure time and date, develop a rigorous flight plan with calculated times, speed and distances, and arm ourselves with details about winds, headings and checkpoints along the route. But when the day arrives and as the nature of the flight evolves, we need to be open and willing to allow the plan to evolve and adapt. We must remain flexible, have options, and implement them when necessary.

Adapting a plan is not the same as abandoning it. Instead, it involves accepting reality and making changes to accommodate the ever-changing circumstances nature gives us. A good example of Tao flying can be heard on center frequency somewhere on the continent nearly every day: Center, 12345 requests left deviation for weather.

Going with the Flow
Questioning the natural flow leads to disharmony, especially when conditions in the moment are not compatible with your flight plan. Fixating on the mission and details can lead you into mentally negating observed facts in the air, especially when conditions in the moment are not compatible with your pre-flight briefing. The Tao flyer has a constant willingness to adapt their plan and respond to conditions at hand. He or she is willing to let go of their planned course of action in favor of safer options.

For example, we all have read accident reports and listened on frequency to pilots remaining in IMC when they would be in the clear if they were a few thousand feet higher. Why are they at 7000 feet in the soup when its clear above 9000? Chances are its what they filed for and were cleared. Its almost as if they are stuck with a specific plan in their head, even when weather or other events conspire against it. By contrast, the Taoist pilot would always seek harmony, particularly when dealing with cloud ceilings and tops in IMC: Just because your filed altitude puts you in IMC doesnt mean you must remain there.

Zen Master Aviator
There is a term-zen master-frequently used in modern pop lexicon to describe someone who demonstrates detachment and control in the most stressful situations. It is not a bad thing to which an aviator may aspire.

A goal in zen Buddhism, as it is practiced, is to achieve enlightenment by overcoming the burden of rational thought. Practitioners ponder enigmatic riddles-koans-that are intended to jar the thinker toward a more enlightened path. According to Websters, The effort to solve a koan is designed to exhaust the analytic intellect and the will, leaving the mind open for response on an intuitive level. With that in mind, here are some aviation koans-and their lessons-for you to contemplate.

To arrive late, you must consider leaving early.
There are many opportunities to make a go/no-go decision on a flight. The opportunity is primarily bounded by the cost (in time and money) of alternative modes of travel. For example, a typical business trip might involve a 375-nm flight. Its three hours by aggressive routing over mostly road-less wilderness and mountains, or sometimes four hours if the pilot flies more conservatively and keeps highways and cities beneath him. The driving route is 9-12 hours, depending on weather. Travel by commercial airline costs about $800, pretty much burns a full business day and theres the additional indignity of being needlessly probed by TSA.

The best way to maximize success and safety on a trip like this is to have multiple launch windows before you run out of alternate travel options. The old adage, If you have time to spare, go by air, still applies, but you get better results when departing well ahead of your expected arrival, even by a day or two.

By leaving early, you can be much better off as you actualize your experience with the weather. Departing early also gives us a chance to truly see what the weather is and perhaps calibrate a plan based on actual knowledge of what is in the sky. The old military adage, No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, might be restated as, No flight plan survives first contact with the weather. Leaving a day or two ahead will sometimes get you in front of the weather coming in and gives you experiential data on what the numbers on the chart really mean in terms of actual flying conditions. Another advantage of leaving early is you can always turn around and still have the option of driving or flying commercial. Take the pressure off by leaving a day or two early. Its safer.

To reach your destination in a plane, you must plan not to arrive in one.
Another rule of zen flying is being willing to let go. It means you have the ability to abort the trip at any time in the planning (or flying) stage. There are always alternative means of getting to your destination. You can drive, you can fly commercial, you can even catch a bus or a train. Its also reasonable to completely blow off the trip entirely and stay home.

As you get closer to the launch time, however, you can run out the clock on travel alternatives. Ticket prices rise and at some point you have to give up the prospect of flying and simply hop in the car and start making road time to your destination. Making an early no-go decision is often key to survival. Once you are past this point, the chances of contracting getthereitis go up dramatically, not the chill zen master behavior to which you should aspire.

To make your commitments, you must first not commit
As an example, once I opt to proceed with a trip, I often call the folks on the other end to lower expectations. The lower they are, the more freedom I have to make safe choices. At this stage of the trip, I like to be completely non-committal. When asked if I will arrive in time for lunch, dinner or before dark, I tend to provide vague equivocating answers that reflect eastern mysticism like, I will arrive when I get there, or, I will land when it is time.

While others dont always appreciate my equivocation, I prefer to avoid advertising hard arrival times. The less I commit to arriving at a specific time, the more Im inoculated against get-there-itis. Most people respect the safety aspects of leaving your arrival details open ended. If they dont understand that you prioritize safety over punctuality, perhaps you should reevaluate their role in your life.

Spent money is your savings.
The best insurance policy I have found to ensure Im not overly locked into my go decision is to depart with five $100 bills in my emergency kit. Thats enough to cover a day or two on the ground just about anywhere in the U.S. When I turn the ignition key, I consider the money spent. My emergency kit frees me to feel comfortable spending the night at any location along the way. It can go toward meals, hotels, rental cars, taxis, etc. And if I dont spend it, its there for the next flight.

Since I practically live in the backwoods, I also often pack a tent, sleeping bag, stove and food. This broadens my options further. There is a great sense of calm that comes with knowing I can depart on a business trip and return from a camping trip.

The best way to arrive may be to return.
Once you commit to a flight, a harmonious balance between your chosen path and the many factors that affect a flight often can be achieved by reversing direction and seeking an alternative path. In some cases, once you take off and proceed according to your plane, all paths close and you must make a choice to land and wait out the weather, or even return. Returning to the home airport is often the best choice.

One winters business trip in particular stands out. I was still exploring possible paths to my destination when a hole opened up above my home airport big enough to allow me to climb to 14,000 to see if I could get on top of the winter storm. In the air, I had the opportunity to overhear a jet coming in reporting that they were at 17,000 and were still in the soup. I spiraled back down to the airport, put the plane away and got in my car. That day another plane tried returning to my home airport in weather I chose not to fly in. That flight resulted in two fatalities attributed to controlled flight into terrain in IMC conditions.

Before planning to arrive you must plan not to return.
It is easy to fixate getting to the destination to fulfill the trips purpose, but thats only half the real trip. The other half is the return. Gethomeitis is the natural corollary to getthereitis. Gethomeitis starts with the decision to fly in the first place. If the forecast for the departure is doubtful enough, the one for the return trip several days or a week later could easily fall well beyond the power of weather forecasts.

The prognostications, charts and weather-forecasting products you assessed before flying the outbound leg can easily exceed their half-life while youre still on the road. A week or two out, and you might as well sacrifice a chicken to examining chicken entrails than rely on weather forecasting.

Much of my business travel covers multiple days at the destination. So not only do I have to plan my flight to the destination, I also have to be reasonably assured I can return home in a timely fashion. For that reason, I try to wrap up business just ahead of weekends, giving me the freedom to take the whole weekend to safely complete my return trip home. It opens up options and takes off some of the pressure to return.

I have also pulled the plug on business trips when my departure was assured but the return trip was in serious doubt. Its a tough call because I often have to base it on very speculative weather data products like the Weather Channel or Accuweathers 10-day forecast, but thats whats available.

Someday, maybe reading chicken entrails will make a comeback. The alternative for the zen aviator is to be prepared to stay and wait out the return-flight window.

If you want to leave, you must plan to stay.
By way of demonstrating my commitment to remaining flexible, and going with the flow, on more than a few occasions I have been stuck at my destination for days and even weeks waiting for weather to clear up enough to return home. Once I was stuck for three days with 18 inches of fresh snow on the ground just a mere 20 minutes flight time from home (but a six-hour, one-way drive due to mountains and road conditions). One key to my survival was having everything with me I needed to run my business. Luckily, I was able to hunker down in a hotel and not get behind with my work. You may not have that luxury, in which case remaining flexible can be even more important.

On another occasion, I literally camped out in a hangar for more than two weeks after my intended return trip vanished in a fog and icing conditions that wouldnt go away. Having a long-term plan and the supplies I needed to go with the flow allowed me to patiently wait out the weather. And Ill admit it helped that the hangar had a heated apartment with a bed, shower and Internet.

Your destination is not necessarily your destiny.
The last chance to exercise the go/no-go option is after departure. Departing your home airport should never be viewed as a commitment to arrive at your destination, even if you filed a flight plan. You are the PIC, and you should never yield that authority at any phase of the trip. Not just in your passengers minds, but in your own, you should reserve the right to land anywhere along the way at any time. You may have to communicate that you have changed your plan, you may have to explain to the sheriff why you are on the road, but you are not obligated by any plan, even if it is filed.

The zen-enlightened way to think of departure would be as opening a universe of possibilities and outcomes to explore. One of them, your preferred outcome, is stated in your flight plan. The rest are eventualities and one is what will actually happen. Dont confuse your flight plan with your destiny, grasshopper, or your destiny may end up as an NTSB report.

If you have to stop to wait out weather, be content with where you are. Embrace the delay rather than pushing back at the lost time. There is no lost time when you are at peace with a loose itinerary and value your life more than your plan.

Letting go
We admire the flight discipline of our counterparts in military aviation. They fly extremely capable machines with precision. After traveling hundreds of nautical miles at breathtaking speeds, they can hit precise time over target with tolerances counted in seconds. And I admire our commercial operators, and their exacting precision in safely and consistently nailing gate times.

We also love the feeling of planning our own flights to similar levels of precision. Landing on a point and closing a flight plan within a minute of the planned arrival is not only doable, it can be a source of pride. As pilots, we are taught to plan, plan and plan some more to have discipline and precision and intention in our actions. Excessive adherence to this discipline can be an early link in the accident chain.

Even though the precision and discipline of our colleagues who fly iron is enviable, our aircraft are not nearly as capable of overcoming the elements as theirs. A long trip will inevitably present hard choices people in the flight levels dont have to face. So rather than trying to emulate or duplicate the flint-eyed precision of a jet captain, relax and go with the flow.

One thing that can keep us alive is not getting cognitively locked into a specific plan after departure. Strive to achieve a zen-like oneness with the many possible routes that can get us to our destination.

The Tao of Flying
The Tao of Flying requires not imposing your plan on the natural world but adapting it to respond to conditions as they unfold. Zen flight planning means picking a wide range of launch times and return times, well ahead of your needs. It means making your decision to fly an exploration of the possibilities rather than a commitment to a single outcome. Having many contingencies and routing possibilities allows us to embrace the different permutations of weather.

None of us are Tao or zen-master aviators, but we can try to apply these eastern philosophies to mitigate the all-too-familiar pressure we impose on ourselves when we choose to fly. My family, friends and colleagues would rather see me again more than see me on time.

Mike Hart is an Idaho-based commercial/IFR pilot with more than 1000 hours, and proud owner of a 1946 Piper J3 Cub and a Cessna 180. He also is the Idaho liaison to the Recreational Aviation Foundation.


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