Fly the airplane.

I used to be a pilot. I don’t fly anymore for medical reasons but in my heart I’m still a pilot. My pulse quickens when I smell jet fuel or hear the sound of an airplane passing overhead. I still planewatch at airports sometimes. I keep my skills honed playing with my flight simulator at home. And occasionally a kind soul takes me flying. But now I fly an audio console or a computer most of the time.

The lessons I learned from the instructors in the other seat are among the most valuable knowledge I possess, because many of those lessons carry over into other areas of my life. I know a great deal about meteorology and can usually rival or exceed the accuracy of the local TV weather gurus with my short-term forecasts. I can read a METAR report (coded weather observation) out loud — I saw a fellow at KCAM in Alaska do that on the air once and decided that was a skill I just had to have so I practiced until I could do it fluidly.

But I also learned a lot about planning, strategy, and decision making from those brilliant people who taught me to fly. One of my earliest lessons was taught over a cup of coffee in the pilot lounge.

“You’re at 8,000 feet, flying at cruise speed, flying a heading of 270. You’re in instrument conditions (zero visibility, in cloud) and you’re in mountainous terrain, but the highest mountain in the area tops out at 4,500 feet. Suddenly, the cabin is very quiet … the engine, for unknown reasons, has completely shut down and is developing no power.”

“Now tell me … what is your first task?”

I was momentarily caught off guard. I first suggested attempting a restart of the engine. “WRONG,” he said with a grin. Then I suggested locating the nearest airfield to my estimated position. “WRONG AGAIN,” he said. “Oh, crap,” I thought. “I should call mayday on the guard frequency.”

He looked at me as if I were the stupidest non-politician on the planet, clearly very disappointed but ready to make his point.

That point was one I’ve remembered and used all my life. When you’re a pilot, no matter what’s happened, your first and most important task is always to FLY THE AIRPLANE. Before powerplant management, before navigation, before communication, is the job of managing the four A’s (Attitude, Altitude, Airspeed, Azimuth) using the controls you have available. And that made perfect sense.

The engine’s just died — you’ve now got no power and some extra drag from the windmilling prop. But you’re flying the airplane. So you keep the wings level, you adjust pitch and trim to attain and maintain the power off best glide speed (VBG) for your particular airplane so that you’ll get maximum distance from the altitude you have left, and you watch your heading to maintain the course you were on before. Once all that’s done, THEN you can grab the mic and calmly declare an emergency, squawk 7700 on the transponder, grab the chart and see what fields are close, and work out the descent and approach. Then and only then, you might attempt a restart, maybe after switching fuel tanks. Priorities.

I recently was assistant director of a production of my favorite life-changing musical, RENT. One day we were talking about what happens when an actor misses or forgets a line, and I was instantly reminded of what happens when I miss a sound cue or make a heinous mixing error. In each case, if you let it, it will throw you. You’ll start thinking about the mistake and what you need to do to fix it, or how bad it was, and suddenly you’ve missed three more lines or cues.

So I told an abbreviated version of the story above to the cast, because it’s what I try to remember. FLY THE AIRPLANE. If you missed a line, you can worry about it later, but right now, the show needs to keep moving because others are depending on you. Forget the mistake and figure out where you are and what it’s time to do next. Instantly put yourself back in the flow. I have no idea if that was of any help at all to actors, but I know it’s served me well at the console. Managing 30+ microphones during Rivertowne’s production of Les Miserables was so fast-paced and complex that the occasional mistake was inevitable … but I had to instantly forget the mistake and FLY THE AIRPLANE or things would get very bad very fast.

It’s a great lesson, in my opinion, for any task that requires any concentration at all. When you’re driving and a tire blows, don’t freak and don’t dwell on it … keep the car under control and between the lines and get your foot off the gas, THEN calmly work out a place to pull over and do so, keeping the car under control.

Whatever you’re doing, remember your first priority and stick to it no matter what else tries to distract you.

And this morning, for some unknown reason, I woke up thinking of a piece of advice I’d like to give to the city council of my hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia. Guys, you’re charged with keeping the city running and making it a decent place to live and work. So please — PLEASE! — stop being distracted by the protests, and the statues, and counterprotests, and the embarrassment of being in the national news over something so awful. Stop trying to fix the problem by putting giant garbage bags over statues and renaming parks. Get back to work. FLY THE AIRPLANE.

1 Comment

  1. Sage and insightful. And, at this particular moment, so apropos.

    Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts.

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