The Big Sky Theory

mathOn any given day, there are about 87,000 flights undertaken, and at any single moment, there are between 5 and 10 thousand airplanes (commercial and private) in the skies over the United States alone. According to the FAA, on an average day, controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights, 27,178 private flights, 24,548 “for hire” flights, 5,260 military flights, and 2,148 cargo flights.   And these numbers don’t include private pilots who choose not to talk to ATC, as I often do when out cruising the neighborhood or when flying around non-towered airports.

There’s so many airplanes up there at once it’s a wonder they don’t bump into each other more often.   They don’t, it seems, because relative to the sheer volume of atmosphere in which they fly, all those airplanes actually don’t take up a lot of space.   The relative volume of airplane to the volume of sky in which they fly being the reason that they don’t bump into each other more often is called the “big sky theory.”     And statistically, given the ratio, the chances of one airplane bumping into another should be close to zero.

But although it is happening less and less, it does happen, roughly a dozen times a year, especially in crowded airspace (such as busy airports) where airplanes are more likely to converge. The big sky theory, it appears, doesn’t work that well, because the statistical probability of it ever happening is very close to zero.

Once, at a party in the living room of the Victorian house I was renting as a student with several roommates in Santa Cruz, California the math instructor and brilliant folk music satirist Tom Lehrer entertained us by demonstrating statistically that it was impossible to get wet when walking through the rain.   Perhaps it was the blackberry brandy that mysteriously found its way from a bottle in my back pocket to my tummy that prohibited me from understanding the arithmetic, but his statistics appeared impeccable and his argument was compelling.

Now, I may not be able to tell you the formula for chi-square off the top of my head, but I can work my way around ANOVAs, MANOVAs, and one of my favorite statistics (and Russian movie stars)—ANACOVAs, with fluency. Compared to highly trained academic statisticians, I still sit at the kid’s table, but I retain some perhaps egoistic pride in my ability to do discriminant function analyses, and I can work my way around most research articles I read.

The big sky theory doesn’t work for similar reasons that you really can’t wet when walking through the rain.   It is very easy to misunderstand (to be generous) or deceive (to be cynical) with statistics.   (I am fond of “proving” to kids that I have 11 fingers by counting down from 10 on one hand and then adding five when I get to the other.)

That is why Joel Best’s book “Damned Lies and Statistics” and its subsequent editions should be required reading for anyone who reads anything, pretends to know something, and hasn’t studied statistics. It should also be required reading for journalists, with whom I have particular antipathy for perpetrating the most heinous of statistical misstatements.

Theories can be extremely convincing, especially when backed by statistics.   As an autism “expert,” I once described in detail the theory behind how the preservative thimerosal, used in the MMR vaccine, can cause autism.   I had a room full of family practice residents convinced, possibly because I sprinkled the explanation with statistics. (The proportion of thimerosal in vaccines, the multiples of mercury based on the FDA’s own limits of safety, the correlation between mercury poisoning and autism symptoms, etc.)   The theory can be made to look rather compelling, but it’s just wrong. These residents were smart cookies, but I could have just as easily convinced them that I had 11 fingers.

One of the many problems with statistics is that it is a very poor method for predicting low-frequency events, such as rain in California, earthquakes, violent behavior, or midair collisions. It is nearly impossible to account for all the variables required for a low-frequency (or extremely complex) event to occur.

The driveway to my domicile is located a half-mile up from a highway.   Although I typically drive that half-mile slowly, the other day I had to swerve to avoid a squirrel that decided to dart in front of my car.   Sadly for both me and the squirrel (but mostly the squirrel), we collided. If I had to create a statistical model that would attempt to predict the likelihood of me colliding with a squirrel down that half-mile stretch of road, I can assure you that it would reveal that colliding with a squirrel could not happen in thousands of lifetimes.   Statistics, it seems, cannot take into consideration the notion that squirrels appear to have a robust death wish, or have a secret ritual in which the transition to adult squirrelhood is marked by darting across a road in front of Lexus crossovers with balding drivers.

So, you see, it isn’t that difficult to prove, statistically, that it is nearly impossible to get wet when walking in the rain.   And really, it should never be necessary to look out your window when piloting an aircraft because the chances of bumping into another airplane are infinitesimal.   If you believe the statistics, that is.


Angle of Attack

angle of attackAnything can “fly” if you push it through the air, or propel it, as you might have done with a balsa wood airplane as a child.   Or, if you played with dolls instead of airplanes, threw your Barbie across the room because your mother refused to let you wear your party dress to school. But if you aimed the airplane or the Barbie, or the Barbie in the airplane, straight ahead of you it quickly would have been pulled down to the ground by the relentless force of gravity.

For an object to continue on its path upwards it needs a force other than the thrust of an energetic arm to oppose the pull of gravity.   Physicists give this mysterious force the simple but poetic name “lift.”

Lift, in an airplane, is created by the difference in air pressure above and below the wing.   Due to the shape of the wing, air flows smoothly below the wing, but is disrupted above the wing by the wing’s curvature.   This disruption causes gaps in the atmosphere, lowering the pressure above the wing such that the higher pressure beneath “pushes” the wing upward toward the lower pressure.

That is why nerdy, snooty types take joy in saying that it isn’t really the airplane that is flying, but rather the wing.   For the most part, wings “carry” the fuselage and its passengers upwards. Not incidentally, when a pilot wishes to “roll” an airplane, that is, to rock its wings so that one goes up and the other goes down, he or she merely changes the shape of its wings by raising and lowering ailerons (a section of wing that is capable of moving).

Now, if you think about it for a moment, in order for the difference in air pressure to be created by the wing at all, the wing needs to have an air mass to oppose it. A wing won’t fly in a vacuum—which is why spacecraft don’t need wings at all. (Without gravity, there is no need for lift, and “up” and “down” have entirely different meanings; essentially, there is only “here” and “there”.)

Now, lest you think all this silliness is just random aviation arcana, I would suggest that it is rather important prelude to understanding the notion of “angle of attack,” which is the topic of today’s lecture. Simply stated, if you were to imagine a line drawn from the front edge of a wing to the back, and call that line the wing’s cord, then the angle between the cord and the wind is called the “angle of attack.”   It is a beautiful name, as so many things are in aviation, because, in essence, the wing attacks the wind, and the result of that altercation is not fight but flight.

If I haven’t lost you yet, you should begin to appreciate the richness of this metaphor.   First, you simply can’t get anywhere–you can’t even get off the ground, without creating a difference. Combine that difference with energy in the form of thrust and you really can take off.   It gives new depth, at least for me, to the old French saw “vive la difference!”   There really is no vive without difference.

But, too much difference may get you in trouble and lead to a stall.   You see, when a wing exceeds its critical angle of attack, the air above the wing will burble, and the pressure difference needed for the wing to fly disappears.   The wing “stalls,” is overtaken by gravity, and tumbles toward the earth.

I had a mentor who once said that the only difference between creative people and crazy people was that creative people get paid.   Sometimes, I suppose, that may be true, but sometimes crazy is just taking creative a bit too far.   Difference may be essential for flight, but too much difference may be hazardous.

As good metaphors would have it, exceeding one’s angle of attack and stalling is also a danger of metaphors themselves.   One risks the danger of creating meta-metaphors, and rapidly spiraling toward oblivion.   So, in a desperate effort to maintain your attention and remain airborne, let me lower my wings and get literal.   Perhaps it is just a simple, physical truth that in order to achieve flight we must make a difference.   That could be as simple as trying a new brand of coffee bean, adopting a neglected dog, or if you’re so inclined, creating a new vaccine.   But going too far ahead of the curve might land you out of a job or earn you a ticket to the few remaining loony bins.   Just remember to aim high, but when you begin to feel the burble, lower those creative wings of yours.

There will be a quiz next week.













Play Missedy For Me

Returning home once from a flying lesson, my wife asked me what I had worked on that day.   I excitedly told her that I worked on “missed landings,” and that I “went missed” three times in one day!

She seemed puzzled, and said something to the effect that, yes, it was foggy that day, but her brow remained crinkled.   When I asked her what was wrong, she timidly said that it seemed dangerous to be landing an airplane in such misty conditions.   It took me a few seconds before I realized that she heard my saying “missed landings” as “mist landings,” and that I “went mist” three times!

I wished I had really meant to say that I “went mist,” because it was clearly more poetic, but while I often get overly poetic in my prose, I rarely speak that way intentionally.   It was, simply, another mist-understanding, and all I felt was amused and some shame at being done in by a homonym.   It wasn’t uncommon for my wife and I to be speaking different languages to each other, and this particular mist-communication (stop it already) was delightfully benign, but many, if not most, misunderstandings have toxic outcomes.

I suffer from an over-attachment to the literal.   I can’t honestly say that such a problem arises out of some scholarly or writerly perfectionism in which –as commandants of writing camps are wont to repeat—there is only one word that is ever precisely correct for each situation.   It is, rather, possibly a biologically driven manner of thinking (he said frustrated by his own lapse into dualism), a way of perceiving the world that many have attributed to gender differences.    While I have many feminine characteristics, when it comes to following a set of instructions, alphabetizing my record collections (I still have them), constructing a chair or deconstructing an argument, I am hopelessly male in my tendencies.

The chief problem (of many) in stereotypical maleness is that one about forests and trees.   I may be able to tell you all about the tree in front of me, but sometimes I am clueless about what forest I am in, or even realizing that I am in one.  This can turn mundane conversation into both silly and profound argument.   The silly end of the spectrum is exemplified by the misunderstanding that occurred some months back when I was scolded for (after all these years) mixing up the long forks and the short ones in the silverware drawer. How can I be wrong? I stood them on end, and put the longer ones in one bin and the shorter ones  in the other.   NO! “Longer,” as any civilized spouse will know, refers to the length of the tines, and not the entire body of the fork.

On the deeper end, accusations can go flying when one person insists he or she said one thing and the other insists it was another thing, or no such thing at all, and the consequences are severe.   When you asked me if I would like to pick up our child after soccer practice and I said I would and then you assumed that meant that I would actually pick up our child rather than that I simply would like to but instead had to be at the office for a meeting so the child was left abandoned and feeling entirely unloved—that sort of thing.   (This actually never happened, but that is generally how it goes.)

John Gray’s “Men are from Mars…”, according to Harper Collins, is the largest selling hardcover book of nonfiction in history, spending over 2 years on the best-seller list. It sells so well that Gray’s “Ph.D.” still adorns the cover of the book despite having been received from a non-accredited correspondence school (i.e., diploma mill).   His work was loosely based on the research of the very legitimate psycholinguist Deborah Tannen. I have never read “Men are from Mars…” although I started it but couldn’t get past the first few paragraphs.   (If there’s two things I can’t stand, it’s pop psychology books and seeing white men dance– even though I wrote one myself and on occasion have been seen dancing.)

But I have read two of Deborah Tannen’s books, which to some degree bridges the pop and “legit” genres. She asserts, among many other things, that men typically engage in conversation for different functions than do women.   Men engage primarily to discover their current status in the power hierarchy and/or to learn what activity they are being required to do at the moment.   Women, generally speaking of course, engage in conversation primarily to serve the function of a shared emotional experience.   These are certainly broad generalities, but I have found them helpful, nevertheless, in sorting through the mist.

I have learned, mostly through my work as a therapist and the much more difficult work of being a spouse, how to converse like a girl.  It’s still a bit like throwing a ball with my left hand, but it helps to remind myself before engaging in a conversation that the purpose of the conversation is not to learn what I have to do or where I stand but rather to have a shared emotional experience.   It can be rewarding, like reading a good book or going to the theater, but sometimes I become mystified (mistified?) and have to work my way out of the farrago by rewinding the words I heard and struggle to find their hidden meaning.

I suppose my testosterone rises and suddenly the forest transforms to a collection of disparate trees and I feel like a lost child wondering if his parents will ever pick him up from soccer practice.

In the end, there may be little difference between missed communications and mist communications.   In an airplane, pilots “go missed” when there’s just too much mist to see the runway, which may or may not be beneath them. It’s just safer to miss an approach than it is try one’s luck at a mist approach.   Did you get that, or did you go mist?



Reading the Wind

UnknownI want a windsock–  a nice new one, bright orange that can be seen from miles away, with trusty ball bearings that are quiet and free as– you guessed it, free as the wind.   But please, as kind as both you and I know you are, don’t go rushing to Amazon to get me one.  Let me tell you why.

Wind is invisible to the human eye, but we know it is there because we can see and measure its effects.   It can be still and quiet, enfolding us peacefully, or in its extreme it can carry us away and violently transport us to Oz.   It is especially important to pilots, because it is the very medium through which airplanes fly.   It is the sin qua non avion, the thing without which there would be no flying.

Wind is merely the shifting of the atmosphere, caused by the unequal heating of the earth’s surface.  Heat rises from the earth, and the heat that rises changes the temperature of the atmosphere, which in turn changes the pressure of the air.   Lower pressure air yields to higher pressure air, and that is the wind.   There are, of course, more subtleties, such as Coriolis force, friction at the earth’s surface, and jet streams, but the shifting of air masses due to pressure differences accounts for the vast majority of what we call wind.

In our primary training, we learn to “read the wind.”   We are taught to look for the movements of tree limbs, flags on flagpoles, and whitecaps on the water.  We learn about the wind-reading instrument located on our posterior side below the back and above the legs, which in my family was referred to by its technical name, the “tush”.  And the devices located at airports designed specifically for the sole purpose of revealing the wind’s secrets, such as the tetrahedron or the omnipresent heretofore-mentioned orange windsock.

Reading a windsock is not as simple as looking at the direction it is pointing and how far it is sticking out.   Those are key elements, but are much less important than looking for the things that may truly be “gotchas”.    Besides merely direction and velocity, the windsock will tell you the variability in direction, the stability of the velocity, and the character of gusts.   Friendly gusts will come at you from a single direction and drop off slowly.   Nasty gusts that are intent on ruining your day will suddenly snap the windsock to attention and then just as quickly cause the sock to lose its erection—never a good thing.   Even nastier gusts cause the windsock to dance like a white person, frenetically in all directions, revealing turbulence close to the ground or perhaps even the presence of the invisible pilot nemesis, Morris Microburst.

Our moods and the moods of those around us are like the winds that surround us in that they are invisible to the human eye but certainly there.   With no convenient windsock to tell us which direction those winds are blowing, we sometimes are left with having to wing it and go alone.  If we are fortunate enough to be in an intimate relationship, sometimes we learn to read our partner’s moods by the crinkling of the forehead, or the sudden brisk, snappy retort.   But reading our own feelings can be more challenging.  When my partner asks me what I am feeling, the only feeling I am immediately aware of is annoyance at being asked what I am feeling.   That is because, despite my years of reading feelings in others as a psychologist, and even tuning into my own within the context of a therapy relationship, outside of the therapy room I spend most of my time in my head.  I am too busy figuring out how to fix the refrigerator to label the fact that I am angry enough to kill it, and I am not convinced that labeling that feeling will help me to find the right nozzle for my air compressor.

My own best emotional windsock is the physical cues my body reveals.   Years ago, during a particularly “interesting discussion,” my partner accused me of wanting to leave the room.   I asked her why on earth she would think such a thing, and she pointed out that for the last five minutes I was straddling the threshold of the room; I literally had one foot out the door.   Busted.

Of course these are things I should know on my own.  Do I have a knot in my stomach that might reveal anxiety or fear, or perhaps tension in my face or a shortness in my breathing?  Truth be known, there is a point at which labeling the nature of the wind is helpful and eminently important in effectively managing it.   Knowing I am angry calls for different reactions than knowing I am grieving, just as knowing I have a 15 mile an hour variably gusty wind 15 degrees off the runway calls for a different landing technique than a steady wind on my nose.

That is why I can always use a nice, new windsock, and why you can’t buy me one.

The Annual

imagesI returned home from Saigon last week with my airplane’s annual inspection nearly completed.   A backup battery was replaced, along with a set of three new tires, bearings greased, airbags and their control device replaced, and a half-broken door release handle fixed.

Owners of airplanes typically have mixed feelings over Big Brother’s requirement that we subject our airplanes to annual inspections.   The negative side of the equation is obvious: inspections cost a lot of “aviation units,” a term invented by pilots who prefer not to disclose exact dollar amounts to their spouses.

On the other hand, the benefits are equally as obvious.   The fact that the airplanes flying above us are thoroughly inspected by licensed mechanics at least once a year undoubtedly makes those flying inside them and those on the ground below them a lot safer.

When Wednesday rolled around, and my calendar reminded me that I had to fast from 9pm that night until my appointment with my physician the next morning, I couldn’t help but smile at the coincidence that both my airplane and my body were being checked out simultaneously.    The FAA requires that pilots over age 40 have a physical every two years, but since I turned 50 I have been getting my own physical annually.

I am not sure that my physician, who is about my age, enjoys poking into my orifices nearly as much as I enjoy looking under the cowling of my beautiful Diamond airplane.   I do hope, and am more than reasonably certain, that he knows a lot more about the internal workings of human bodies than I know about internal combustion engines.   Fortunately, just as one doesn’t need to know how a car engine works to be a good driver, one doesn’t need to know much about the inner workings of an airplane to be a skilled pilot.

Along with the annual, a pre-flight inspection is done routinely by all pilots, even those flying big birds, before every flight.   They are, in effect, largely scaled-down versions of the annual inspection.  I was once told that 85% of accidents could have been prevented by an adequate pre-flight inspection.   I don’t know if that number is accurate, but it is a very high number.

I can’t imagine that 85% of diseases could be prevented by daily self-inspections.  But even if the odds are reversed, and only 15% of diseases could be prevented by routine checks, it is probably still a good idea.   Women are encouraged to check their breasts every day, because the earlier one catches any kind of cancer the better the odds of survival.   We brush our teeth every day, not just for cosmetic purposes, but because the buildup of bacteria in the gums can lead to the heart and other vital organs.   Fair skinned lads such as myself would be wise to check their skin regularly as well, on the lookout for early signs of melanomas.

I suspect the most important tool in conducting an annual inspection that a mechanic has in her tool shed is also the least expensive tool: the checklist.   The mechanic runs through a series of items that are required to be dismantled and inspected based on the make, model and vintage of the airplane.   A good physical examination does the same thing.   The trained physician runs through a series of inspections based on a mental checklist learned through experience, in order to not miss something important.

Requiring that airplanes receive annual inspections by licensed aircraft mechanics is undoubtedly one of the reasons why flying small airplanes has gotten safer over the years.   While pilots are required to have physical exams to maintain their flying privileges, fortunately, our government does not require any such thing for the rest of us.    But maybe a peak beneath the hood every once in a while is a good idea.

A Note from Saigon

Tea HouseI am writing this today from a tea house in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, still referred to by many as Saigon.  My business here is psychology and autism related, and the closest thing I am getting to aviation is the flight on the two miraculous jets that got me here– Airbus’ spectacular double decker A380, and Boeing’s stalwart triple-seven.

Vietnam is a beautiful country.  It would be even more beautiful to see it from a small airplane at a few thousand feet above ground, but that is not possible today because there is no such thing as general aviation here.  The skies are reserved for the military and commercial jetliners on flight plans.

To say that the fact that there is no general aviation in Vietnam is the result of communism is an oversimplification.  One can say with confidence that when it rains in Vietnam the streets get wet, but it seems as though there is little else one can say with confidence about Vietnam.

Yet, there does seem to be a relationship between the fact that the two “mostly communist” governments in Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Laos, are the countries that have the least going for them in the arena of general aviation.  Cambodia, which has been beautifully described recently as “vaguely communist” now has a flourishing albeit young general aviation community.   Other countries in the region whose political-economic systems are ostensibly democratic-capitalistic such as the Philippines and Malaysia, have flourishing aviation scenes.

In a previous post I mentioned that growing up in the U.S. I somehow knew that when you wanted to chase another child off a swing you would shout “It’s a free country!”   How interesting it is to be socialized (indoctrinated?) into believing in freedom.  A private pilot’s license grants another opportunity to define and even treasure this thing we call freedom. Here in Vietnam, a country where flying your own airplane is illegal, and one in which the U.S. lost 60,000 of its children and the Vietnamese sacrificed millions of their own, it is difficult for me to not think about it.

It is fascinating to me what a difference a generation can make.  My closest associates here are probably either one or two decades younger than me, and they have little consciousness of the Vietnam war.   Vietnamese themselves learn about the war in school, but it seems that very few carry the deeply felt conflict inside them that I do.  (Today, a receptionist here told me that she “sees it in my grandparents’ eyes.”)

I filed for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war, although the draft ended before my paperwork could be processed.  Clearly, I opposed the war at the time, but my filing for CO status was duplicitous if not downright disingenuous.  I was against the Vietnam war, and I was against war in general, but I also believed that there was such a thing as a just war (such as the Second World War).

The more I learn about the Vietnam war, the more I believe that both sides were right, and both were wrong.   Isn’t that true of damn near everything?  The North Vietnamese had a legitimate gripe– their country had been arbitrarily torn in half and the south was dominated by corrupt, imperialist nations that had subjugated and tortured their people for generations.   The South Vietnamese treasured their freedom and democratic ideals and were fighting the spread of communism.   These were noble goals on both sides.

The dominoes did not fall when we lost the war.  The Viet Cong did not commit genocide or even torture their own citizens when they won, although they imprisoned many and “re-educated” many others.  In fact, it was the post-war unified Vietnamese that fought off a Chinese invasion and routed the genocidal Khmer Rouge from Cambodia.  Today’s Vietnam is one in which the communist party is considered “irrelevant” or a nuisance by most Vietnamese.  There is no free press here, but there is widespread Internet access. It is a system rife with corruption, as is the case with governments throughout most of the world.

One of the reasons I love to fly is because I feel a deep sense of freedom when I do it.  I don’t know how to explain that phenomenon.  It just is.  And, perhaps coincidentally, flying one’s own airplane is also a symbol of freedom.  As Vietnam continues its gradual path toward openness, I suspect that general aviation will emerge.  Laos, closely aligned with Vietnam, has its very first flying club, and perhaps that will serve as a model for Vietnam.

Although I see faults in the American system, as deep as those faults can be, it remains one of the few places in the world where I could get in my airplane, start the engine up, and legally fly from one end of the continent to another without letting anyone know about it.  I can even do it legally without turning on my radio.   Sure, Langley will have me on its radar and will be watching every move I make, but as long as I don’t stray too close to Disneyland or Washington DC, they are going to leave me alone.  That is freedom, and that is noble.


imagesFlying my Diamond DA40 home from a conference in Las Vegas with two colleagues on board not long ago was uneventful, until I came to the formidable mountains that comprise part of the Transverse Range.    While most of the flight from Las Vegas is over the wide Mojave Desert, my home airport in Santa Paula is tucked in a valley on the other side of those mountains.  The tops of the mountains were obscured completely by a line of clouds that extended as far as I could see in both sideways directions, and the tops of the clouds were higher than my normally-aspirated airplane could climb.

For an instrument-rated pilot this would present no problem, but I have yet to get that rating, so for me it was a challenge.   It wouldn’t have been difficult, mind you, but it would have been entirely illegal, and certainly unsafe for me and the passengers on board given my lack of “actual” (as opposed to virtual) time in the clouds.

After looking in both directions, it became clear that I immediately needed to alter my flight plan and make a diversion.   I disconnected the autopilot, and started a slow, wide turn to the left, with the intention of doing a wide circle while I figured out my next move.   I informed the passengers that there might be a delay getting home, and then called ATC to let them know that I was altering my planned route due to the line of clouds in front of me.    The composed voice came back with the query, “Are you instrument capable and qualified?”

I answered quickly that I was capable but not qualified, which means I have the appropriate instruments on board but was not certified.   The business-like voice simply said, “OK.”

I was considering diverting right or left to see if there was a clearing in the line of clouds that I couldn’t see yet, and what airports lay in wait below or just behind, and what the best place might be to spend the night, when the controller came back on the radio.   “One Romeo Alpha, it looks like there’s an opening in the clouds about 10 miles to the north.”

At about 150 miles an hour, that’s a pretty short diversion, so I thanked the controller and headed north.   Sure enough, there was a nice gap in the clouds that took me over the mountains near Santa Barbara, and I was able to turn south and head down the coast to my home airport with only a short delay.

Most pilots hate diversions.  Diversions make those aboard late, and usually create additional expense in fuel, time and lodging.  But diversions are a necessary part of getting there safely.

I would like to believe that having to divert is one of the more wonderful things about flying.   It forces us down a road that, if not less traveled, is certainly less anticipated.   And it forces us to live in the moment, a skill I have never been very good at, managing to immerse myself in the nostalgia of yesteryears, or the expectations and fantasies of life downstream.

There is a wonderful story that has been circulating the internet for many years now about how being a parent of a child with autism is like expecting to take a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland.  The point of the story is that if you live your life mourning the fact that you aren’t in Italy you’ll end up missing the beauty of Holland.

I do think that people who are good at accepting life’s diversions do so partly because they don’t allow themselves to get too attached to outcomes.   Lao Tzu said it best when he said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

I hate surprises, but I am convinced that surprise is where the adventure begins.  If the original goal, the runway on which you intend to land, is suddenly unsafe, then it’s time to open the throttle and find another one.

When I think of that simple diversion required of me to keep out of the clouds, I think of some small things I might have done differently.   It forced me to think under pressure, and later to review those decisions and therefore rehearse doing it better the next time.   But we all arrived safely, and enjoyed extraordinary scenery along the way that we would not have seen otherwise: wispy clouds teasing the mountain ridges, the beautiful Pacific Ocean and the California Coast, and the rolling foothills accompanying us home.




When All Else Fails: Regulate

UnknownI don’t like the word “regulation.”  It feels and sounds ugly to me.   I suppose that is because when I think of regulations, I think about them as a set of rules foist upon us by politicians, designed to govern behavior externally– echoes of “make your bed, Ira,” or simply, “you have to go to school, Ira.”

But in my day job as a psychologist, the word “regulation” often appears with the word “self-“ preceding it, and that gives it a different connotation.   Self-regulation means to be in control of one’s self, to have a smoothly operating thermostat capable of turning on the heat when needed and cooling down as the situation demands.   It is a popular word today, perhaps because it is less theory-bound than the term “ego strength,” which essentially meant the same thing but was promulgated by those sex-obsessed Freudians.

Most pilots I know are like most people I know, and they hate regulations imposed upon them by the government.   On the other hand, they tend to be in favor of self-regulation, especially when it comes to things such as determining what medical conditions should prevent them from flying.

As a pilot, I am aware of the fact that the vast majority of accidents are caused by something called “loss of control.”   It can happen at any time, but it often happens when life offers up a surprise, such as a malfunctioning instrument or a sudden weather change.  Accident investigations of such major catastrophes as Air France 447 and Colgan 3407 revealed that the pilots were “startled” by the events unfolding in the cockpit, and that the startle response may have led to a deterioration in the pilots’ reasoning ability.

Regulations designed to prevent such disasters are often aimed at improving training of how to recognize and respond to specific emergency scenarios, which is all good.   But let’s face it, the whole point of the so-called startle effect is that, almost de facto, when faced with a real emergency, the human body is designed to flood the bloodstream with hormones that simultaneously have the effect of muting learned responses and instigating a primitive fight or flight response.

One of the oldest clichés is that a pilot’s license is a “license to learn.”  I deeply appreciate the ongoing training I avail myself of, as well as the early training I received in which certain fundamentals were drilled into my head.   One of those was the mantra that, above all else, one must “fly the airplane.”   That mantra is there because, when the fit hits the shan, pilots and humans in general forget the basics.   Whether panic takes over completely, or one concerns oneself so much with problem-solving that one fails to focus on the simple basics of flying, the failure to self-regulate can have devastating consequences.

“Flying the airplane” is a metaphor for self-regulation.   When the unanticipated bill arrives from the IRS, when the person in the Escalade cuts you off on the freeway, when the process server knocks on your door, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath and simultaneously level your wings.   Slow down if you’re going too fast, or speed up if you’re going too slowly.   Above all, don’t let the airplane fly you.   Self-regulation beats the other kind hands down.

Situational Awareness? Bring a Fat Pet

9255620704_57f5018b6f_oThe term “situational awareness” originally referred to knowing where one was in space at any particular moment and remaining vigilant when it comes to bumping into things such as other airplanes and mountains.   As have so many things in flying and life, it has come to mean much more.

Mnemonics, besides being a really fun word to spell, has helped me pass many an exam, and even occasionally led others to believe that I actually know something; and when it comes to flying an airplane, it may someday save my life.  Reducing complex concepts to simple abbreviations is also fun, which as the Beatles told us is something that money can’t buy.

So, wait for it… here it is:  being “situationally aware” is like having a FAT PET.   Here’s why having a fat pet is so important:

F is for “fuel.”  If your destination is 3 hours away and you only have 2 hours worth of fuel on board, you need to change your plans.   Because wind changes constantly, plans need to change as well.  Being situationally aware means always knowing how much fuel you have and how much you need, and changing plans accordingly.   I will confess that when not flying an airplane I often forget to fuel myself, which may be one reason my head begins to ache and I find it difficult to move a shopping cart down an aisle.  Staying aware of what’s in our own fuel tanks means staying hydrated and even having a meal every once in a while.

“A” is for “angle of attack,” which pilots know refers to the angle of the wing cord to the relative wind, but which translates for all practical purposes to the amount of power one has at any moment in time.  Exceed one’s abilities, and you end up on the “back end of the power curve,” meaning that the airplane will do the opposite of what you tell it to do because it really doesn’t have enough power to follow your commands.   For the rest of us, it means to know what our capabilities and limitations are, and being careful to not exceed them.

“T” is for “traffic,” and it means knowing where the other airplanes are and keeping out of their way.   In its most literal sense, for civilians it means looking both ways before crossing the street, but in metaphorical terms it can also mean knowing who your competition is, and making sure you know what they’re up to.

“P” is for “position,” and this is the closest thing to the classical definition of situational awareness.  It means knowing where you are in 3-dimensional space, especially relative to any terrain that might get in your way.  In the business world, this can be especially important.  See what happens if you neglect to tell your direct supervisor about the conversation you are about to have with her supervisor.

“E” is for “equipment,” and in aviation it means to know what equipment you have on board, how to properly use it, what its limitations are, and what condition it is in.   I am reminded of the cliché that a worker is as good as his or her tools.  This is true not only for the capabilities of the circular saw in your shed, but also for the cerebral cortex in your head.  If we are not certain of what we are doing, consult with others who may know better.

The final “T” is for “terrain.”  We not only need to know where we are in relation to the ground, but we also need to know where the mountains and broadcast towers are going to be.  Learning where our obstacles are likely to show up can help us to understand what we are up against.

Every phase of flight has its own mnemonics, from preparing for a flight, to taxiing and liftoff, to landing and for emergencies.   Pilot or not, it’s a good idea to keep a “fat pet” alongside us for the entire ride.

Thanks to Robert Goyer for providing the essential content for situational awareness.

Autism in Love

d0a08b_dea72ec2e51f45c3b2a5a9e1a948da8a.png_srz_p_346_192_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srzI am on a Boeing 757, sitting in the economy section, one of the few times I am grateful for having short legs.   I am returning home from New York where a film I conceived and executive produced just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.   It is truly an honor, given the numbers: 6700 films were submitted and only 120 were selected for the competition.   The film, “Autism in Love,” is in the “world documentary feature” category, competing against 11 others in its category for a coveted award.

One of the films in competition with “Autism in Love” is called “In Transit,” a beautiful and moving documentary interweaving stories told by real passengers (i.e., not actors) on the Empire Builder, an AMTRAK train whose route goes from Seattle to Chicago.   The stories themselves are captivating, but I was equally captivated by the fact that the stories were told as the American landscape unwound behind it, creating a kind of metaphor within a metaphor.   Each person seems to be in some sort of transition in their lives, moving internally as they physically move through the landscape.  But on a train, the sensation is that it is the landscape that is moving, so that one’s internal movement is mirrored by the movement of the landscape.  And of course, all that occurs on a screen projecting a “moving picture,” a medium that is, by definition, about movement.

I am doing the same thing now, traveling at 514 miles per hour, four-fifths the speed of sound, 40,000 feet above the ground.  We humans, through the ingenuity provided by our cerebral cortexes, create and build machines that allow us to use nature in order to defy it.   We build machines that move us from one place to another for many reasons, but ultimately we build machines that move us physically in order to move us emotionally.

The film I produced, expertly directed by Matt Fuller, follows the lives of several people diagnosed with autism as they navigate the waters of romance and love.  Their lives are very different from one another’s, but they each live in the landscape others have called autism.   I have lost any objectivity I might have had about the film, but judging by the reviews I have been reading, it succeeds in a message I was hoping for; that love is love and nearly anyone, despite having a label that others insist prevent them from loving, can teach us about it.

In college days I was taught that humans, by nature and physiology, are novelty seeking animals.   That is undoubtedly what makes solitary confinement so punishing.  But without the contrast of stability there could be no novelty, just as a figure disappears when the ground around it disappears.

So whether we find ourselves riding the rails of AMTRAK, sitting on a bus, or flying on a Boeing 757, we ultimately remain figures embedded in the world around us.  We are moving, or being moved.

For more information on “Autism in Love,” see, or better yet, see “Autism in Love” on Facebook.