Flying as Therapy

Unknown-1 Along with sailing, polo and race car driving, aviation can be an expensive hobby.   But I am fond of reminding detractors that by and large flying cost about as much as ongoing psychotherapy, and can be equally as effective.  Here’s how.

Piloting an airplane requires complete and thorough attention.  Sophisticated instruments eases that burden a bit, but one needs to constantly monitor them, listen attentively to the sounds of the engine, and keep vigilant eyes out for things that might go bump in the day or night.  Stuff can happen very quickly in an airplane, and a lapse of attention can be deadly.

It is the combination of complete attention and mastery of the fear that accompanies any dangerous activity that in part makes it a therapeutic experience.  But there is another element that also makes it therapeutic.

Humans are outrageously complex organisms, and the human brain functions more efficiently and effectively (at some tasks) than the most complex computers.  What makes the brain so incredible is its ability to manage so many functions in parallel.   At any moment, the human brain is processing and directing multiple complex processes, the vast majority of them outside of awareness.

Some of those processes have to do with attempts to resolve conflicts that arise in childhood and continue to play out in daily life.   These ancient conflicts, along with those that arise in the more recent course of work and family relationships, are streaming through our awareness, and can wreak havoc with our daily lives as we allow them to rear themselves when it would serve us better to direct them instead into the background.

Most people see a good psychotherapy session as one in which the client comes to believe movement has been made toward resolution of childhood conflicts.  But those conflicts are a little like a war that goes on interminably, and, recalling the famous bumper sticker from the sixties, what if they gave a war and nobody came?

That is not to say that it is a good thing to deny the existence of our conflicts, but rather to embrace them and trust in our integrity to be responsible for them and “work them through” when the time is appropriate to do so.  Stepping into a cockpit does not stop the world from turning outside; the world remains unjust, the argument with your partner still festers, but in that moment one’s job is to simply fly the airplane.

We can eliminate suffering not only through successfully resolving conflicts, but also through coming to accept those conflicts and engaging life more fully in the moment.  That is what a “healing exchange” with a therapist can do, and that is how flying, or engaging in any activity requiring complete focus and which forces one to live fully in the moment can be good therapy.

The Value of Getting Lost

imagesWhenever I set foot in a new place, my favorite thing to do is to set out walking.  Day or night, the objective is clear; walk just far enough that I feel lost, turn around and try to find my way back.   It is, after all, in the midst of feeling lost that discovery is possible.    Humans seek the comfort of familiarity, but are also novelty-seeking organisms, which is why solitary confinement is so punishing.  Traveling familiar routes, by definition, reduces the novelty in our lives.   It will certainly help us get to where we are aiming to go, but as Lao Tzu said, “If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

In a beautiful piece in a recent aviation magazine, Peter Garrison wrote about “The Importance of Being Lost.”   In it, he details some of the history of navigating at night and the navigation systems, or lack thereof, that attempted to prevent pilots flying at night from getting lost.

Back in the early 1920’s, when the postal service attempted to deliver mail via airplane at night, rural towns had no electricity to light them up and “airways” consisted of either bonfires set by farmers and eventually a series of electric beacons.   A lot of pilots got lost, and many of them crashed as they were often flying in near total darkness.

With the recent advent of GPS, it is nearly impossible to get lost even if you tried.  Garrison wrote beautifully that GPS “makes us at once infants and gods.  Observers and observed, we watch from on high as our icon, a digital metaphor of self-awareness, creeps across the map.  With GPS, there is no longer such a thing as ‘lost.’  Navigation, a great and noble art whose traditions stretch back into prehistory, has been replaced by a computer game… We are much better off, but we have also forfeited something: an adventurous life in which anxiety and relief alternated like the beating of a heart.”

He cites Beryl Markham, who wrote in 1942 about her fear of what the future may hold for pilots:   By then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labeled buttons, and in whose minds the knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of the weather will be as extraneous as passing fiction.

Back in the seventies, an American Airlines training pilot coined the term “children of the magenta” to refer to pilots trained in the new avionics of the time.  Computerized flight management systems, autopilots and now GPS paint a magenta line on a screen, guiding pilots to their destination, so all pilots need do to get where they want to go is simply follow the magenta line.  (By the way, you can see that prescient training session on Vimeo if you have 25 minutes to spare; just look up “children of the magenta.”)  The trainer warned that the more dependent pilots become on their sophisticated avionics, the more they are going to lose their basic “stick and rudder” skills.   This was decades before the Air France 447 flight, the Colgan crash, and possibly the Asiana crash in SFO were implicated in pilots’ degraded “hand-flying” skills.

Perhaps we are all “children of the magenta.”  We live in worlds in which the technology we use throughout the day is comprised of systems we may at best theoretically understand but could never begin to produce, even if given the materials to do so.  We have become dependent on our smart phones, our ATM machines, our computers, our cars, and even the electricity that powers nearly all of our gadgets.  I am certainly not a Luddite, and tend to be the first person on my block to play with whatever new gadget becomes available, but I do agree that sometimes there really is value in getting lost and testing our basic skills, knowledge, and imagination to find our way home. Our hearts are muscles, after all, and it is the fear that accompanies getting lost that gives them the jolt needed to kick into gear, the jolt of fear that ends in relief as we hopefully find our way home.

In the Java Sea

As I write this, there is a gentle rain falling outside the window of the Ojai Coffee Roasting Co., and halfway around the world bodies are being plucked out of the Java Sea.   It is too soon to know, but the odds are that those on the doomed Air Asia flight experienced the violent throes of a thunderstorm, with up and downdrafts moving as fast as 100 miles an hour.

Somehow, the violence of mother nature was more than the pilots or their steed could handle. Pilots are taught to avoid thunderstorms, but they often don’t. There were, in fact, at least six jets in the same vicinity as the Air Asia flight that made it home intact.   Undoubtedly, pilots who fly along routes such as the one over the Java Sea fly among storms often, and each time they get through safely reinforces their belief that they can do it again.

I had a client once who was a rock musician, and although his father was an aviation engineer, and the client himself had an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every human-made object that traversed the sky, he never flew on them himself.  When I asked him why, he just looked at me and said, “I’m a rock musician.”  I understood that he felt jinxed, and preferred not to die the way so many musicians have died. We could, just as my client did, decide to stay closer to the ground, spending our time reading and writing in coffee shops or imagining that somehow we are safer in cars than in airplanes.

We could, but we probably won’t. We know that the chances of being injured or killed in an airplane are still relatively minuscule, that getting out of the house at all is dangerous, and that staying cocooned and perhaps watching TV will assure that our adventures will all be vicarious.

The traditional Irish blessing begins with “May the road rise up to greet you, may the wind always be at your back…”  Pilots have their version, which is simply a wish for “clear skies and tailwinds.”

The unfortunate Air Asia flight had neither, and we all grieve the loss of fellow travelers whose lives were untimely taken from those who loved them.  And, as the Irish blessing concludes, “…And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

To Ditch is a Verb

images-3I first encountered the word “ditch” in an aviation context when studying an emergency checklist for the Cessna 150.   I didn’t have any idea what it meant to ditch an airplane; I just assumed it meant you had given up all hope and were going going down.  That’s because, most likely, the only times I had heard the word “ditch” in my youth were in relationship to something you do to a girlfriend, or the thing you dig in order to hide the people you dispatch, or the thing that carries water from the street to the ocean.

When I arrived to California in high school I heard the word again, but this time in relationship to skipping school.  At my high school, they had a thing called a “senior ditch day” when the seniors somehow found themselves on the beach instead of class.   I had never heard that word used that way before, probably because growing up in New York skipping school was not a thing one ever considered.   Missing school was something you did if and only if you were deathly ill, and even that wasn’t a great excuse.

From the emergency checklist, I quickly learned that to ditch an airplane meant to land it on water.   Unless the airplane was specifically built for that purpose, the only reason to do such a thing would be in the event of some sort of catastrophic failure; I guess not too dissimilar from the girlfriend scenario.

Like many things in aviation there are many controversies about the best way to ditch an aircraft, and even which are the best airplanes to ditch in, as if you had a choice.   People argue about whether a high wing or low wing airplane is easier to ditch, and how to best approach a series of waves.

There is relative agreement about the fact that when ditching an airplane, you want to be going as slowly as you can, although not so slowly that you stall and pitch the nose down.   I suppose you do ditch an airplane the same way you might ditch a lover; go slowly and keep your nose and head up all the way down to the splashdown.

I am somewhat embarrassed to say that in the ten years since I first learned what the word “ditching” meant in its aviation context, I never knew its origin.   If you guessed it comes from the concept of digging a ditch, perhaps for your own grave, you would be wrong and probably in need of antidepressants.  The word, it turns out, originated in the Royal Air Force.   The English Channel was colloquially known as “the ditch,” and if you couldn’t make it across and had to land in it, well of course that meant you were “ditching.”

I don’t know enough about British English to know if you can ditch school there as well, and if that means you go hang out near the channel, or if ditching a girlfriend might mean…. No, don’t think I’ll go there.

The 80/20 Rule

Unknown-2I thought I understood the 80/20 rule pretty well when I first read about it in a management book I was reading.  The author suggested that 20% of a company’s customers took up 80% of the company’s time.  If you got rid of those demanding customers your time would be spent more effectively.

Since then, I have heard or seen several other definitions of the 80/20 rule.  LinkedIn, for example, phrased it this way:

Did you know that only 20 percent of what you do each day produces 80 percent of your results? Eliminate the things that don’t matter during your workday: they have a minimal effect on your overall productivity. For example, on a project, systematically remove tasks until you end up with the 20 percent that gets the 80 percent of results.

This is kind of a reverse way of getting to a similar place.  The basic idea is that one shouldn’t waste one’s precious time on things that don’t have a proportionate yield.  My own thinking about this is that in a life and death endeavor such as flying, it’s the little things that can kill you, so neglecting them may not be such a good idea.

While nearly all accidents occur as the result of a series of mistakes or bad decisions, some of them occur because of neglecting a single detail.

A flight instructor once told me that 80% or more of accidents could be traced to a poor pre-flight inspection.   I’m not sure if that’s entirely accurate, but because it only takes one accident to ruin your day and perhaps all future ones, it is clear that one should never cut corners on a pre-flight.

I just read an accident report where a newly minted pilot killed himself and his parents because he simply neglected to retract his flaps on takeoff in an unfamiliar airplane.   When his airplane refused to climb, he turned back and spun into the ground.

In the business world, it is often the small things that differentiate between those who get where they are intending to go and those who don’t.  Cold calls, as an example, are tedious and ridiculously time consuming, but they are a necessary part of nearly every sales job.

Investing in the least likely scenario, that is, spending time on the 20 percent, is important when the stakes are large.  In poker, the odds may be 11 to 1 that your flush is going to come up, but you will stay in the hand if the pot is big enough.

For me, investing in the least likely scenario has paid off often enough that I really can’t imagine getting anywhere if I didn’t.  Given the odds, I certainly wouldn’t have had the nerve to start a conversation with that pretty girl in Innsbruck who eventually became my wife.

So perhaps the 80/20 rule is just like all the other rules of The Game; they work most of the time, but are made to be broken.

KISS Me You Fool

checklistSheila got out of bed on a bright, CAVU morning, checked her METARS via DUAT, saw that  there were no TFRs or noteworthy NOTAMS that might discourage her, dressed and made her way to the FBO.   Once in her airplane, she checked the ATIS, dialed up ATC, and was on her way.   Once in the air, she asked for VFR flight following, and navigated with her GPS from one VOR to another on a VICTOR airway, just for old times sake.  On her way to her destination, she kept her eyes glued to the PAPI as she gently descended to earth, but not before going through her final GUMPS.   And by the way, did I ever tell you the (true) story of the time I went NORDO on my way to SMX?

If you are a pilot, you understood every word I didn’t say.   Every trade has its shorthand.  Flying is replete with them.   Pilots live or die by them. The idea behind mnemonics– be they abbreviations, acronyms, or short phrases, is to make complex things simple.

One acronym everyone knows is KISS, which, in case you’re not one of the every, is short for “Keep it simple, stupid.”   That isn’t particularly aviation-related, although I have heard it more than a few times in that context.   KISS is what it is all about; if cleanliness is next to Godliness, then simplicity is next to cleanliness.

Complexity, of course, is merely a lot of simplicity all tangled up.   Understanding complex interactions is merely a matter of disentangling, disambiguating, or to use the popular word, deconstructing interactions so that we understand each component and how it builds on the previous one.   I could not have gotten through graduate school without a host of mnemonics– some of which were taught to me and some of which I made up myself.  Whenever anything seemed difficult to remember, I would construct some sort of abbreviation that made sense to me.  Ask me Freud’s psychosexual stages or the four subtypes of schizophrenia and I will tell you in a flash.   Go ahead, try me.

One form of mnemonic is the checklist.   Checklists are used religiously in aviation, and some believe that it is the procedure that has contributed most to the increase in aviation safety. (Atul Gawande writes about the importance of using checklists in surgery in “The Checklist Manifesto.”)   I have yet to need the checklist I have committed to memory for a major emergency, but it is designed to make sure that I not only do what I need to do, but that I do them in the right order.    The mnemonic is ABCDE, and it applies to all airplanes at all times.  If you are a pilot, you probably know it.   If not, you don’t need to.   If I had to remember to trim to the best airspeed (A), look for the best field (B), run through my systems to try to solve the problem (C for checklist), declare an emergency (D), and then, finally, grab the emergency landing checklist (E), all in exactly that order, I might get flustered.   But simply remembering ABCDE and applying each item in order makes it all simple, and perhaps with a little bit of luck or Divine intervention, that is one KISS that might save my life.



Air Hollywood: Flying the Friendly Skies

brace positionThe tagline for this blog begins with the words “aviation” and “autism,” and to say the least it is difficult to find ways of integrating the two topics.   A company called “Air Hollywood” has now made it easy.

Air Hollywood is not an airline per se; it is, as their name might suggest, kind of a fictitious, Hollywood airline.   Their business focuses on providing sets for the entertainment industry, including interiors of any kind of airplane you can imagine, cockpits, terminals, gates, etc., as well as stock footage and almost anything imaginable that is needed for movies and is aviation-related.   You have seen their work in films such as “Flight,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Kill Bill” as well as hundreds of others.

Recently, Air Hollywood took on a new project.   They have decided to offer classes on preparing children and adults for the entire commercial-aviation related gamut of challenges that face them.    Over-stimulation at check-in areas, fluorescent lights, airport waiting areas and queues, boarding airplanes, and sitting in a confined airplane, all can pose challenges to those with autism.  They call their program “Open Sky for Autism,” and it is being offered for free.  It promises to help acclimate those with autism by using supervised repetition during simulations of airport arrival, ticketing, check-in, baggage check, TSA screening, boarding, in-flight simulation, and deboarding.   They even do one better than the “real” airlines, and offer complimentary lunch and refreshments!   Their opening event is scheduled for April 5th.  Here’s the link:

If you have been following either this or my last blog for a while, you know that I am more than intrigued by people who do good things when they don’t have to.    I don’t know the folks at Air Hollywood, but I do know that for whatever their reasons they have decided to do something good for a chunk of humanity that needs it, something that is frankly difficult to do and outside what a typical therapeutic agency or clinic has the means to do.

Every religious tradition with which I am familiar preaches charity.   Growing up, I learned that the yields on the corners of each of your agricultural fields should be left for the hungry and poor.   I applaud any company that uses its resources to do good.



Driven to Distraction

Distractibility has always been a sore spot for me. It is one of the three cardinal symptoms of attention deficit disorder (along with inattention and impulsivity), which I have been convinced is an apt description for one set of my struggles ever since I first learned about it in grad school.


Over the years I have developed a series of “procedures” designed to manage my distractibility, little games such as “touch next,” in which I touch a random object and pursue its completion, then touch another random object and do the same. Or a game I call “subvocal lists,” in which I silently repeat a small list of tasks until each one is finished. These little things and others are designed to facilitate forward movement rather than linger too long in the stultifying effects of distraction.

Distraction can be deadly, as recent experience with cell phones have demonstrated. The horrendous train crashes in Spain and Burbank were likely cell phone related, and in an issue of Flying magazine Jay Hopkins mentioned that the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, the crash of American Flight 965 in Cali, Columbia and many other incidents and accidents were very likely also distraction-related. The Cali crash and other incidents led to the development of the “sterile cockpit” rule, which unfortunately isn’t always used. But for those of you who may not be familiar with this rule, it is designed to limit all conversations in the cockpit to only that which is essential during the takeoff and landing phases of flight. That typically translates to the first (and last) 10,000 feet above the ground. So for those of you on commercial flights, when they tell you to keep all your electronic equipment off during the takeoff and landing phases, they are doing that not because they are worried about the equipment interfering with their sensitive flight instruments, but because they want the passengers attentive in the event of an emergency during takeoff and landing. And they too, in the “front office,” are keeping things as sterile as they can.

The trio of symptoms that comprise ADD are interesting bedfellows. (The fourth symptom—hyperactivity, goes in and out of fashion as a cardinal symptom.) While the syndrome is named “attention deficit,” when you think about it, distractibility is not an attention deficit at all. In fact, it is an attention excess. Why the folks who dreamed up the name for this constellation called it what they did is a mystery to me; clearly it should have been named “attention regulation disorder,” because that is what it actually is. In fact, it is likely that the inattention found in ADD is actually a result of the underfunctioning of those parts of the brain responsible for filtering information (the reticular activating system: RAS). With a poorly functioning filter, the normal bombardment of sensations is experienced as distractibility. Impulsivity is the result of the inability to select just which information warrants acting upon and which is best filtered out.

By the way, the reason that stimulants, such as Ritalin and caffeine, appear to work so well for those with ADD is because stimulants enhance (stimulate) the RAS’ ability to filter information, resulting in an increased ability to focus on what is relevant.

I think I hear the phone ringing. I’ll be right back.

Why Do Pilots Fly?

When flying out of busy airports throughout the country, pilots often have to wait in a queue of airplanes before moving up to the runway line. As a pilot, you sit in the cockpit, having completed all but the last few items on the pre-takeoff checklist, inch toward the runway, and wait for the tower controller to release you by calling out your airplane’s name (in my case, “One Romeo Alpha”) and uttering three magical words: clear for takeoff.

You release the brakes, key the microphone and let the controller know you were listening: “One Romeo Alpha, clear for takeoff.” Or, if you are in a particularly jovial mood, “One Romeo Alpha’s rolling.” You do the final few things on your checklist and then subvocally recite the mnemonic “lights” (all appropriate lights are on), “camera” (transponder is set, which allows you to be “seen” on radar), “action!” (all engine gauges are where they should be), you look to the sky to make sure you aren’t inadvertently rolling into an approaching airplane that the controller might have missed, cross the huge threshold marks on the runway, and line up on the centerline. The great moment has arrived. With your right foot on the rudder pedal you gently but firmly firewall the throttle. The engine wakes up, roars to its maximum, and the carriage in which you are blessed to sit rolls down the runway as you anticipate leaping off the earth in a single bound. Then, as the wings split the air unevenly, you lift off the earth, defying both the gravity of the earth and the gravity of life below.

It has been said that flying small airplanes is “hours of boredom filled with moments of terror.” But if that were all it was, none of us would ever climb up into another cockpit. There is a magic to flying not unlike the magic created by the best magicians. By craftily combining the laws of physics with the audience’s desire to believe in the impossible, magicians create awe-inspiring reactions. Indeed, awe is the feeling we get when we move into the transcendent space of doing that which by all rights should not be doable. Like magicians, pilots use their skills to do the thing that God or evolution did not grant us the natural ability to do. We don our mechanical flight suits and guide human crafted marvels of engineering to break the chains of gravity, allowing those of us fortunate enough to sit up front to see the world around us in an entirely different way.

By doing that which seems impossible, flying becomes a symbol of hope, a reminder that the obstacles in our path are only just that. It is a reminder that there are ways to break free of even the most daunting of challenges.

It is in just that spirit that I inaugurate my new blog, “Clear for Takeoff.” It will be about aviation, but I will continue to write about the things that have consumed my life and have interested me up to this point: autism, religion, writing, management, psychology and psychotherapy, photography, and whatever else moves me in the hope that it will move you too.

The “repurposing” of this blog imitates the repurposing of my life, so with the three liberating words that will be this blog’s moniker, let’s get off the ground and enjoy the limitless sky ahead of us. If you haven’t already done so, hit the “subscribe” button on the right, and join me for the ride.