Wisdom where you find it
Gather wisdom wherever you find it. The most important thing I ever learned about human nature and salesmanship I learned from a used-car salesman rather than a business school. The most important thing I ever learned about risk management came from a Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom pilot. And pretty much everything I need to know about handling emergencies I learned from probably the most fierce and most troubled heavyweight prizefighter to ever step through the ropes and a cantankerous old cuss who has been flying bushplanes in Alaska for forty years.
Your wallet is fat with certificates and ratings. You have flown thousands of hours. You have taken more checkrides than you can remember. You know that now and then with airplanes, as with pretty much everything in life, things go wrong. But you are not worried. Your airplane is well-maintained. On every flight review or proficiency check you give lip service to emergency procedures. You don’t really, at heart, believe that it will happen to you. You know that you will someday die, just not in this lifetime. Those mishaps happen to other pilots. And should something go amiss, you know just what you will do. You have an emergency checklist. You have thought about what you will do. You are sanguine. You have a plan for whatever might happen.
Here we come to the wisdom of our first sage, the once-fearsome, sometimes unfathomable, and in his own childlike way endearing, Michael Gerard Tyson, the former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Tyson won his first nineteen professional fights by knockouts, twelve of them in the first round. He was, in his day, an intimidating fighter who punched with a force and ferocity that caused concern that he might kill one of his opponents.
When informed by a reporter that an upcoming opponent professed to have a plan to defeat him, Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.”
I don’t know if you have ever been punched in the mouth. It’s shocking. It hurts. It makes you angry. It makes you afraid. Anger and fear are not conducive to clear thinking.
Your instruments are lying to you in some way you can’t understand. The turbulence is overwhelming. The ice is building up fast on your wings. It’s probably worse on your elevator, which you cannot see. Or it’s one in the morning and you are on top, above fifteen thousand feet of potential icing, and your engine just quit. Just idled down and quit. You are a glider, in the dark, contemplating an instrument decent through fifteen thousand feet of cold clouds to a dead stick landing in a dark mountain valley. You are in far northern Canada, with nothing but tall trees and uninhabited land and cold water below you and your left engine just quit. Then your right engine quit. You just took off and someone on the ground called you on the radio and told you that your left engine is smoking. You are ten thousand miles from home and your engine just quit over one of the most pirate-infested bodies of water in the world.
You have just been punched in the mouth.
You never thought it would happen to you. Now nothing makes sense. You have a plan. But it’s somewhere in the red-tabbed section of your POH. You thought that your POH was in the back pocket of your seat. Which seat? The one you can’t reach from where you sit. Time is moving fast … or is it slow? You know you have a plan. You have thought about what you would do. But you never thought it would happen to you. You still can’t believe that it did. This is really confusing. What was that plan?
On a grander scale we call this “the fog of war.”
Here we come to our second font of wisdom for today. Vern Kingsford has been flying the Alaska Bush for decades. Some years ago I had the privilege of flying a Super Cub on floats with him. I have forgotten much of what he taught me, but I remember vividly his caution against overconfidence.
“You think you will rise to the occasion. You’re wrong. You will rise to your level of training.”
You have been punched in the proverbial mouth. Your mind is slowing. Your anxiety is rising. You are angry. You are fearful. But your anger is impotent and your fear is futile. You are astonished. Your thoughts are random. You know you should do something. One or two things occur to you, but in what order? And why? Logic escapes you.
You are panicking. You act, but indecisively. You focus on the wrong thing. You fail to see the important thing. Later it will seem obvious. Now it seems inexplicable, indecipherable. You try to remember when you last practiced for this situation, this emergency you have always dreaded.
Have you practiced? Seriously, thoughtfully, intentionally? Think for a moment about all of the times in your life when you assumed you would rise to the occasion. That Sunday night when you knew you should be studying for the Monday morning exam but you went out with your pals instead and assumed that, when confronted by that blank piece of paper, you would rise to the occasion, the facts would come marching, all in a row, back from your unconscious. That presentation at your job. The 5K you wanted to run for that charity you support. All the times that you thought you would perform better than you ever had performed before, simply because you would rise to the occasion. Maybe it worked for you. It seldom worked for me. Not so that I want to rely on it.
If you fly long enough, you will find yourself punched in the mouth. And you will rise to your level of training. Whatever that is. Or isn’t. Maybe you fly a twin and before you take the runway you recite something like the takeoff briefing that you were taught when you first trained. That briefing is now somewhat more vague than it was years ago. And the specifics — your weight and the density altitude and your accelerate-stop distance — are taken more or less for granted now. And sometimes, when you are in a hurry, you just glance at the red line and the blue line and you think, “Those are kind of important,” and you mutter something to yourself and you assume that nothing bad will happen because it never has and … if it does, well, you’ll know what to do. You can’t recall it in detail right now, but it will come back to you when you need it. Why? Simply because you need it. You want it. You deserve it. You will rise to the occasion. No. You’re wrong. You will rise to your level of training.
You will bring to the challenge the discipline, the procedures, the muscle memory, the effort you have made to know everything, practice everything, be better at everything. All of that. And nothing more.
When that engine quit over the dark mountains in the middle of the night, the answer came to me from a question I had once asked of someone far wiser than I and taken to heart. When that second engine quit over the forests of northern Ontario, the solution came to mind via the muscle memory formed of hundreds of simulated engine failures with students over twenty-five years. And when the EGTs of that big Continental flatlined over the Straits of Malacca, the answer came from two days of class in a dusty hangar in Defiance, Ohio. We rise to the level of our training. I have been fortunate to have been trained by some of the best. Seek it out. Take it to heart. Practice it at every opportunity. Think about it in quiet moments. Test yourself now and then to be certain it will still be there when you need it. Someday you just might. Iron Mike is in the ring. Better have Vern in your corner.