Wednesday, September 02, 2009

It's The Climb

Today I am going to draw some connections between running and being a pilot. Stick with me, there is a method to my madness!

First, you should know that I've had a long spell of not working out. I haven't adjusted my eating habits, however, and I have instructed my drycleaners to use low heat on my uniform pants so they'll stop shrinking. Of course I know the tight pants are not my drycleaner's fault. It's my fault. Instead of perhaps just cutting down on working out while I've been so busy with the Girls With Wings training event to form the NY GWW Club, I went cold turkey. And now I am paying the price of trying to get back into shape and drop a couple of pounds.

And so this is like the recurring battle we pilots wage with our proficiency evaluations (yes, we are OFTEN tested on whether we are safe. Plus the FAA is always watching, as is the media, should we do something wrong). Now, we could incrementally study throughout the year, so that our semi annual evaluations were a lot easier. But no... the vast majority of us wait until the last minute to cram study time in before we go to the simulator. And so it is with my company's new SOP (Standard Operating Procedures). I have looked over it a couple of times, but have clearly not committed it to memory yet. I am flying this week with a check airman (an individual designated by an airline to ensure standardization between all of the pilots). The check airman has been using the new calls, like "Flaps Zero" instead of the old "Flaps Up" call. The idea with these SOPs is that every pilot in the company can be counted on to use the same call outs and procedures in every case, so there are no surprises or confusion when flying with a new pilot within the same company. That's the idea, anyway, but the adage about old dogs and new tricks lives on. Well, I've been getting *most* of the calls right, but I certainly could be doing better, and must do better by the time my recurrent training comes around in November. There's enough to stress about during a checkride to not also have to worry about "zero" v. "up." I should spend a couple of hours a week reviewing the "everything we need to know to be a pilot" and warming up instead of trying to run the marathon cold during training. (I take some comfort in the fact the check airman has slipped a couple of times, too. Old habits are hard to break.)

So the next analogy to be drawn is the route I decided to take today for a run. I looked really quickly at and, eureka, there was a 5mi route leading right from the Hampton hotel where I'm staying! I glanced at the road names and went by the front desk to get pointed in the right direction. Unfortunately, this was a bit frustrating as the clerk had no idea. No clue even where this "Lake Washington" was that I intended to run around. So, what the heck, I had three hours before I needed to the leave for the airport. I'll "wing" it.

[Analogy: I could have gone back up to my room to study the online map a little bit better and I chose not to, so I had to live with the consequences of my being unprepared. I get a lot of emails via Girls With Wings asking for advice on civilian v. military training options, or working your way through training v. taking out a huge loan for lessons, etc. If you do only so much research and then take a huge plunge, you might miss out on a lot of collected knowledge from those who have gone before and waste time and money. My running route was winding, not too scenic, and I spent a lot of time worrying about whether I was going to find my way to my intended destination. However, I'm not too afraid to ask for help, and people out walking the same streets are able to assure me I am heading in the right direction. Likewise, there is a message board forum on GWW and we just had a future helicopter pilot ask for some tips. She has done some research, which is a good start. Obviously eventually you must commit to a decision. Just don't do it with too few facts. Or, like me, end up nearly breaking an ankle avoiding discarded sofa cushions while choking on car exhaust (clearly this region didn't get the word on the whole "cash for clunkers" thing.) Do I regret my run, which I give a C-? Nah, but I would have rather had a grade A run!]

So I came out of the hotel and looked for the "least bad" option of where to run. Busy four lane roads in every direction, with scant shoulder room for pedestrians. I picked the direction I thought was best and ended up picking my way through weeds and trash on the side of the road before long anyway. But I saw a sign designating the town of Newburgh ahead, and sure enough, I soon got sidewalks. Well, at least they HAD been sidewalks, years ago. Anyway, the town of Newburgh is on the banks of the Hudson River, and I was running downhill, toward the river valley. It felt pretty good having gravity working in my favor. But it of course occurred to me that what came down must come up, and I was already dreading the return leg.

So I was trying to psyche myself up for it. I mean, really, given the shape I'm in, I already hurt, right? So what's a little more "hurt?" I'll just chug along back up the hill, maybe a little slower, but I can do it! [I think I can, I think I can...] So of all the coincidences, the Miley Cyrus song, "The Climb" came on my portable MP3 player (it has a radio too). There are some great lyrics in here. For example, "Ain't about how fast I get there, Ain't about what's waiting on the other side, It's the climb."

[Analogy #2: Being a pilot is a constant challenge. From flight to flight, there are serious implications found in failure, right? There are degrees of failure, of course. Catastrophic, obviously, but we pilots are constantly grading our landings. There are "greasers" but most landings are, shall we say, "controlled crashes." A big theme in a lot of emails, posts, tweets, etc., from newer pilots is that they are having trouble getting their landings down. Well, an honest old salt pilot will tell you that he or she never gets those landings "down." They should always be a thought process involved throughout this phase of flight (Don't believe me? Watch this video of TWO pilots ignoring the "Gear Up" warning horn and landing on the airplane's belly). That time that you take your mind off your landing, it WILL bite you. In a demonstration of exactly how good those landing gear struts are. And then you get to limp to the gate or parking spot feeling like your passengers are glaring at the back of your head for fooling that examiner into thinking you deserved a pilot's license. And in the middle of that range, there are those challenging weather days, busy airports, checkrides (whether for your semi annual proficiency, a new airplane, a faster airplane, more complex airplane, a new job, etc.) and other tests of your skills, that keeps you moving along on your path of being a pilot. What makes being a pilot most rewarding is how difficult it is. Miley: "Always going to be an uphill battle, Sometimes I'm going to have to lose" There will be checkride failures and frustrations. Bad landings and maintenance failures. If everyone could do it, or do it with little practice, training, knowledge or skill, what would be the point in it? It would never justify the price, that's for sure! ]

So I'm running around heaven only knows where, but I have a good enough sense of direction to know generally which way to go. Sometimes it's nice not to know EXACTLY where I'm going. Because I would never set out intentionally to run a long hilly twisting route (I could have easily talked myself out of this one), but sometimes I get lost and push myself than intended (hopefully not the days where I have to be to the airport at a certain time for a flight). And then surprise myself by what distances I am capable of (mostly because I am so stubborn I just REFUSE to quit). So I was thinking of a Facebook friend, Sarah, who posted that "so they say I'm ready to solo the Warrior here. I say they're out of their minds." I was thinking she needed some advice dispensed by Hannah Montana (if you tell anyone I suggested this, I'll totally deny it). The intro of the song says, "I can almost see it, That dream I'm dreaming, But there's a voice inside my head saying, You'll never reach it." If people told you how stressful it was to be a pilot, how checkride-itis could turn your stomach into knots, how a personality conflict with a flight instructor could set you back hundreds of dollars worth of flight lessons, that a grouchy controller can give you such a hard time after missing a readback, and other setbacks or stumbles, would you still do it? No, but these are such minor bumps in the big scheme of things.

Sarah, like of all us, needs to take that first step on the climb. Like the soccer players on the airplane that crashed in the Andes, if you would have told them they were going to traverse a mountain range, they probably would have given up before they ever even tried. Did you see this movie? There's a scene where they struggle up the side of the mountain, and their expectation, and the viewers', is that the view they'll see from the top is salvation on the other side. But it's not. It's more mountains, as far as the eye can see. But it's a pretty great view and a great accomplishment to get to the top of even one mountain. Now Sarah doesn't have the pressure of her compatriots living off of the remains of those who didn't survive the crash to keep her climbing. If she wants to stop at her solo, that would be a great success in and of itself. Enjoy the view! But know that to continue with new and wondrous views (as I have sitting inside the cockpit - as I always say, "small office, great view), use the first achievement to bolster the next. It doesn't make that next checkride any easier, but knowing you have flown an airplane. All. By. Yourself. should help propel you on to the next step, no?

Full lyrics to the song at

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