All the Leaves are Brown: Flying with a summer brain and an autumn body

All the Leaves are Brown: Flying with a summer brain and an autumn body

All the Leaves are Brown: Flying with a summer brain and an autumn body

Dad first took me hunting for rabbits when I was four years old and for my first flight in a C-172 the next year. When I was older, he added hunting deer, geese and squirrels to our outdoor activities. Fifty-nine years later, hunting is still what I do when I let my hair down – and nowadays, that’s not very far down. 

This year, with less than a 6 percent chance of being drawn in their lottery as a non-resident, I drew a New Mexico, muzzleloader, mule deer permit in an area in which the elevation ranges from 8,000 feet to over 12,000 feet. For those familiar with NM, it’s unit 45. Since my office for 85 hours each month is at about 8,000 cabin altitude, I figured a high altitude, wilderness hunt on horseback would be doable for this 63-year-old, soft-skin, flat-land Gringo. I’m a healthy airline pilot; how hard could it be?

Equine Transport 

I’m not a horse person. And, except for the about-to-be-told adventure, had not been on a horse since they were the primary genre of TV shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger and a horse is a horse of course, of course – Mr. Ed. You’re welcome for the theme song now stuck in your head. The relevance of this horse tail (homophone intended) to intrepid aviators is our characteristic “how hard could it be” mentality about, well, everything. 

A two-hour drive to the trailhead was followed by four hours on horseback to camp at 11,000 feet. We slept in tents, ate fried spam, drank whiskey, tequila, filtered water from a stream, and hiked with hunting gear two to four miles each day. My mistake was not only thinking that I could ride a horse (High-Ho Silver) for 10 to 12 hours along rocky trails with nothing but air on one side but also beginning a high altitude, Pecos wilderness hunt with a sore throat and an emerging cold. Breathing the chilly, rarified air only accelerated its emergence and I was out of breath from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Not to mention three layers of skin are missing from four half-dollar-sized spots on my rear end from said equine transport. How hard could it be?  Well, I had to bail out of the hunt two days early when I couldn’t stop coughing and developed a fever. Therein lies the point of this tale: Our perception of abilities often diverges from our actual ability – who’d-a-thunk.

I am only an average man but, by George, 

I work harder at it than the average man.

– Theodore Roosevelt 

Ben Hogan is known as the golfer that popularized practice because of the thousands of range balls he would hit. And Rowdy Gaines swam around the world in preparation for a race that lasted 49 seconds. Like Hogan and Gaines, we need to decide how much effort we want to put into the endeavor of flying airplanes. What kind of pilot do we want to be? How much do we want to study, learn, practice, and how well do we retain lessons learned? We all have a list of things we could do better: more precise and timely flight planning, better people skills with our passengers and support personnel, use of our avionics, execution of GPS departure, enroute, LNAV and VNAV approach procedures, understanding aircraft systems or simply making better landings. 

While I use the GPS/FMS in the 737 all the time, the Garmin in the Duke is both less familiar and much less user-friendly. My nemesis lately has been loading and executing the Garmin GPS approach modes. Inactivity in any endeavor causes us to work harder when we return to that activity. When I haven’t flown the Duke for a while, my memory muscles have atrophied. Even at the airlines, when I return to the captain’s saddle after blistering my rear, relishing delicacies from cans and sipping savory creek water, I’m grateful to have standardized procedures, checklists and a first officer to help get my feet into the stirrups. For those not operating in a formal environment, there are techniques you can employ to self-monitor your proficiency.

Slow down, 

you move too fast.

– Simon and Garfunkel

A while back, I wrote about keeping a record of our missteps and lessons learned in a journal and then periodically reviewing them to avoid repeating mistakes. You may find this is easy to begin but more difficult to keep up. I have also mentioned the value in using a knee pad or accessory table to write down every ATIS, route clearance, ground control instruction and information from ATC – even frequency and altitude changes. These recommendations can not only keep our spam out of the campfire but will assist us in deciding how closely our ability matches our perception of our ability. Reviewing the results from these techniques is a necessary first step when it appears that all our leaves are brown (and our sky is gray). 

While I use the GPS/FMS in the 737 all the time, the Garmin in my Duke is less familiar and my muscle memory weakens when I haven’t flown it for a while.

Unfortunately, we may discover that working harder or smarter may not always make us a better aviator. Everyone and everything reaches a point (or age) of diminishing returns. At some point, it’s time to start using, even relying on, some of the things they used to bemoan as a sign of weakness or inability: the crutches of a to-do list, written or mechanical checklists, multiple autopilot modes and assistance from others. The sticky note thing, as well as that to-do list idea, have their own issue; however, lots of pieces of paper scattered around in pockets, the fridge and the cockpit that have gone unfinished. Perhaps the most effective technique is to give ourselves more time so that we can slow down to a speed that produces an acceptable level of proficiency.  


Is (not) on your side.

No, it’s not. – Mick Jagger 

Next September marks 30 years since I last flew the F-16 – and I thought it was the horse ride and thin air that made me feel older. That day, on my 34th birthday, I remember wondering if I had squeezed every bit of training and fun out of my flights. Surely, I could have worked harder, smarter or put more effort into some of them. If only I could have had a few more flights to be sure. I felt the same emotions when asked by CNN about how I felt about delivering an MD-80 to Roswell. Why didn’t I stop to smell the Mad Dog roses more often, or certainly a few more times before I took one of them to the recycling graveyard. 

Flying airplanes for 58 years, and after four engine failures and a plethora of system problems, you gain a perspective on the metaphysical magic of the machine. As you evaluate and monitor your own flying ability and proficiency, remember that there is a balance between our overachiever obsessions with accuracy and efficiency and the emotional gratification of the art. Don’t let time slip you by. Slow down and smell the avgas or Jet-A. And even though it won’t respond like Mr. Ed, after your next flight when no one is looking, let a little California Dreamin’ into your heart and give the airplane a kiss on the nose. You will be glad you did when all your leaves are brown. 

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