Learning is letting go of concepts

Learning to fly

– When you really want to know you need to forget what you know –

My desire to learn to fly had come a long way. And then the process of learning, this transition from a dream to reality, from a concept to an experience was amazingly interesting.

In my head I had flown all the time. In my daydreams I had soared along the clouds like an eagle so many times, and, up in the air, I had followed the course of the valleys into the distant haze. And when I stood on a mountain and traveled with my eyes over the rocky ridges and lofty peaks, how often did I fly around them in my mind and somehow thought to feel the gentle updrafts over the edges and the sensation of weightlessness and utter freedom, the glory of flight. My mind played wonderful movies and pictures of flying. At times that seemed all I wanted, but then, what would it be like, the real experience? What would it be like to really do it and find out?

The first day, flying with my instructor, was close to a disaster! Of course, in my head I thought I had figured out all the crucial details
long ago. ”So what’s the big deal to just apply these simple physical principles? I mean flying isn’t really magic, after all, it’s basic physics, piece of cake!” – Boy was I wrong ! I couldn’t even manage to maintain level flight, let alone anything that could be called a controlled maneuver. My arms felt like untamed animals that didn’t have a clue what to do. And my poor mind felt this well-known kind of panic because it once again had to face a situation where it just didn’t get it, where things turned out to be totally different than calculated. I actually gave up when, in my desperate frustration, I finally actually broke one of those extension handles that are attached to the control bar for instruction purpose. Dick didn’t say much, and when I drove home later I felt all the anger boiling up inside, but, interestingly enough, somehow I managed to just watch it happen.

And next day I climbed into that incredible flying machine again with honest wonder, with a true “beginners mind”, all my senses wide open. And when we took off I actually caught myself smiling, leaning back, leaving all concepts behind, all those so beautifully constructed expectations, shattered on the ground.

And boy, what a wonder it was this time! Suddenly it all happened, I was really there. I felt the wind, the subtle shifts of gravity in the turns, I saw the angle of the wing toward the horizon, I was flying – it worked. I looked around, I saw my arms, my feet floating in mid-air, little toy houses on the ground, landscape slowly moving by, the vibration of the engine behind me. I stopped thinking, I found it too distracting! That actually happens sometimes, lately, and somehow I’m intrigued that it doesn’t bother me at all.

From there on my mind kind of stepped back a little, somehow insulted, almost, but it couldn’t help to pick up the pure pleasure of watching the whole process. My body started learning to fly, and “I” watched.

My learning curve was nothing spectacular, but deep inside I couldn’t care less. I was amazed how I could do all this. What a miracle, how my senses picked up all these signals, how they were processed, stored, and corrected, and how I actually did it right pretty soon if I only managed to not interfere too much with my “thinking”.

“Don’t overcontrol”, said Dick when I sometimes started to wrestle the aircraft with brute force, trying to line it up for the final approach of the runway. God damn, as if I wouldn’t see that myself! I thought. But how do you do that when you see the runway racing towards you and you have 20 other things at once to watch out for and there is an obvious urgent need for reaction? But if you overdo it the need to counteract the very same reactions becomes even more urgent. You are descending like crazy, but that’s necessary because you need speed in order to fly; otherwise there is this peculiar threat of a “stall”: The flow of air over the wing decreasing with dwindling speed below a critical limit (that is at first darn difficult to detect) and suddenly ceasing to create lift, and – oh my god, you don’t fly anymore, you fall out of the sky like anything else heavier than air.

You’ve got to keep up enough speed to fly; but with too much speed you never get down and stopped where the runway is. So eventually you’ve got to let this stall happen, just when you touch the ground. You aim, descend, reduce the rate of descent, and at the right moment you flare and “grease her on”. Oh yes, besides that, because there’s always some stupid turbulent air pushing you around, if you don’t line her up and keep her level you’re in trouble. And if you over control you work your butt off because you are only busy correcting your own mistakes, and toward touchdown there is less and less room for mistakes.

“Just relax!” that’s what he said often. And I knew what he meant, but I always thought that I kind of missed the instructions how to do that.

So I did it again and again and just watched myself with slight amusement, patience and yes – mindfulness. And I drove out to the airport day after day in the morning or in the evening when the air is most likely to be calm, and we were shooting landings.

And one day, just after I had screwed up a nice approach again but managed to bring her down smoothly and gently anyway, Dick made his statement. He had sat behind me all the time, I knew he was there. Now the time had come: “Go by yourself! Solo”.

I remember that my visor fogged up from my own sweat when I slowly taxied toward the end of the runway. I knew I could do it, but I also knew what could go wrong. I entered the runway and set her up, and, quite deliberately again, I took the time to kind of look over my own shoulder, noticing how I was very calm, very centered – and I liked it.

I’m sure I had a smile on my face when I revved her up and let her go. And within seconds I left the ground because the aircraft was a lot lighter with only one person on it. I climbed like crazy for the same reason, (“just as expected”, my mind mumbled in the background, begging for attention), eased her off into the pattern at 100m and, man, I was flying all by myself.

I look at my hands on the bar, I feel the wind on my face, telling me all I need to know about my speed, I see the horizon and the earth under me moving. This is it, I’m there. I see Dick on the ground like a little ant, he could talk to me on the radio, but he hardly does. I notice how I make a few gentle corrections without really knowing it. No thinking, no need to make a story about it.

The mind, usually making great stories about all this, stays in the background. The meaning of all this flows through my hands over the bar to the wing – this is all there is, now. I could let go and probably crash to an end, and I can fly, fly through space and time and be awake and perceive changes as they occur and consciously respond to them in utter freedom.

And I turn into base-final, take the throttle back to idle, let her glide, line her up, check the speed, sense the dwindling altitude, feel the flare, very gently but progressively push forward, touch down like a feather, bar back, brake, roll out to the taxiway – perfect.

And again, and a third time. This time I screw up a little, but I catch her and bring her down all right. Then the big congratulations and a burst of talking and laughter, and he suggests to go again and stay up some more. And I’m flying again, gain more altitude, level her out at 400m, and make wide turns with just two fingers on the bar, just for the heck of it. The air is like glass. I fly out over the ocean, I see birds, close by, under me. Other airplanes use the runway while I’m away. I see the thick Labor Day traffic down on the roads. And I press the transmitting button for the first time and announce to an anonymous public that I’m happy.

             Klaus  written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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