Most of the lessons that we teach in the dojang have applications outside the martial art school. It works the other way around too. This article is about something I learned about myself a long time ago when I was learning to fly airplanes and how it applies to martial art training.
When you begin taking flying lessons, your instructor is literally at your side the entire time. Most single engine airplane cabins are smaller than a compact car, tighter than a Prius or a VW Beetle. You have to get used to rubbing elbows and shoulders, especially if you’re a bigger guy like me.
I’m not sure if I was a slower learner than most students, or maybe just too focused on details, but it seemed to take me a long time to get the hang of landings. Your goal as a pilot is to set your landing up so that, in the case of a total engine failure, you are safe to land from the moment you enter the traffic pattern. I’ve heard the process described as something like shutting your car engine off while you’re still two blocks from home, coasting the rest of the way, and coming to a complete stop as you enter your parking spot in your garage.
I eventually got pretty good at it though, and by the time I was ready for my first solo I was confident that I would be fine. My instructor and I flew to another airport and taxied back to the end of the runway where I let him out. He told me to do one circuit around the pattern and land. Not a problem.
I closed the canopy, ran through the checklist quickly, checked for traffic, and taxied onto the runway. On the center line, full throttle, release the brakes and … wow! Without the weight of the instructor, the acceleration felt intense! In almost no time we were over 80 knots, I eased the nose wheel off the runway and the airplane hopped into the air.
I knew that the airplane would fly differently without the instructor’s weight. It’s one thing to know this intellectually and another thing entirely to feel the responsiveness of this machine in your hands and feet, to feel it, almost like a living thing responding to your will before you’ve even consciously made control movements. Climbing? Not a problem. Turning? Simplest thing in the world. Level flight? Okay, if you want, but kind of boring. The airplane wanted to move, to be in the sky, to turn and twist and fly, but I just wanted to fly around the pattern and land again. The sooner we got this done, the sooner I could get to work on filling my solo flight requirements.
The airplane reached pattern altitude in no time and I turned crosswind. I watched out the windows for other traffic, watched the runway for the right angle to turn, and, again in almost no time turned onto the downwind leg of the traffic pattern. Keeping the airplane at the traffic pattern altitude was a bit of a challenge. It wanted to climb. I had to back the throttle off of the “normal” settings a lot more than I thought that I would have to. Dealing with that while working the radio and watching for other traffic kept me busy.
Passing by the end of the runway, It was time to begin descending. I cut the throttle and applied 30% flaps. The airplane’s attitude changed with flaps, and feeling the nose drop was always a bit disconcerting. Still watching for traffic, I turned onto the base leg of the pattern and added 30% more flaps.
I was still higher than I wanted to be. I wasn’t surprised and I cut the throttle some more. Base leg was always short and I was turning again quickly. On final now, I was way high. Too high and too fast. It’s nearly impossible to lose altitude and slow down at the same time, but I tried.
Full flaps, cut the throttle, listen to the wind, watch for traffic. There’s my instructor, way down there. I was still 200 feet above the ground when I passed the end of the runway.
“Mt. Carmel Traffic, 127VU going around,” I said calmly into the radio. I smoothly applied full throttle, disengaged the flaps, and watched as the nose of the AG-5B Tiger that I was flying came up above the horizon. Again I climbed fast.
I knew what the problem was. I expected this and had talked about it with my instructor. The airplane flew so differently at this weight that I basically had to relearn how to land. I went through the motions again. I wasn’t worried. I could stay up here and do this all day if I had to.
Part of me wanted to nail this next landing but I was patient with myself. I went through the pattern as before, being careful of my altitude on the downwind leg. I kept my speed slower, and watched my altitude better, but when I turned onto final I was still too high. Full flaps, cut the throttle, and the airplane seemed to float like a kite. It was almost like it didn’t want to go back on the ground.
Final approach was better this time, but I was still too high to make the landing. I called the go-around, throttle and flaps, and went back into the pattern.
I didn’t think emotionally. My mind was focused on airspeed calculations, weight and balance, I watched cloud shadows, windsock. I really wanted to land, but I was patient. Patient, that is, right up until the time when I turned final again and as still too high and too fast.
It was like a switch flipped in min mind and suddenly I was done. As it happened, I knew a way to lose altitude in a hurry, but it was tricky. It’s called “slipping” and it involves almost flying the airplane sideways, like skidding on a bike. After I applied flaps and cut the throttle, I turned slightly to the right and stood on the left rudder pedal, pushing the tail to the right and sliding sideways with the right wing lower than the left, all the way down toward the runway.
I dropped through about fifty feet and was approaching the end of the runway. I wasn’t watching for him, but I could see my instructor standing on the taxiway with both hands on top of his head.
I neutralized the rudder and ailerons, corrected for wind, and flared for the landing after I crossed the numbers. Even this seemed to take forever, but I had plenty of runway now. The airplane floated along, almost refusing to give up, until finally the main gear touched the runway, then the nose gear and I was able to apply the brakes.
I taxied off the runway and paused there for a second, running through the checklist, killing the flaps, etc. My hands were shaking a bit. I rolled my shoulders and sat up straighter in the seat. I cracked the canopy to have some air, and taxied back to pick up my instructor.
“Well, that was exciting,” he said after he got in and closed the canopy.
The thing was, it wasn’t exciting for me until I decided that I wasn’t going around again. When I decided that I was landing NOW, things got exciting. I manipulated circumstances to fit my desires. I wasn’t worried about the mistakes that I had made. I didn’t get upset with myself and I wasn’t impatient. The third time I was on final, I knew that I could make the landing, so I did.
In life, in Kuk Sool, don’t get upset when you make mistakes. Don’t let circumstances bother you. Stay calm, keep thinking, judging, making changes, and keep trying. Until you decide that you’re done “trying” and it’s time to “do”. That’s when things get exciting, but it’s also when your actions affect other people.
A lot of people in the martial art world don’t take quite the same “Zen” approach that I do. They seem very intense and driven to succeed immediately at whatever they do. That’s fine, and I know a lot of very fine martial artists who are like this.
For me though, I acknowledge my current limitations and vow to work past them. Just like with other people, I’m gentle with myself, until I’m done being gentle. That’s when real changes happens.
If you want to read another story from my flight training, read the blog here: http://www.kuksoolwonofmuncie.com/2012/09/22/archives-goal-mine/
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