Still Learning to Fly:

A Pilot’s Life

Still Learning to Fly is now a book in its initial form – that is, I have written it and gone through the first revisions. Inspired by Emily Wilson’s wonderful new translation of The Iliad, I am working on a glossary, which I hope will take on a life of its own and add a dimension to Still Learning to Fly.

As the subtitle suggests, the arc of my life as a career pilot is there, and the exposition is guided by my experience as a pilot and by the experience of my mentors and teachers. But there is also my struggle with the problem of learning. What is learning, anyway? And how does it differ from training, which despite its omnipresence in aviation is not a panacea. As we shall learn through example, training can sometimes have unintended consequences.

In trying to explore how we learn, I have used two techniques – one from the 5th Century BCE, and another from the 20th Century:

  • Socratic Dialogue, and
  • The Einsteinian Thought Experiment

Socrates was arguably the first philosopher, someone who thinks about how to think. He was a stonemason and soldier, but he became an exceptional teacher, inventing a technique still used today: listening and asking good questions. Ignoring received wisdom. Achieving intellectual humility. Here is a quote:

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

His student, Plato, used the same teaching methods. The place where Plato taught began to be called the academy. Plato posited the ideal form, which became, I believe, important in mathematics and physics as a way to simplify and describe what we find in nature. Earth, for example, is a sphere. But not an ideal sphere with its geometric definitions. Earth is a squished sphere with irregularities. But even so the mathematics can be adjusted to predict with great accuracy the gravitational attraction of Earth at any point. This is also known as how much Earth’s mass bends spacetime at that point.

Plato’s student – Aristotle – was Alexander the Great’s teacher. Aristotle’s teaching area became known as his lyceum. Here is a quote from Aristotle:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Three generations of teachers, passing on their experience to the young. But not without trouble. Socrates paid very little attention to the pantheon of Greek Gods, wonderful though they are. He dared to try to figure out some stuff for himself. And teach the young to do the same. The status quo, however, is not easily moved. Nor is received wisdom always examined. Socrates was tried before his peers for:

  • Ignoring the gods
  • Making up his own gods, and
  • Corrupting the young with his ideas

The vote was 280 to 220 to convict. His famous apology:

The unexamined life is not worth living

failed to sway his jurors. Exile was not an option. He had to drink hemlock and die.

Socratic methods slept for two millennia and awakened in Europe in the Renaissance. Aristotle was the first cosmologist with his On the Heavens. His model was Earth-centric, but otherwise sound: Earth and the other orbs were orbs. Orbs in orbit. Two thousand years later Copernicus’ model was the same, except that the sun was at the center. But two thousand years? With no learning?

Apologies. Those two millennia were not a void. We had scholars and artists: Hildegarde von Bingen, Giotto, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Julian of Norwich to name a few. Still, the time has become known as the Dark Ages.

Fortunately, since Copernicus there has been steady progress in science, mathematics, and cosmology. Galileo, Newton, Leibniz. James Watt. The electrical units, as I call them: Volta, Ampere, and Ohm. Electricity and magnetism leading to James Clerk Maxwell, who put that all together in electromagnetism. Out of Maxwell’s equations dropped a constant – c, the speed of light!

A generation later Albert Einstein put that constant to work in his famous equation E=mc2. But you might ask, What does Einstein have to do with aviation?

Einstein is known for Relativity and for his Thought Experiments. One of these is the man inside the elevator whose cables have snapped so the elevator is in free fall. What does the man inside feel? And relativity is about multiple Frames of Reference. An airplane in flight always has two frames of reference – the motion of the aircraft relative to the air (useful for anything aerodynamic), and relative to the surface of the Earth (useful for navigation and takeoff and landing).

The man in the elevator is weightless, like an astronaut in the space station. The pilot in an airplane in equilibrium feels one G, like a person on the ground. The astronaut feels zero G because there is no acceleration. The space station, in elliptical orbit, is following a Newtonian straight line in curved spacetime. What does the pilot feel when there is acceleration? Why?

This questioning takes on new urgency when we consider the human pilot. She has six accelerometers in each middle ear. Local G is reality to her. She can feel it. But is that an advantage?

Hence the title of the book: Still Learning to Fly. That licence, those ratings – they do not mean that you know everything, or that you ever will. Nor does it mean that you’re still learning. Hence the old saying about experience: does he have ten thousand hours, or one hour ten thousand times?

Learning is such a pleasure. I hope you will take it up as your mission, and pass on what you learn to others. That openness to new ways of thinking about your trade is your key to success in what is the essence of your job – survival.