The First Frontier

Pictured: Dylan Wilkinson - Advanced Flight Instructor, Flex Air

Words by Paul Wynns, Flex Air CEO

Photos by Arash Afshar

I’m a pilot. We’re all amateur poets, it’s mandatory. The views from the office demand it.

When pilots talk about the experience of flying airplanes, our words can conjure up images of majestic cloudscapes. Brilliant sunsets. Fortresses of cloud, sweeping from horizon to horizon. Jeweled arcs of inky skies splashed in moonlight. You know, the typical stuff: Wonder, thrill, and the sublime. Every image an eyeful of divinity.

“Every image an eyeful of divinity.”

You might even think flying a plane to be a very special form of tourism, where the views are sweeter. We’ve got the best seats in the house, right?

But no. That’s not it at all.

For me, flight is all about the views within.

My First Encounter with the
Fabled Flow State

I had my first encounter with the flow state, that sublime oneness of mind and body, at the controls of a jet plane. I was on final approach, three-quarters of a mile behind the ship. I was young, rough around the edges, a trainee. After a week of trash landing grades, I rounded the corner in my approach turn off the 180 and felt a quiet sense of calm. Time slowed down. My mind quit chattering about the technicalities of glideslope, lineup, angle of attack. The jet just went where it was supposed to go, as if on rails at Disneyland. It was perfection. (In the understated language of naval aviation grade books, recorded as: “OK”). I chalked it up to luck. I didn’t know any better.

“Our enemies are inattention, hesitation, indecision.”

No plane is easy to land, from the largest, fastest jet to the slowest, humblest trainer. Everybody learns to eventually do it solo, without the help of an instructor, or the auto-land button. And everybody sucks at the beginning. Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the moon, started life as a Navy pilot. A museum recently published one of Armstrong’s early grade sheets for posterity: “Below average.” The critical phases of flight are too much for us to take in consciously. Flight decks and cockpits are noisy, vibratory, complex. Sensory input comes in waves big enough to surf with the skill of Laird Hamilton. There is overwhelming immediacy and consequence in everything. The conscious mind can be trained to keep up, barely. To thrive, pilots need the subconscious. We instinctively seek this state. We call the swift, highly choreographed dance of pilot and co-pilot procedures our “flows”. We call the crucial final 15-18 seconds before shipboard landings, “the groove”. We seek to make the complex effortless.

Majestic Views are only the beginning...

We approach everything with intention and presence. Even the routine pre-flight walk-around of our planes. Checking rivets, screws, bolts that might jam our flight controls. Looking for a bubble of contamination in a fuel sample that’ll make the engine hesitate on takeoff. And we practice relentlessly. Our enemies are inattention, hesitation, indecision.   

So, when the wheels leave the runway, those majestic views are just the waiting room. What lies beyond is a shining expanse of focus and precision. We seek a window that opens inward, to the most beautiful frontier of all.