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License to Learn: Submarine knowledge

Becoming a better pilot through nonfiction

The best lessons I’ve ever learned about the mental game of flying an airplane didn’t come from studying books on aviation psychology. Instead, they came from reading history.

Rod MachadoThe best lessons I’ve ever learned about the mental game of flying an airplane didn’t come from studying books on aviation psychology. Instead, they came from reading history.

One such book I recently picked up at the used book store is titled Submarine Commander by Paul Schratz. I absolutely loved this book and couldn’t put it down once the reading started. That, of course, made driving a real challenge. So the book was parked in my lap until I parked my car, after which my eyes hardly left the tome at home. Submarine Commander is about Capt. Schratz’s exploits as the skipper of a Pacific-based submarine during World War II. The first thing you learn about Schratz is that he’s a mischievous and playful fellow with sufficient brain power to keep him out of trouble with his superiors and the Japanese.

During one inspection at sea with a particularly stern and grumpy admiral, he was instructed to maintain a specific depth—something that is apparently quite challenging in churning seas with subs of that era. Unbeknown to the grumpy admiral, a disguised potentiometer directly controlled the depth-meter needle for just such an occasion. Schratz had a crewman covertly manipulate the knob, performing a near-perfect depth hold, much to the frustration of the admiral. Doesn’t that sound like the time you updated the altimeter setting just to maintain altitude in a steep turn?

One time, before heading off for a Pacific deployment, Schratz tells his wife not to worry about him because he’s always been lucky. As you read the book you realize that there’s a good reason why fate was always on his side. As playful and mischievous as he was, he also was a fanatic about training his men properly and thoroughly. In nearly every history book I’ve ever read, when a leader says he’s lucky, you can simply strike that word and replace it with the phrase well-prepared.

I knew this book was full of useful aviation lessons when I read Schratz’s comment about the character of a boat. He says, “The character of a ship is the character we impress on her.” So true. It’s a lesson that speaks to those of us flying two- to six-place airplanes.

Think about it this way. The passengers on board behave the way we impress upon them—i.e., train them—to behave. If you want a silent cockpit during takeoff and landing, then you have to teach your passengers to avoid unnecessary chat during these times. Perhaps you make the point with humor by warning them that failure to comply might result in everyone wearing an oxygen mask for the duration of the flight.

Then there’s the business of actually driving the sub. Schratz says, “The art of diving, like flying by the seat of the pants, involved getting the feel of the boat, heavy or light overall, forward or aft. Some learned it instinctively; a few never got the magic touch.”

Sounds like the difference between a Sean Tucker and someone who can’t keep the airplane on the runway in a five-knot wind, doesn’t it?

Perhaps the single most important lesson in this book occurs during an early deployment when, as a young ensign, Schratz first encounters the sub’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Reginald M. “Reggie” Raymond. Schratz writes, “From that instant I realized that he was a very special person, the most dynamic and inspiring naval officer I would ever know. Every detail of that first meeting is still clear, even the furniture in the room. There was no doubt in my mind that somehow knowing him would change my life.”

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in life is that it’s difficult to grow smart, skilled, and wise unless you’re exposed to someone who’s intellectually, spiritually, or emotionally bigger than you. If you feel you have nothing to learn from anyone or that no one has anything to teach, it’s unlikely that you’ll progress much beyond the moment you adopted that point of view. This sums up what I believe made Schratz an effective and admired submarine commander. He knew when others had something to teach him, and he took the time to learn from them.

So, read aviation psychology, but take the time to read history, too—especially biographical history. Both can make you a better pilot.


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