Always learning

In the zone

Why do we fly? Some pilots rhapsodize about the freedom and romance of soaring with the eagles; others praise the utility of point-to-point travel. You’ll hear about off-road adventures, lifelong friendships, and personal achievement. But I think there’s something more, something fundamental, that keeps us coming back to the cockpit: flow.
Sarah Deener
Editor Sarah Deener is an instrument-rated commercial pilot who flies out of Frederick, Maryland.
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Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term for the state of focused contentment elite athletes, artists, chess masters, and others feel when completely engaged in a task. It’s the experience we often refer to as “in the zone,” when time melts away, self-consciousness and ego disappear, and we feel a clarity of purpose. In a state of flow, we’re happy not in spite of the challenging activity that consumes us, but because of it.

The concept is often associated with creative enterprises or sports, but someone can experience flow working on an assembly line or studying cell biology. The reward isn’t in money or fame, but in the activity itself—and we experience it as pilots.

A proficient pilot may reach a flow state practicing maneuvers, for instance, challenging herself to perform with just a little more precision than last time. Control deflections are smooth and automatic, and the objective is clear. Feedback comes swiftly: changes in engine sound, shifting G forces, the motion of the horizon in the windscreen, and the satisfying shudder of the airplane hitting its own wake turbulence at the end of a steep turn. Worries and distractions recede and the pilot is thinking only of the task at hand, focused on the things she can control. Time might seem to slow down or speed up, and the sense of transcendence lasts through shutdown. The quotidian worries waiting for her on the ground—emails, errands, responsibilities large and small—are oddly surprising. Are these still here? It’s when we lose ourselves in a transcendent purpose, Csikszentmihalyi argued, that we are most satisfied.

This is all a long-winded way of saying what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry expressed so eloquently: “I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things.”

You don’t have to be a world-class performer to reap the benefits of flow, but you can’t get there by dabbling. Your skill must match the challenge. Meet high challenge with low skill, and you get anxiety. Tackle too small a challenge and you’re bored. On the feathered edge of just-difficult-enough, you’ll find flow.

If you are overwhelmed by the challenges of flight training, hang in there. As one lesson builds on another, the pieces will start to fit together in your mind. Your white-knuckle grip will relax on the yoke and your mind and muscles will begin to work in tandem. Soon, maneuvers won’t take so much conscious thought, and you’ll lose yourself in the moment.

And the great thing is, flying grows with you. As you gain experience, you’ll press on the edges of your comfort zone, expanding it gradually. If you become bored with your regular hamburger run, you can stretch yourself with a longer trip, a fly-in, a tailwheel endorsement or instrument rating—the list goes on. Even revisiting checkride maneuvers can sharpen your skills and send you into flow.

Amid busy schedules and always-on connectivity, uninterrupted focus nourishes the soul. So, fly for the freedom, for the adventure. Because it’s a great way to get where you’re going, or because it ties you to friends across the nation. By all means, fly to achieve a personal goal. Along the way, you may discover the best place aviation takes you is out of your own head.

Sarah Deener

Sarah Deener

Senior Director of Publications
Senior Director of Publications Sarah Deener is an instrument-rated commercial pilot and has worked for AOPA since 2009.

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