Pilots, Poets & Psychologists

Pilots, Poets & Psychologists

By Rod Machado

Mention the word poetry to a pilot and he'll act like he's in a hotel fire. He'll think: get low, get down, get out. Admittedly, even I get the heebie-jeebies at the mere mention of haiku (that's Japanese poetry, not the sound of someone sneezing). But poetry is more than cute rhymes with tinkered words. It's an alternate means of learning some of aviation psychology's most important lessons.

At first glance, consulting a poet to learn aviation psychology seems about as reasonable as visiting an arc welder for electrolysis. After all, aren't aviation psychologists supposed to teach us these lessons? Indeed, they are. Their contribution to aviation safety, however, is not without peer. Equal in substance but less recognized in stature, the poet is aviation's artist of influence and emissary of wisdom.

When you think of poetry, does rhyming verse with metrical structure come to mind? Perhaps you imagine vintage Wordsworth: "I wondered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o'er vales and hill…?" If so, you're not alone. Believing that all poetry is fancy word play is like perceiving the Iron Age as a time when everyone wore neatly pressed clothing. Both are big misconceptions.

Rhyme is just one of many powerful tools used by poets to express an idea. More often, the poetry of classic aviation literature consists of insightful prose fused with vivid imagery and concentrated expression. Therefore, what I label as aviation poetry has everything to do with the substance of a message and little to do with the style in which it's presented.

A poet's job is to invest concepts with meaning. To him, a cloud isn't merely a cloud. It becomes symbolic of something beyond itself. This allows meaning to be compounded, two, sometimes three levels deep in poetic prose. Skillful composers rely on these deeper levels to say more than is initially apparent to the casual reader. That's why thoughtful writing often reveals the secret workings of a pilot's mind—a mind at its best, a mind at its worst, a mind that its owner may not fully comprehend. By providing these rare insights, the poet leads us to a better understanding of ourselves.

Ernest Gann was a poet. His classic, Fate is the Hunter, has all the trappings of a graduate course in human behavior. Here's one of my favorite excerpts:

 Like the depths of the sea, the atmosphere allows us minor degrees of penetration and easily reveals its basic structure. But there are certain secrets both elements hold in reserve, and it is not too farfetched to suppose that only the dead have ever truly discovered them. Even so, these obscurities are frequently glimpsed by living intruders. It is then that a man may quickly discover his mental reliability and learn, to his chagrin, that when caught out of his natural boundaries, his mind may become as tricky as a gambler’s involved in a dice game operated by strangers.

Morals, themes and insights abound in Gann’s prose. A semester of aviation psychology lies dormant in his words. But only the careful reader is privy to the wisdom hidden between these lines.

Gann cleverly exploits a comparison between sea and sky. He quietly leverages those seafaring impressions common to all who've stumbled into a library at some time in their lives. The sea is dangerous. We know that. At once, by association, we know that its next of kin, the atmosphere, deserves equal respect.

Gann also hints at establishing personal limits when noting that only the dead truly discover certain elements of sea and sky. Yet, when living intruders glimpse these obscurities, they may discover a loss of mental reliability. Psychologists often blame this on state dependent learning. And anyone gambling with strangers knows how immobilizing situational anxiety can be.

State dependent learning and situational anxiety are scientific terms. Without using a single one, Gann teaches psychology.

Forgive me for the exaggeration, but if you've paid attention and read carefully, you're on your way to a Bachelor's degree in human behavior. Of course, you'll need a few more classes if you want to avoid graduating magna cum lucky.

A poet is to the psychologist as a fish hook is to the net (both do the same job, but in slightly different ways). While psychologists convey the meaning of concepts, poets infuse concepts with meaning.

When psychologists suggest that an aberrant pattern of thinking might eliminate you from the gene pool, most folks go, "Ah ha, that's good." Poets say similar things but make them sound important. Everyone goes, "Ooohhhhh! Ahhhhh!" The poetic process is a venture to magnify and extol meaning, meaning sometimes lost amid the academic noise of facts, figures and proofs.

For instance, a psychologist might say, "Pilots may experience a heightened arousal of their reticular system when encountering the unknown, predisposing them to first-learned behaviors, possibly preventing the appropriate assimilation of environmental stimuli."

In contrast, Gann, the poet, says, “There is a point, ever varying and always frivolous in appearance, when diligently acquired scientific understanding is suddenly blinded and the medieval mind returns to dominate.” One statement informs, the other emotes and informs. This is the poet’s method.

Emotion is the tool by which poets confer greater meaning on life’s experience. Past events remembered with clarity are often forged by this process. Do you remember your first solo? I remember mine. It's hard to forget the dazzling display of lights, sirens and firemen’s badges. Emotionally shrouded events thicken the chemical broth used by the brain to etch its memories, weighing them with greater significance in the process. A poet’s message affects the head through the heart.

When shadowed by a sense of invulnerability, psychologists tell us to apply a verbal self-talk antidote. Think, “It could happen to me,” say psychologists. No doubt, these are good words and important ideas. But how might a poet teach the same lesson?

In Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (one of aviation’s greatest poets) speaks to a pilot’s perception of vulnerability. He tells of listening to a preflight briefing from his field manager (a veteran mail pilot himself) as he prepares for his first mail run:

“Navigating by the compass in a sea of clouds over Spain is all very well, it is very dashing, but

And I was struck by the graphic image:

“But you want to remember that below the sea of clouds lies eternity.”

And suddenly that tranquil cloud-world, that world so harmless and simple that one sees below on rising out of the clouds, took on in my eyes a new quality. That peaceful world became a pitfall. I imagined the immense white pitfall spread beneath me. Below it reigned not what one might thinknot the agitation of men, not the living tumult and bustle of cities, but a silence even more absolute than in the clouds, a peace even more final.”

Few preflight briefings are as impressive as this one. If the chief pilot had spoken like that when I was a student, I’d have grabbed his ankle and never let go. I’d be fearful of missing the next kernel of wisdom his eminence might emanate.

In a few short paragraphs St. Exupery captures the moment a pilot perceives a fissure in his cultivated sense of invulnerability. Who would not appreciate this delicate symmetry between life and death as they ponder, “...below the sea of clouds lies eternity...”? For those vigilant enough to absorb his message, St. Exupery invests the concept of vulnerability with meaning. He offers the careful reader aesthetic satisfaction and a memorable lesson in his prose. 

Shelly once said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” They create new ways of feeling and perceiving. In the process, poets create new ways of thinking, which aids us in becoming better, safer pilots.

Charged with the responsibility of self education, the wisest among us eagerly listen to the wisdom opined by aviation’s best psychologists. For those wanting more, consider a lesson with some of aviation’s best poets (the Ganns, Bachs and St. Exuperys of our world (these are only a few of the greats).

Read their works twice: once for entertainment and once for education. Read between the lines. Underscore important passages. Make notes in the margins. Search for the salient wisdom, deeper meanings and the experience that takes a thousand lifetimes to gain.

Perhaps Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut, said it best in November of 1969 when he commented on a poet’s value. He said, “I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher...we might get a much better idea of what we saw.”

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