Learning to Fly

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I found that lots of martial artists are pilots, or would-be pilots. One of the most
frequent comments was that being airborne gave them a better appreciation of
dimensions. One said he felt as if he were in the middle of a Universal Pattern. While we
are three-dimensional, the pitch, yaw, and roll actions of an aircraft seem to amplify the
feelings when compared to what we do on earth.
Man was not meant to fly, or drive, for that matter. Man is a three-mile-per-hour
creature. Our senses are optimally designed for walking or running speeds. We can
receive, process, and react better to information at lower rather than higher speeds. I did
not say we can t react, I said we react better. It drives me crazy when I m on my way to
work and the traffic is doing 35 mph or less in a 45 zone. I had to wonder why it was
always around 35 mph. We have that a lot here in Florida during tourist season. There are
more people, so more cars. Many of them are older people, and many more are tourists.
The seniors need more time to process the information, possibly due to age, eyesight,
medical conditions, etc. (Frighteningly, one of my students, a physician, told me of an
older couple who came into his office. He has a driver s license and can t see. She can
see but doesn t have a license to drive. They come together because she can tell him
when to stop, go, turn, etc. That s teamwork!) The tourists just aren t sure where they re
going and keep from getting lost by driving slowly so they can look around at the street
signs. A study says that 35mph is the optimal speed to travel at which you can see,
process, decide, and/or react. I feel better now because I have a reason for this even
though I still don t get to work any faster.
Obviously there are some of us who can effectively process stimuli at higher
speeds; racecar drivers, astronauts landing the Space Shuttle, fighter pilots, kids on those
wheelie shoes. The price of speed is shorter available reaction time. Some of this is
natural, some of this is learned. Chuck Yeager is an example of a natural. He was born
with 20/10 eyesight, and still has it, I m told. Therefore he could see things father away
and had more time to react.
The rest of us have to be trained. Pilots are taught to methodically scan inside and
outside the aircraft. Instead of randomly looking around with the possibility of fixating on
a place or object, time and attention are divided. By learning this “time-saving” skill, we
get more time to decide and react by not being easily surprised, because we see things
coming sooner.
Don t we do the same thing in martial arts? Don t we learn about awareness?
Instructors teach us about critical distance, and the three types of speed we possess.
Students remark about how they notice things more, and how they analyze situations and
body positions (situational awareness) better after some training. Spatial relationships
improve. I think these are some reasons martial artists are pilots.
Another perspective I have is the relationship to form (kata) training that exists in
aviation. Like any other skill, one has to have a grasp of the basics in order to survive
later on. While we drill new students on basics, the new pilot learns the four basics of
straight and level, turning, climbing, and descending flight. When we progress to put the
basics together into Short Form One, the pilot learns stalls, slow flight, steep turns. Those
maneuvers are like the techniques and the choreography to demonstrate the flight regime
is like a form. “Look out the side window, then clearing turns left and right as you reduce power, apply carburetor heat, extend the flaps incrementally. Watch your airspeed, trim
nose up, hold some right rudder, while maintaining heading and altitude. Recover to
cruise flight.” I see the same thing in “Attention stance. Salutation. Step back and block.
Look left as you step and block. Cover. Step up to horse, salute, and bow.” They are
sequences of actions designed to teach and reinforce basic skills for later application in
rehearsed or spontaneous situations.
There are 300 million people living here in the U.S. Of those there are about
600,000 pilots of all types (balloon, glider, helicopter, fixed-wing, etc). There are 88,000
certificated flight instructors (CFI s), making up about 15% of the pilots. So if being a
flight instructor is like being a black belt, they do better at producing “black belts” than
we do if we use the old “one out of 10 people earn a black belt” number. I d hazard to say
there are more people doing martial arts than learning to fly. The last number I heard was
1% of the population does martial arts in the U.S. That s about 3 million people, right?
But that s a lot of black belts anyway.
Being a CFI is not like being a black belt. Not all black belts are teachers. Not all
teachers are black belts. But I can see why so many karate people like to fly, and why
I ve met a lot of pilots who have done karate up to the black belt level. Both are a
challenge. Earning both a pilot s license and a black belt tend to put you in another
category. “You just ain t right, boy.”
And, just like anything else, there are the arguments about what s better. Is it
kenpo, judo, or TKD? Are singles better than twin engine airplanes? Do most fights go
to the ground? Are helicopter pilots really that screwed up? What about cross-training?
Should I learn to fly and airplane, then a helicopter or vice-versa? The more things
change, the more they stay the same. People are going to argue.
I think Ed Parker s analytical way of thinking that he taught me helped me be a
better, safer pilot. I ve never been in an aircraft accident in over 20 years of flying. I have
been in more than my share of fights though, and Kenpo saved my bacon.
By the way, Ed Parker loved to fly, and he always wanted to learn to be a pilot.
He had stories about being in the cockpit of Elvis s airplane. I wanted to take him flying
with me but I never did.
I hear my teacher s voices though we ve been separated for years. Their lessons
have stayed with me. My first flight instructor, Steve Bonk, is the guy who gave me those
strong basics in aviation. Like my first real Kenpo teacher, Mike Sanders, he held me,
and all his students, to a higher standard and it paid off. In May 2006 I conducted an
aviation safety seminar in Venice, Florida, filling in for another FAA safety counselor.
As it turns out, one of the pilots in the group was a man I had taught to fly back around
1990. (A sidebar to this story is that when I was teaching him I found that he was the
uncle to one of my brown belts, Carl Frank. Carl married my first female black belt,
Debbie Colbacchini. They have a child and live in Florida.) I had signed him off for his
private pilot checkride. He had his own airplane, was still flying, and had retired to
Venice. We had a chance to talk and he said “I still hear you when I fly. You re with me
all the time.” I appreciated that more than he knew. And I urge everyone who teaches to
remember what an influence you can have on someone s life. This teaching thing is not to
be taken lightly.

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