The concept here of Natural Flight is my own fantasy for my hero-character Abe Peters. While human brains and ears can tell if an airplane is in what we call "coordinated flight" ("flying by the seat of our pants"), I know of no evidence that a human knows which way is up or where he is without visual cues or aviation instruments. A steady, banked turn feels the same as straight-and-level flight, sometimes all the way to sudden impact with the ground. The ability to fly by instruments alone, we call it "instrument flying," without seeing anything out the window is considered by many the most difficult skill for an aviator to master. Instrument flying is a hard skill to master from the mastery of the "video-game" aspect to true proficiency where the instruments form a true picture of an airplane in flight. Once mastered, instrument flight is fleeting without frequent practice of the skill.
When his son Abe was ten years old George Peters remembered his training with a crusty old instructor named Cicero. Actually, George was thirteen in 1986 when he first flew with Cicero, who was born in 1943, so Cicero was only forty-three years old, neither crusty nor old, but it seemed that way to a scared thirteen-year-old student pilot. George had two motivations for subjecting his son to the same treatment he received. First was the military-college "plebe" treatment that it was done to me when I was starting out so I'll do it to my successors. My father made me miserable so I'm going to stick it to my son. Second was the understanding that Cicero's teaching of the Natural Flight is a rare and wonderful thing that requires brutal intensity to learn. (I'll point out that I was older than George Peters in 1986 when I learned to fly, also in New Jersey.)
So now it was a quarter-century later in 2011, a nice spring day in April, when George put his son in their newly-acquired Cirrus airplane and flew him to the grass strip of Vansant, airport code 9N1, along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. The sun was shining, his son seemed happy, but George felt a bit grim as he know what he was about to inflict on Abe. George had stayed in touch with Cicero and flew with him about twice every three years, so this was not a long-time-reunion. There is a certain awareness of generations when a parent presents his child to his own teacher. Cicero knew how terrible Natural-Flight instruction was as he remembered being taught by his own teacher in his own early teens during the Korean War.
George remembered his discussion with Cicero about it. "Do you play bridge?" George nodded. "Do you remember being taught to count a hand? You know, every time there's a void or some opponent doesn't lead an obvious suit, or even when bid high card counts are reached, you know one of your opponents doesn't have a card that the other closed hand has to have instead. It was uncomfortable learning to count each hand, having to tally suit counts to thirteen on metaphorical fingers each trick of each hand." George nodded and Cicero continued. "Now you count when you need to count and it's no effort at all. My wife kids me that I count the cards when I play `Go Fish' with my grandchildren. You know what? I really do count the hands of `Old Maid' and `Go Fish.'" George and Cicero stopped smiling. "Now you're going to give me your son so he can learn this art that I can teach. I'm conceited enough to know I can teach it better than you can. Besides, it's better that he learn something painful from somebody who isn't his beloved family."
Cicero remembered the last message all too well. His father was one of the revered Tuskegee Airmen, all of them were well versed in the Natural Flight, that's why they did so well in combat, but Cicero's father did not teach it to his son. Instead he had a another pilot, another teacher, not a family member, take Cicero through the painful process of learning Natural Flight.
Twelve-year-old Abe stayed in the right seat of the Cirrus while George stepped out and Cicero got in with a smile. Maybe Abe figured out that Cicero's smile was fake, maybe not, but he seemed in a good mood as he was going to fly some more. They became airborne from the grass runway and flew generally-North along the Delaware River with Pennsylvania on the left and New Jersey on the right. Cicero insisted on some precision in Abe's flight, constant altitude and coordinated turns with no slipping or skidding, which were well within Abe's superior flying skills. Then he insisted Abe look down at the floor as he flew up the river. Abe struggled to maintain the flight path with no view out the window and only peripheral view of the instruments. Cicero directed Abe's heading with instructions "turn left" and "turn right" and let Abe struggle with altitude and coordination.
Abe struggled and struggled as he fought to keep his flight level. His extraordinary talent kept the airplane coordinated, no slipping or skidding, but keeping a sense of which way was up was very hard. The human inner ear can detect changes in attitude, but keeping an absolute sense of orientation is much harder. There are far-more-subtle clues that are available in the human ear and brain, but it takes a lot of work to perceive those clues. It was hard, Abe worked hard, but it was harder, and Abe was covered in sweat trying to glean this more-subtle information in flight. Cicero had Abe fly all the way to the Delaware Watergap, 55 Km, 34 miles, 30 nautical miles, and then further up the river. Twelve-year-old Abe found himself initiallly confused with no understanding of what was expected, and then it started to dawn on him what he was supposed to learn. He felt it just a little as the understanding came and went, but soon he could manage the turns without losing his which-way-is-up bearings.
It took a while for Abe to learn how to stay level, never mind maintain a constant altitude and the learning process was unpleasant. A continuous hour of learning just the which-way-is-up part was enough for one lesson and Cicero had Abe land back at Vansant. George, Cicero, and Abe had dinner at a restaurant three miles from the airport. Abe got back in the Cirrus and Cicero got in the left seat instead of George. Abe was nervous and not looking forward to another session, but Cicero flew the airplane himself in the moonless darkness. Once they were past the Watergap the ground was pretty dark, just an occassional light, not enough to form a horizon, and Cicero effortlessly flew the airplane with the instrument lights all turned off. Abe watched as Cicero knew where he was going and how to fly the airplane there.
Abe's next Natural Flight lesson with Cicero was the same but different. Abe was able to keep his head straight about up and down and was even getting a sense of holding his altitude with his head facing down. Then Cicero put a blindfold on his eleven-year-old student and Abe was still able to fly the airplane. Then Abe realized that Cicero was giving him small cues, a hand motion or shifting in his seat enough to tell Abe something of what was going on and he asked his teacher about it.
Cicero removed Abe's blindfold and took the airplane controls. "Abe, the traditional knowledge of positional awareness goes something like this. The human brain has three components for orientation, your vision, the cerebellum in the back of your head, and the semicircular canals in your inner ears. Any two of these are enough to maintain enough orientation so you can walk or run or even do gymnastic stuff. Given we both have working cerebella in our skulls, the issue is whether our eyes and inner ears are enough to fly. The trouble with that is when vision goes away, like flying in clouds or at night, the inner-ear stimulus is the same in a coordinated, banked turn as it is in level flight, or so they say." Cicero closed his eyes and did an Immelmann turn where the airplane does half a loop and half a roll so it's straight and level going the other way. "The stimulus may be similar, but it's not exactly the same. There's a small, tiny, almost imperceptable rotation moment in the banked turn that you don't get in level flight. The thing is that we can perceive very tiny things once we learn to look for them. I learned never to say `You can't sense that' when it comes to human perception and awareness. We can dig into our reptilian and avian genetic heritage and feel things our teachers told us we can't sense." Cicero closed his eyes and did a barrel roll this time. "The bad news about this kind of sensory magic is it's hard and you have to learn it young. You're at the right age, that's good, but it's still hard and it's going to get harder. You're a tough kid, Abe, just like your father, and I want you to really want to learn this."
Abe nodded in affirmation.
"Good, I'm glad you feel that way. I think you like me now, you'll like me in three months, but I'm pretty sure you're not going to like me in between. You'll have nightmares of flying into the side of a mountain or putting your airplane nose first into a lake. I know because I was there three score ago." Cirero closed his eyes and did a loop this time. "Gosh, was it really six decades ago? It was so hard, it was so terrible, it was so difficult, and I'm so glad I have this ability. My father used it in combat training. As hard as it is to learn at your age, it's a lot harder at sixteen and I've tried to teach students at twenty years old and failed. They struggled and suffered and felt all the pain without the results. We have to do this now if you're going to the pilot I know you can be."
Abe looked back and spoke with wisdom beyond his dozen years. "My friends are athletes with the same deep commitment. I play on the soccer team in middle school, but not with the same level of intensity they do. I guess I can do that here and pay my dues. I may not like it, and I may not like you while I'm learning, but I want this ability. I have a strong sense I'll want it, I'll need it. I'll thank you now."
Cicero nodded and put the blindfold back on Abe. "In answer to the question you actually asked, yes, I'm giving some clues while you find your inner sense, your inner inner ear, so to speak, but those clues will be less and less until you can get in an airplane and fly it over the Atlantic Ocean on a moonless night, not only straight and level but maneuvering it in aerobatics and, possibly, in combat. Now turn us around a hundred and eighty degrees."
It took three or four difficult lessons until Abe could maintain airplane attitude and altitude blindfolded, but he still couldn't determine where he was. Monarch butterflies can find their way to and from certain locations in Mexico and the United States. Whatever biological mechanism a butterfly can use to find its way thousands of miles to specific places might be available to a human body with the right deep, internal navigation knowledge. Wherever it comes from, Natural Flight pilots learn to know where they are well enough they can find an airport blindfolded and land an airplane there.
There is more to Natural Flight than just not needing gauges and gizmos in an airplane. A pilot well trained in the art knows attitude and location without having to process the information of visual cues or flight instruments. The story Natural Flight advocates tell is that figuring out attitude uses two-thirds of a pilot's brainpower, maybe half with a visible horizon outside, so learning to glean attitude without using visual processing frees up that much extra brainpower for the mission at hand, presumably air-to-air combat. The other guy is looking at the horizon and instruments while you're spending your entire mental flight energy looking at your opponent because you know where you are.
Learning to find an airport, or even just an altitude, without any sight, is a lot harder than just learning which way is up in a gyrating turn. Cicero had stopped giving Abe his own sensory clues for turning, climbing, descending, and other flight modes in addition to straight and level, but he still had to nudge the eleven-year-old Abe to find a place in space. After an hour of struggling agony and sweat, blindfolded Abe could find the four compass points north, east, south, and west and headings in between. He could feel when the airplane wasn't going where it was pointed because of winds aloft. Wind from the east will set a northwesterly course for an airplane pointed north and being able to feel the difference between the heading where one is pointed and the track where one is going is a useful talent.
Air pressure gives clues about altitude and, again, one can learn to feel absolute air pressure. With greater effort one can learn to perceive absolute altitude which means one is no longer fooled by changing barametric pressure. After about twelve hours of blindfolded training Abe was could find an airport he knew and he could land there. Cicero was the lookout making sure there were no other airplanes in the way.
This sort of blind-cum-lookout combination is a familiar thing in conventional instrument-flight training where the faux-instrument pilot covers his outward vision with a visor known as a hood and only sees the instruments. The instructor or other pilot calls out traffic to the training pilot and to air traffic control (ATC) on the radio. In this case, Abe wasn't just hooded, he was actually blindfolded, and, eventually, he could reliably find the airport and land. Whee!
Abe's father George had been so trained and could do Natural-Flight. Neither of George's daughters, Abe's sisters, had any interest in aviation, so Abe was the sole heir to George's passion for flight.
The flight rules require a student pilot to be sixteen years old for solo flight and seventeen years old for a private-pilot license, but Abe was competent and comfortable at a much-younger age. Sometimes with Cicero, sometimes with his father George, sometimes with other pilots, and sometimes (gasp!) alone, Abe would practice his Natural-Flight skills.
Cicero had some connections in famous-pilot circles, so a thirteen-year-old Abe Peters got the chance to fly with aerobatic expert Patty Wagstaff and elderly aces Bob Hoover, Andy Anderson, and Chuck Yeager. After flying with the boy and doing some hard maneuvering in the air, Chuck Yeager said, "Abe scares me. I've met a lot of pilots, a lot of good pilots, a few great pilots, but this kid is the first one I was actually afraid of running into in combat. His control of an aggressive flight situation makes him an awesome adversary. I want him on my side in the next war."
One place Abe found himself regularly using his Natural-Flight skills was landing in Greenland where the weather was often below even instrument-minimum visibility. While the airplane George and Abe modified could make the full trip from Newfoundland to Scotland without refueling, sometimes a stop in Greenland or Iceland was needed because of headwinds, bladder capacity, or just a desire to walk around.
When Abe was older, another place was when he was flying "wet missions" in the Wolfpack, his gray-area flying group that ranged from paying passengers to "running ammunition." He really didn't want anybody else to know where he was and where he was going. While the sparks of an engine are trackable with sophisticated military detectors, they really have to know exactly where to look as the radio emissions are broadband and faint. A radio receiver, on the other hand, even a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, emits a strong-enough radio signal to be discovered anywhere in the sky. So Abe was able to use his Natural-Flight ability to go from one place to another without detection, especially useful when flying over places where he really wasn't welcome.
The composite-materials Cirrus has a very faint radar image, a "primary" return they call it, but it's not easy to see it unless, again, somebody already knows where to look for it. When Abe designed airplanes later on, he made sure their shape and coating gave no primary radar return so he could fly invisibly in radio silence.
When he was outside North America and Europe, in places where he wasn't welcome, and was seen by local pilots, usually military, Abe would engage the local pilots in a chase and used his talent to get them confused enough to put their own airplanes into a body of water.
Abe could go someplace he had flown before and, sometimes, he could go someplace he had been without being in an airplane, but just picking a place on a map and saying "Let's go there" required more navigation skill than Cicero, George, or Abe could muster. On several occasions Abe took a less clandestine flight to a given destination prior to a planned wet mission where he needed to use Natural Flight to get there in darkness and total radio silence.
Abe was an amazing airplane pilot. His circle of pilots and friends were pretty sure that Natural-Flight and Cicero's training had a lot to do with how amazing he ultimately became.
16:59:13 Mountain Standard Time (MST).
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