Learning to Fly: A Metaphor for Leaving the Military

I was one of the pilots on the UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter in Afghanistan during the surge of combat operations in 2011

I was one of the pilots on the UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter in Afghanistan during the surge of combat operations in 2011

I always wanted to fly. It was the main reason why I volunteered for military service in the first place, and for the better part of 21 years, I did just that. I had the opportunity to fly three different types of helicopters (five if you count the A-L-M variants of the UH-60 Blackhawk). I flew during peacetime and combat. I executed nearly every mission a helicopter could perform. I thought that I was finished flying when I was permanently grounded for medical reasons, but I recently discovered that I had to learn how to fly all over again to find purpose and meaning in life beyond the military.

How to Hover a Helicopter

I still remember my excitement when I reported to Fort Rucker - the home of Army Aviation - back in the summer of 1993. Flight school didn't start on the airfield. It started in the classroom. We studied topics like aerodynamics, aviation medicine, weather, and aircraft systems. We learned about performance planning and how weather impacted aviation operations. Before we ever got to the airfield, we established a baseline of proficiency and knowledge.

Once we got to the flight line, we spent the first week learning about the aircraft, becoming familiar with airfield operations, and practicing the preflight and run-up procedures. We studied and reviewed a stack of manuals, regulations, and checklists. By the time we finally sat in the pilot's seat with the rotor turning, our minds were overflowing with all things necessary to lift that machine off the ground and start flying.

When learning to fly a helicopter, you have to know how to hover just like having to crawl and walk before you ever start to run.

I think everyone from my flight school cohort was both nervous and excited when that day finally arrived. I recall sitting in the pilot's seat of the UH-1H (Huey) Helicopter off the runway in the grassy area of the stage field. My instructor pilot was a Vietnam veteran with more than 18,000 hours. He effortlessly demonstrated the first maneuver - the hover. He softly returned the aircraft to the ground, and he told me to take the controls. In my mind, I had rehearsed the mechanics behind hovering flight at least a hundred times. He let go of the controls, and I was on my own.

I slowly pulled on the collective with my left hand for power. I applied left pedal to compensate for the torque effect. I pulled back and left on the cyclic with my right hand to account for translating tendency and forward tilt of the rotor system. Mechanically speaking, I was making the appropriate inputs, and just like that . . . the aircraft lurched off the ground, and I was flying! Well, sort of . . .

As the aircraft rose off the ground, it began bucking like a mechanical bull. It was alarming, and I tensed up. Fear set in as I tried to steady the aircraft. My corrections were abrupt, and the aircraft responded . . . abruptly. Before I hit the full 8 seconds, the instructor snatched the controls, steadied the aircraft, and allowed me to try again. The same thing happened. I couldn't tame this mechanical bull. Each time the instructor demonstrated the maneuver, I was certain that I was going to nail it, but each time that he transferred the controls, the helicopter began bucking wildly around the airfield.

On the first day of attempting to fly a helicopter, my t-shirt was soaked with sweat. I had salt stains on my flight suit. On the second day, I strived harder to get it right. The results were the same. By the fourth day, my seasoned instructor was growing more frustrated. So was I. He kept telling me to get out of my head and "just fly the aircraft." What the hell did that mean? I didn't understand what he was talking about. My performance continued to worsen. Every day I would strive harder, and every day, I failed to hover the damn helicopter.

I started to question whether or not I had the ability to fly. After about a week, I didn't have the energy or the mental capacity to fight the helicopter or my instructor anymore. Through resignation or sheer exhaustion, I had reached the point when I stopped striving. I got out of my head. I was on the controls on the ninth day of practice when the instructor told me to take the controls, and miraculously, I did it! I brought the aircraft off the ground by about 5 or 10 feet. My altitude was steady. I was holding my heading. The aircraft wasn't drifting. I was flying! After about a minute of stunned silence, I tried to analyze what I was doing so that I might replicate my actions, and the helicopter returned to the routine of kicking and jumping across the airfield, but I tamed the bull. I learned to fly.

The secret was to get out of my head. Intellectually applying the control inputs for rotary flight didn't work. My knowledge of aircraft systems couldn't tame the rodeo bull. Striving harder each day didn't help. It actually made things worse. You can't think the aircraft off the ground and hold a steady hover. You have to feel it. Once I got out of my head, I was able to feel and respond to the aircraft. Learning how to fly had very little to do with thinking and everything to do with feeling.

How to Find Purpose and Meaning Beyond the Military

Leaving the military is a lot like learning how to fly all over again. We do a lot of things to position ourselves at a point where we can start living a life of purpose and meaning beyond the military. We follow the transition checklists. We go back to school for that elusive degree or for those credentials to be more competitive in the job market. We network, update our resume, and attend career conferences under the wise tutelage of recruiters, transition specialists, and our former colleagues already working in the civilian sector. We attend to everything - mechanically speaking - to "succeed" in life after the military.

Preparation and support only go so far in the transition process. At some point, you must take that step in a new direction. At some point, you have all the flight controls.

What keeps us from holding that hover and truly flying is fear. During transition, we fear the inevitable disconnection from the familiar culture of the military. We fear the potential lack of acceptance in a new workplace. As our separation date draws near, anxiety sets in. We start to strive. We worry about how to pay the mortgage, how to afford tuition, or how we will sustain our livelihood, and we strive harder. We end up doing just enough to settle, and we spend the rest of our lives riding the mechanical bull around the airfield called life.

Not every aspiring pilot learns how to hover. They don't trust themselves enough to just feel the aircraft, and they never learn to fly. Likewise, many veterans never discover passion and purpose in life beyond the military. They never let themselves follow their heart, and they miss out on the chance of living on purpose and experiencing the joy of being alive.

In order to fly a helicopter, you have to feel the aircraft. In order to find passion and purpose in life after the military, you have to follow your heart. Happiness is a state of being. Striving won't get you there. Recognize your WHO. Understand your WHY. You've trusted your gut before, so what's holding you back now? You were inspired as a leader in the military, now be the leader who inspires throughout society. After all, you were meant to fly.