Of spaghetti, soccer & Top Gun
I was reading an old blog from Seth Godin about “sprezzatura” and thought the concept related well to aviation. I will explain why in a second, but first let me tell you how to pronounce this Italian word which rolls in your mouth with the same musicality as spaghetti, or espresso. It sounds like this: sprettsa’tu;ra (\ sprāt-tsä-ˈtü-rä\ )
By now you might be imagining al fresco dinners in, say, Tuscany, accompanied by a Brunello di Montalcino Chianti and followed by an Italian dessert, like gelato or Tiramisu. Nice. Keep that thought going while I slide into business and introduce you to the concept of piloting with sprezzatura. In essence, sprezzatura is the art of performing a difficult task so gracefully that it looks effortless—that’s to say, replacing the grunts and grimaces with ease and naturale. You might have heard this word before in a sartorial context–someone dresses with sprezzatura when they look elegant by nature not by effort–but this term is not just in the domain of fashion, rather it can be applied to anything in life. Soccer player, Messi, plays with sprezzatura, as did the late Maradona when he virtually single handedly won Argentina the World Cup in 1986, and later the European Cup for Napoli. He made possible what seemed impossible, and made it look easy in the process, leading the world to characterize him as “a natural”.
As a flight instructor, I often encounter pilots who, notwithstanding their competence, turn the flight deck into a hectic pit, and others who adapt seamlessly into the new environment without losing an inch of their composure—as if, all along, they were born to fly. The reason for this does not come down to talent entirely, but, in big part, to attitude and preparedness. It is a common mistake to think that temerity and boldness are the qualities that make good pilots, when in fact the virtue of an aviator is subtly implied when assured calm reins in the flight deck— every action comes with ease, no unnecessary risks are taken, and the flow is accomplished with some measure of interior rhythm. My mentor played Jazz over our headphones while I tried to keep up with the workload of my, then recently acquired, Mooney. He is a master of sprezzatura, nothing fazes him. From this gentleman (a Marine veteran, no less) I learned that the only way to tackle an overwhelming task is by maintaining a relaxed poise. His voice was never raised, his demeanor never frantic or reproaching, and as a result I rarely got flustered. And yes, in a relatively short time, flying a vintage Mooney with a Johnson bar became effortless, even for this featherweight with no upper arm muscle to speak of. Thanks to my mentor’s attitude, to this day, the flight deck is my happy place, no matter how complex or demanding the plane I’m flying may be.
I’m not saying that the level of multitasking necessary to keep a plane in the air or to bring it back to land is easy. It takes a lot of study, and time for muscle memory to develop. For a PPL student especially, the workload might seem too much and too daunting at first; that’s why I’m inviting you to approach these tasks from a different angle—make a conscious decision from early on to leave any stress and apprehensions outside the plane and as a matter of principle, to turn the flight deck into an inviolable place of balance and tranquility. Consider a hectic-free environment as an essential first step towards assuming command over your surroundings; this step, in time, will lead you to reach the often elusive quality sought after by connoisseurs of every field—sprezzatura. For reference, what remained in the collective consciousness after the movie Top Gun were not the difficult maneuvers performed by the jets, nor the daring recklessness with which Maverick flew, but the nonchalance of his response to Charlie: “Because I was inverted.” The reason why that’s the retained memetic, repeated throughout decades by pilots and non-pilots alike, is because Maverick made the act of flying inverted seem like it was natural, relaxed and done with ease—and just like that a legend was born, because in our practical understanding of how the world works, we associate that type of effortlessness with mastery.
If you are a student who aims to fly with sprezzatura (and who wouldn’t?) the following tips are for you:
• When you first start flying, don't over-saturate yourself with tasks. Ask your instructor to take over the radios if needed, for instance. Focus on flying the plane only, until you feel comfortable and at ease, then add other tasks as you go.
• Don’t compare yourself to others, everyone has a different learning curve, the length or shortness of it doesn’t determine how good a pilot you will become, your attitude does.
• Form is important, your aim is not just to get from point A to B, but to fly there with confidence, and without breaking much of a sweat. If you start like that from the beginning, when it comes time to do your solo, and later do your cross country, it will feel like a breeze.
• Take advantage of extra resources to prepare for your flights—here at Clipper we have two state of the art flight simulators, you know what they say—practice makes perfect. We also offer group ground classes, they are a great way to brush up on subjects you already covered with your instructor but need refreshing. There’s no such thing as an over-prepared pilot. Everything you do on land, every bit of hard work you put in, is in preparation for a stress-free flight deck performance.
• Accept that some days you will be off, we all have some of those, don’t get caught on that, next time you will do better.
• Your instructor is your ally, they are there to coach you along the way, and make the whole process of learning to fly safe and personalized to your needs. A good instructor will intuitively notice if you are struggling or falling behind the plane, but if for any reason they don’t, do not hesitate to advocate for yourself.
• Above all, aim to fly not with bravado but with elegance. Don’t muscle your workload panting and gasping, but learn to master it with finesse. This will benefit you later when you have your license, and you want to take friends or family for a ride.
The truth is, like everything in life, the appearance of effortlessness comes at the cost of painstaking preparation, and discipline, until one day it becomes second nature, there are no shortcuts for that. The trick, if you will, is to do most of the grit on land. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Know your flows by heart, and memorize your maneuvers step by step. That said, enjoy your lessons, stay safe, and take to the sky with ease so that your flying becomes as sublime and infused with naturale as Messi or Maradona with a soccer ball, as Maverick flying inverted, or as a perfect, al fresco, spaghetti dinner, of the kind that Italians have perfected—it’s the simple things. And when someone tells you, “you make it look so easy”, consider that to be the pinnacle of compliments. Here is to you flying with sprezzatura. Cin-cin!