Why Learning to Fly (or Code) Is Easier Than You Think

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There is something remarkably abstract about commercial air travel. You walk from your New York apartment to a taxi to a terminal, amble through a series of tubes, fight discomfort in an ugly chair, and three hours later you're in Orlando. You can plausibly go the whole way without realizing you've left the ground.

It's a testament to the progress we've made since the Wright brothers first proved their concept late in the morning on December 17th, 1903. Airplanes are now so expertly engineered, and so well-built, that you no longer have to think about them.

Unless you want to. Then you'll discover that there's a lot to think about indeed, a fact I'm learning quickly as I roll into a shallow turn over the Florida coast in a two-seater PiperSport light aircraft.

It's only been about forty seconds since we took off. The fact that I'm already in control is simultaneously invigorating and deeply alarming. I expected there to be some sort of rigorous process--a waiting period? a physical? some paperwork?--before I'd be allowed to take the helm of a $138,000 machine that flies.

But here's what happened instead: on a whim, I called a number I found on sportpilot.org and set up an appointment for a $79, 45-minute lesson. Two weeks later I parked on the grass beside an open hangar, walked in, and introduced myself to the friendly proprietor. I waited on the tarmac--read a few pilotry magazines, shot the bull--while my instructor, a twenty year-old from Alaska who makes a living training new pilots and delivering planes all around the country (by flying them there), fetched himself a breakfast sandwich. When he got back he gave me a five-minute primer on aerodynamics; explained the buttons, rudders, stick and instruments; and took us up to about a thousand feet. "Your plane," he said.

I think I'm doing a pretty good job, actually. The stick is awfully sensitive: movements just one centimeter in any direction are translated with a slight delay into drastic changes in altitude and heading. My instructor tells me that most new pilots tend to over-maneuver and then over-correct, a nasty feedback loop which gets them into a sort of wrestling match with the air. But it looks like all my years playing first-person shooters have paid off--I'm a natural with the stick.

The pedals, not so much. These control the rudders, and after I confess to my instructor that I don't yet understand exactly what rudders do, he tells me not to worry. He points to the bottom of the screen in front of me full of indicators--airspeed, climb rate, heading, orientation, fuel level, oil temperature, etc.--and has me focus on a small white circle in between two vertical lines. It looks like a carpenter's level. "Keep the ball between those lines," he says. "If the ball goes left, press the left pedal. If it goes right, press the right pedal."

This sounds easy enough, and it would be if I didn't keep ignoring it entirely. That's my first big lesson: "Flying an airplane is the ultimate test of multitasking." He's right--most of the challenge here seems to be in efficiently collecting, triaging, and acting on a mass of messy information. But I can only seem to focus on one thing at a time. So when my instructor tells me to climb at five hundred feet per minute, I can delicately pull back on the stick and hit the number just so, but in the process I've forgotten where I am, which direction I'm going, how fast we're moving, and whether there are any birds or airplanes in my way.

These are dangerous tradeoffs, and an experienced pilot doesn't make them. At least in a small recreational plane like this, he spends--surprisingly, I think--90% of his time looking out of the window and just 10% looking at his instruments. He is a master at sizing things up. "What you have to do is kind of pop in every once in a while and take a quick look at all of your indicators. If something's yellow or red, you take care of that. Otherwise you make sure everything's on target and go back to looking out the canopy. It's situational awareness."

For now I'm lucky that I have someone to do all this thinking for me. It also helps that the PiperSport has dual controls, just like one of those cars used at driving schools, so that any adjustments made on one side are mirrored on the other. If I do anything wrong, then, my instructor can jump in and fix it. And if I do something really wrong, like slip into a stall or unrecoverable spin, one of us can pull the big red handle that launches the "ballistic recovery system," a rocket-powered parachute for the entire plane. This is about as comforting as it sounds.

I've chosen a beautiful day for my first outing, and now that I've gotten a bit of a feel for the aircraft I take a moment to appreciate what I'm doing. It's sunny and cloudless and I can see for miles. I am flying. I am several thousand feet above the ocean heading south, dipping left and right and up and down at will. It's a radical kind of freedom. It feels like driving a go-kart in three dimensions.

After we land safely through a mild crosswind, I can't help but ask my instructor: why was I allowed to do what I just did? Who thought it was okay for me to romp around in a sport plane?

"The U.S. still has this World War II attitude," he says, "where they want a country full of young pilots. So they set the bar pretty low."

No kidding.

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But of course there's something else going on. And I think I know what it is, if only because my radically fast introduction to flying reminds me so much of another marvel that seems, at first, to be totally unrelated: the ease with which I learned to write nontrivial computer programs.

Maybe "ease" isn't the right word--I went through years of false starts before I finally started snowballing toward being a decently capable programmer. But once I got over that initial hump, it took only four or five months of intense studying in my sophomore year of college before I was suddenly able to create: I wrote programs to solve all kinds of math problems; I wrote a program to generate haikus from the text of Ulysses, and a program to send me a text message every time Tiger Woods birdied; I made a game that let me and my friends play just about every episode of Jeopardy! that had ever aired; etc. Whenever whimsy struck, I took to the computer and cooked something up.

It's just like my jaunt over the Florida coast. In both cases, I've unwittingly taken advantage of an incredible kind of leverage, in the sense that the stick I maneuver and the functions I write are tied to a deep brobdingnagian complex of other people's work. The miracle is that these accumulated layers of mechanism and edifice and expertise cohere so tightly, have been black-boxed and wrapped up into such friendly interfaces, that even a nitwit like me can put them to productive use.

Thus the twin facts that I was able to take control of a plane after a few moments' introduction and write useful programs after just a few months of work have basically nothing to do with my aptitude, and all to do with the equipment and know-how made available to me. In the flying case, I had the PiperSport--with its dead-simple sophisticated avionics, multiply redundant control systems, fine-tuned and forgiving aerodynamics--and my instructor--a twenty year-old, sure, but an unusually conscientious twenty year-old with about seven years of flying experience under his belt who in his own way represents the condensate of a century's worth of thinking about aviation.

In the programming case, I have an overwhelming number of tutorials, walkthroughs, introductions, books, and other guides. I have massive repositories of thoroughly documented open source code to reuse and imitate. And I have perhaps the world's most magnificent tower of abstractions, starting with transistors and moving up through circuits, chips, processors, all kinds of hardware I know nothing about, operating systems, and a nice tall stack of increasingly abstract programming languages undergirding the famously friendly ones I use, Python and Ruby. The net effect of which is to make "programming" an exercise in (a) wanting to do something, (b) realizing that someone's probably done it before, (c) looking up what they did, and (d) tweaking it a little bit. As I tweak I begin to understand, and to become less a user of all this wonderful mess than a contributor to it.

There is no doubt danger in all this abstraction--how easy it is nowadays to use a thing without knowing how it works--but it's hard to complain when you're playing in the clouds.

Images: Daniel Somers.

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James Somers is a writer and programmer based in New York. He works at Rap Genius. His personal site is jsomers.net.

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