Flow Interview – Matt Whitfield, Naval Aviation Pilot
We had the chance to interview Matt Whitfield about his experiences with flow while flying the skies.
Cameron: Hello and welcome to another flow session! We’re very lucky we have the presence of Matthew Whitfield who’s a lieutenant commander. He spent 20 years as a naval aviator pilot and instructor, and spent the last eight years flying as a display pilot for vintage jets. We just wanted today to talk to you a little bit about your own experiences, how you might have experienced flow and how you felt within that flow experience, and also maybe to highlight to others who are looking to find flow more frequently in their lives, just one or two nuggets that you’ve used in your past that you might be able to communicate. Take us through a short memory that you have where you were intensely in flow, just briefly describe the situation and then how you felt during it.
Matthew: Okay, certainly. I’ve given this some thought and I had a choice for two, one of which was flying a Harrier alongside an aircraft carrier at night, decelerating into the hover and coming across the deck and land; that was one. But what I think I’m going to talk about is the moments that are required in preparation for a display in the world’s only flying single-seat twin-engine supersonic fighter, so we’ll do that one I think, that was the Sea Vixen. I last flew that in 2013, and I picked up some incredibly good habits from the other guys in the Navy over the years. For me the flow… we would jokingly call it your happy place, the place at which you know you’re cooking on gas, you are delivering your A game, that you’re going to be safe, accurate… I suppose we used to say of display that a display can either look good, feel good, look bad but feel good, or look good and feel bad, there’s always a combination; when you’re in flow, you get both.
So, for me the flow would start, or understanding I was in flow was part of this environment we have across aviation now, certainly in the military, of getting into the bubble. A bubble is a metaphorical shape that you are in, and everything else you need to perform to the best of your ability is within that bubble for you, and I’ll give you an example of what sort of stuff that is. That is you’ve had a quality weather brief, a met brief, you’ve chatted with your engineer about how the aircraft’s been the few days before the performance, what it was when you last flew it, that you’ve had a quality brief from the display organiser, and that I’ve had time between that brief and my show time, the time I’m expected to display, I’ve had plenty of time to sit and be at peace and mentally rehearse what I’m about to do.
That involves for me certainly closing my eyes, and I got into the habit of actually doing it before I even got to the airfield. It might be on the bus there or in the hotel room, but certainly in the moments before we fly, before I climb up the ladder, get into my happy place as I’m strapping into the aircraft. The last four or five minutes I’d be in my flying kit, we’ve done the brief, I’ve out briefed – the last brief we have for everything – signed for the aircraft, spoken to PK, the engineer, given him my helmet, and then I just stand there with my eyes closed and visualise where I’m looking in the cockpit, where I’m going to look out of the window, what I should expect to see between each manoeuvre, the speed I should be at and the altitude I would anticipate needing to be at to be able to complete each manoeuvre.
Cameron: Okay. What sort of manoeuvres are you talking about?
Matthew: Nothing extreme. It’s an old aircraft, we’re limited to 4 g [four g-forces] so there’s no what we’d term looping manoeuvres. Most people I think can imagine what a loop is: you fly along, pull all the way around upside down, and once you’re upside down a loop you’d continue that circle and come around. There was no need to do that with these aircraft; people don’t come and marvel at who’s flying it, they want to see the aircraft and listen to the sound, so there was no need to do that. So it was just being able to link each manoeuvre seamlessly together, there was no need to try and punchy and snap and “Oh, look at me – wow, brilliant!” it just should be a very graceful linking of stuff.
I always found it was very important to have that four or five minutes before I climbed up the ladder and strapped in, the PKs strap me in, listen to the radio, put my oxygen mask on, take one of the pins out on the ejection seat, and then just sit there listening to the radio, taking a few deep breaths.
I now know that was mindfulness type stuff, but I would do it just to calm down; adrenalin was rushing, there could be tens of thousands of people there waiting, and there’s never a guarantee you’re going to get airborne, these are old aircraft that may or may not have a snag when you start up. But I can put my… [laughs] I could see myself do it, the steps up the ladder, the sound of going up the ladder, the feeling of the leather flying gloves, the knowing I’m going to be hot because it’s the summertime – I’m wearing a green flying suit, I’ve got a g-suit on, I’ve got a life jacket on, I’ve got a helmet that’s green so you’re warm – and strapping into the aircraft, sitting into a seat… And the smell of the cockpit… You know, these old aircrafts have an absolutely distinct smell, and that, again, helps me go, “Ah, I know what I’m about to do now.”
Cameron: Yeah, so that kind of primed you almost in a ritual to get to that happy place.
Matthew: Yeah. It was the same on board the carrier, on Ark Royal, that process of carrying your helmet across the deck, saying hello to the plane captain, having a polite chat with those going up the ladder, check your ejection seat and then walk around the aircraft, and you were then on the flow, the flow state was increasing because it was a ritual. There was things you would check before you get into the aircraft, there were things and a process you go through about starting one of these aircraft. You don’t just go, “Oh, a bit of this, a bit of that,” it’s an absolute process and there’s good reasons for that because mistakes get made. So that’s before we even got airborne, that’s how it is. [laughs] I’m still thinking about going up that ladder, a little red ladder on the side of the aircraft!
Cameron: [laughs] Those experiences can suddenly bring up a lot of arousal and memories and emotions. When you’re actually in that experience, you’re flying and you’re being as graceful as you possibly can, trying to get your timing absolutely perfect, what are the… If you were to describe to someone how that felt when you’re in it, and I know you’ve had a brief look at the nine dimensions of flow – and maybe if you can relate to a couple of those, fantastic; if not, no problem – but just give us a description of how it felt to you being in it.
Matthew: I think without a doubt, and other people who’ve done this, it’s the control element, that the environment you’re put into to display a historic jet at an air show is very controlled. There are gates you have to make – your paperwork, your medical, the weather, etc. – but actually me in the flow, it’s the control, knowing that on previous occasions if I’ve thought I could’ve done better about something, when I’ve reflected back on that or debriefed with the guys, I’ve spent time mentally rehearsing those moments so it’s embedded in my brain so things happen automatically. Yes, I think about it, but I know that as I roll out what I should see as I put wings level, I’ve got two seconds with wings level to make sure I’ve got full power ~to patch up~ 390 to 420 knots at 4 g, and I know what line in the ground I’m not allowed to cross, or the rules say you’ve got to be up away from the crowd, the rules are very strict.
So it’s the control for me, knowing that I’m in control of the aircraft; if I cock up, it’s my fault. There’s no excuse blaming the wind because I’ve been briefed on it, I’ve mentally thought about that before I got in, and I… I suppose a sense of pride of what I represented, the Royal Navy, the fixed wing service, the aircraft carrier, you don’t want to let people down and I think there’s a lot of self-pressure on that front. But the control elements of knowing that my right hand isn’t squeezing all the buttons out of the control column, out of the steer case… I’m very relaxed, my right arm is relaxed on my knee, my feet are on the pedals, I’m strapped into the seat but I’m still completely free to look around and out of the window for those visual cues that I know I should be seeing, and my left hand is quite relaxed on the twin throttles, on the two engines, and that’s where my hands stay until moments I need to flick a switch. But I know that’s coming, I know when I need to flick it because I’ve practiced.
Cameron: When you say control, what is really noticeable for you in that experience? Is there a pressure to be in control, or do you actually feel you almost have like a limitless control?
Matthew: It’s certainly not a pressure to be in control, it’s a function of flying these aircraft; I don’t have 320 passengers on board, I have nobody else on board, it’s me in this aircraft in an ejection seat if it goes wrong. It is knowing I have the capability to do it, the aircraft has the capability to do it, and when I’m in the groove, on my A game, it happens, it will be a seamless… You might go too far into wind, reversing… “Okay, ease off the rate of roll here because it will look seamless.”
Cameron: And where’s your attention during that time? When you’re in that zone and you’re saying you’re looking for visual cues, where else is your attention?
Matthew: Several areas. Because of course you’re using your ears, there is an element of using the ~seat of the pants~ stuff, understanding when you’re still pulling or you’re pulling harder. So visually your eyes are flicking between the cues you need out of the cockpit – landmarks, the runway or the display line you’re flying to: it might be the air traffic control tower, the lines on the ground that are marked out for those of us flying – but there are key moments when you absolutely need to be looking at my air speed and the altitude I’m at, or it should actually be the height of course you’re above the airfield.
Because I need to have control of my energy state, the aircraft’s energy state. If I’m low-level, I need to be faster to have enough energy, that when I pull up I convert the kinetic energy into potential energy, I’m converting my speed into height, so I know that when I pull up using 4 g I’m going to have 4,500-5,000 feet, which is ample height to continue the next manoeuvre. I won’t be the type of chap who pulls up at 350 knots and thinks 4g, he’s going to end up at 3,000-3,500 and he hasn’t got the altitude or the height now to finish the manoeuvre. So your question about where is your attention… Your eye… I’m very strict on where I look at particular moments. Before I pull up I want to know my speed. When I’ve pulled up and I’m upside down before I roll out, I need my height, and there is an element of speed because of course I then need to roll; it’s no good rolling when I haven’t got enough speed.
Cameron: That situation you explained to me just then made me think there’s a hell of a lot of decision-making that happens instantly in that second or however long you’ve got; and they’re critical decisions, the wrong decisions can lead to disaster, etc. It seems from what you’re saying that a lot of that doesn’t happen necessarily consciously, and I almost had this picture in my mind as you were explaining the energy resource of that plane almost as if it was your own body.
Cameron: That’s how it… The picture came to me that you’re almost examining the plane’s energy levels as if it’s your own and almost feeling like there’s a heartbeat in there.
Matthew: Not necessarily a heartbeat, but there’s not one of us who flies for the military I don’t think – the Army Apache pilots to the Royal Air Force Hercules pilots – those of us who are on your own in an aircraft, millions of pounds worth of training put into you and millions of pounds worth of aircraft… If you strap that aircraft to me, that’s how I envisage it: I go up that ladder, settle into the ejection seat, strap in the five seats and then it is part… It’s part of me, we’re now a team, me and the aircraft, we’ll do this – definitely you strap that aircraft to your back. And the colleagues of mine over the years, especially when you’re on board or back at Yeovilton in Somerset… You do, you are part of that weapon system… Through the incredibly difficult, tough training you go through, to be successful you have to understand why it’s important you’re like that.
Cameron: Thanks for sharing that story, that’s a really great insight. What’s your challenge to get back into that state, where everything happens seamlessly and decisions are made real time? What’s you find your biggest challenge is to get back in there?
Matthew: Distraction, and it has happened. For those eight minutes when Sea Vixen clear take-off… That’s it now. That flow is there, we’re there, we’ve got eight minutes now before I land and taxi back in, and my flow state stops when the ejection seat is safe, the canopy is opened, I’m unstrapping and carefully getting out. Distraction is what breaks the flow state. That can be air traffic, it can be another radio call you weren’t necessarily anticipating, but for me it has been air traffic, it routinely would… Through no fault… It’s quite right, they should make this radio call, but it wasn’t what I was anticipating, and it does just stop the flow and you have to dismiss it if it’s not relevant to you, and of course typically it will be relevant to you so then you have to adapt.
Cameron: Great stuff. I know you’ve had a brief look at the 12 steps to flow, which is our framework for how people can focus on finding flow more frequently. I know we haven’t gone through them in depth at all, but are there any that just instantly spring out at you that you think, “Yeah, this is definitely something I’ve focused on over the years to help me get into this happy place.”?
Matthew: It’s number four for me, mastery. You only need to mess up once in this business and you’ll never be invited back to do it again, there’s no ifs or buts and it is pretty black and white. So mastery, being able to understand that people want to see the aircraft, they don’t really care who’s in the aircraft. There are aeroplanes that people want to know it’s “Wow, look at the Red Bull Air Racers, aren’t they incredibly talented at what they do?” but in vintage jets it’s the aircraft they want to see. So it’s being able to relax off the pressure of me and understand I can now master what I need to do to deliver. That’s why I took it perhaps too seriously but very seriously this rehearsal, this understanding I’ve been able to get in and deliver. And I take time to understand, “If something went wrong at this point what are my options? If I hit a bird at this point, what am I going to do? If someone drives across the runway and drops something on it and blocks the runway, where am I going to go, where will I divert to? If I have a fuel flow problem, have I got the capacity… Well, I don’t want to find that out during the display, do I? I need to prepare for that on the ground so that if something happens I know what I’ll do.” So mastery certainly I feel is relevant. Yeah, I’ll stick with that.
Cameron: Okay, great stuff – thank you! Coming to more of a wrap-up of this conversation – and thank you again, Matthew, for your time – if we could leave some parting advice to a young aviator, or maybe someone in a different sport or activity, or a musician who is looking to find flow more frequently… In terms of finding flow more frequently in that bubble, what’s one advice that you’d want to impart?
Matthew: Find out what it is that puts you into that calm state, that you accept your adrenalin is surging, the pressure to perform, but find out… Is it just a couple of deep breaths and a smile, think of your wife or your children? For me it was just take a deep breath, close my eyes… and understand what it is I’m about to do, and aren’t I incredibly fortunate to be in a position to do this, just to… [takes a deep breath and exhales] smile at PK, shake his hand, get up the ladder.
Cameron: Okay, fantastic – I’d imagine that would help manage the stress and get you to an arousal level that you would probably want to be at for flying.
Matthew: Thank you!
Cameron: And lastly, we always ask people what is their biggest challenge or biggest fear in your life so we get some relativity to someone who has been at the top of their game in very pressured situations. What’s life outside the cockpit for Matthew and what’s your biggest challenge moving forwards?
Matthew: Life outside the cockpit, my biggest challenge… Hell’s bells! [long pause] I think, interestingly enough, it’s being able to accept that that position of flow, that incredible feeling I’ve had as a display pilot, I’m going to find that elsewhere in life and there will be other things. That can be as being a parent, a husband, or in my new career as a professional coach, certainly. Very recently I’ve had that moment of going, “My goodness, things are happening… having thought about it and rehearsed…” It’s come back in a completely unexpected situation which I wasn’t prepared for if I’m honest! [laughs] It was good, it was a good feeling though, it was… I was going to say it was addictive, but I’m not saying it’s addictive. It’s just a very intoxicating feeling for me when you’re in flow. I know what it’s like, I know how to put myself in it and I’m going to take it across into my new career.
Cameron: Great stuff – thank you, Matthew! Thank you for listening, we’ve had some fantastic stories there and some advice about how important focus on mastery throughout your training can be, especially when the consequences can be very high, and the feeling of control when you’re in that flow moment and how you can feel so connected and at one with the equipment around you, that that leads to that instant decision-making and perception of control within that bubble. We look forwards to bringing you some more flow sessions, thanks for tuning in and please get in touch if you can relate to any of these stories, we would love to hear your perspective about it. Bye for now!