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! WeÔÇÖre very lucky we have the presence of Matthew Whitfield whoÔÇÖs 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 youÔÇÖve 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. IÔÇÖve 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 IÔÇÖm going to talk about is the moments that are required in preparation for a display in the worldÔÇÖs only flying single-seat twin-engine supersonic fighter, so weÔÇÖll 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 flowÔÇª we would jokingly call it your happy place, the place at which you know youÔÇÖre cooking on gas, you are delivering your A game, that youÔÇÖre going to be safe, accurateÔÇª 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, thereÔÇÖs always a combination; when youÔÇÖre 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 IÔÇÖll give you an example of what sort of stuff that is. That is youÔÇÖve had a quality weather brief, a met brief, youÔÇÖve chatted with your engineer about how the aircraftÔÇÖs been the few days before the performance, what it was when you last flew it, that youÔÇÖve had a quality brief from the display organiser, and that IÔÇÖve had time between that brief and my show time, the time IÔÇÖm expected to display, IÔÇÖve had plenty of time to sit and be at peace and mentally rehearse what IÔÇÖm 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 IÔÇÖm strapping into the aircraft. The last four or five minutes IÔÇÖd be in my flying kit, weÔÇÖve done the brief, IÔÇÖve out briefed ÔÇô the last brief we have for everything ÔÇô 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 IÔÇÖm looking in the cockpit, where IÔÇÖm 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. ItÔÇÖs an old aircraft, weÔÇÖre limited to 4 g [four g-forces] so thereÔÇÖs no what weÔÇÖd 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 youÔÇÖre upside down a loop youÔÇÖd continue that circle and come around. There was no need to do that with these aircraft; people donÔÇÖt come and marvel at whoÔÇÖs 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 ÔÇ£Oh, look at me ÔÇô wow, brilliant!ÔÇØ 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 thereÔÇÖs never a guarantee youÔÇÖre going to get airborne, these are old aircraft that may or may not have a snag when you start up. But I can put myÔÇª [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 IÔÇÖm going to be hot because itÔÇÖs the summertime ÔÇô IÔÇÖm wearing a green flying suit, IÔÇÖve got a g-suit on, IÔÇÖve got a life jacket on, IÔÇÖve got a helmet thatÔÇÖs green so youÔÇÖre warm ÔÇô and strapping into the aircraft, sitting into a seatÔÇª And the smell of the cockpitÔÇª You know, these old aircrafts have an absolutely distinct smell, and that, again, helps me go, ÔÇ£Ah, I know what IÔÇÖm about to do now.ÔÇØ
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 donÔÇÖt just go, ÔÇ£Oh, a bit of this, a bit of that,ÔÇØ itÔÇÖs an absolute process and thereÔÇÖs good reasons for that because mistakes get made. So thatÔÇÖs before we even got airborne, thatÔÇÖs how it is. [laughs] IÔÇÖm 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 youÔÇÖre actually in that experience, youÔÇÖre flying and youÔÇÖre being as graceful as you possibly can, trying to get your timing absolutely perfect, what are theÔÇª If you were to describe to someone how that felt when youÔÇÖre in it, and I know youÔÇÖve had a brief look at the nine dimensions of flow ÔÇô and maybe if you can relate to a couple of those, fantastic; if not, no problem ÔÇô but just give us a description of how it felt to you being in it.
Matthew: I think without a doubt, and other people whoÔÇÖve done this, itÔÇÖs the control element, that the environment youÔÇÖre put into to display a historic jet at an air show is very controlled. There are gates you have to make ÔÇô your paperwork, your medical, the weather, etc. ÔÇô but actually me in the flow, itÔÇÖs the control, knowing that on previous occasions if IÔÇÖve thought I couldÔÇÖve done better about something, when IÔÇÖve reflected back on that or debriefed with the guys, IÔÇÖve spent time mentally rehearsing those moments so itÔÇÖs 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, IÔÇÖve got two seconds with wings level to make sure IÔÇÖve got full power ~to patch up~ 390 to 420 knots at 4 g, and I know what line in the ground IÔÇÖm not allowed to cross, or the rules say youÔÇÖve got to be up away from the crowd, the rules are very strict.
So itÔÇÖs the control for me, knowing that IÔÇÖm in control of the aircraft; if I cock up, itÔÇÖs my fault. ThereÔÇÖs no excuse blaming the wind because IÔÇÖve been briefed on it, IÔÇÖve mentally thought about that before I got in, and IÔÇª I suppose a sense of pride of what I represented, the Royal Navy, the fixed wing service, the aircraft carrier, you donÔÇÖt want to let people down and I think thereÔÇÖs a lot of self-pressure on that front. But the control elements of knowing that my right hand isnÔÇÖt squeezing all the buttons out of the control column, out of the steer caseÔÇª IÔÇÖm very relaxed, my right arm is relaxed on my knee, my feet are on the pedals, IÔÇÖm strapped into the seat but IÔÇÖm 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 thatÔÇÖs where my hands stay until moments I need to flick a switch. But I know thatÔÇÖs coming, I know when I need to flick it because IÔÇÖve 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: ItÔÇÖs certainly not a pressure to be in control, itÔÇÖs a function of flying these aircraft; I donÔÇÖt have 320 passengers on board, I have nobody else on board, itÔÇÖs 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 IÔÇÖm in the groove, on my A game, it happens, it will be a seamlessÔÇª You might go too far into wind, reversingÔÇª ÔÇ£Okay, ease off the rate of roll here because it will look seamless.ÔÇØ
Cameron: And whereÔÇÖs your attention during that time? When youÔÇÖre in that zone and youÔÇÖre saying youÔÇÖre looking for visual cues, where else is your attention?
Matthew: Several areas. Because of course youÔÇÖre using your ears, there is an element of using the ~seat of the pants~ stuff, understanding when youÔÇÖre still pulling or youÔÇÖre pulling harder. So visually your eyes are flicking between the cues you need out of the cockpit ÔÇô landmarks, the runway or the display line youÔÇÖre flying to: it might be the air traffic control tower, the lines on the ground that are marked out for those of us flying ÔÇô but there are key moments when you absolutely need to be looking at my air speed and the altitude IÔÇÖm at, or it should actually be the height of course youÔÇÖre above the airfield.
Because I need to have control of my energy state, the aircraftÔÇÖs energy state. If IÔÇÖm low-level, I need to be faster to have enough energy, that when I pull up I convert the kinetic energy into potential energy, IÔÇÖm converting my speed into height, so I know that when I pull up using 4 g IÔÇÖm going to have 4,500-5,000 feet, which is ample height to continue the next manoeuvre. I wonÔÇÖt be the type of chap who pulls up at 350 knots and thinks 4g, heÔÇÖs going to end up at 3,000-3,500 and he hasnÔÇÖt got the altitude or the height now to finish the manoeuvre. So your question about where is your attentionÔÇª Your eyeÔÇª IÔÇÖm very strict on where I look at particular moments. Before I pull up I want to know my speed. When IÔÇÖve pulled up and IÔÇÖm 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; itÔÇÖs no good rolling when I havenÔÇÖt got enough speed.
Cameron: That situation you explained to me just then made me think thereÔÇÖs a hell of a lot of decision-making that happens instantly in that second or however long youÔÇÖve got; and theyÔÇÖre critical decisions, the wrong decisions can lead to disaster, etc. It seems from what youÔÇÖre saying that a lot of that doesnÔÇÖt 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: ThatÔÇÖs how itÔÇª The picture came to me that youÔÇÖre almost examining the planeÔÇÖs energy levels as if itÔÇÖs your own and almost feeling like thereÔÇÖs a heartbeat in there.
Matthew: Not necessarily a heartbeat, but thereÔÇÖs not one of us who flies for the military I donÔÇÖt think ÔÇô the Army Apache pilots to the Royal Air Force Hercules pilots ÔÇô 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 aircraftÔÇª If you strap that aircraft to me, thatÔÇÖs how I envisage it: I go up that ladder, settle into the ejection seat, strap in the five seats and then it is partÔÇª ItÔÇÖs part of me, weÔÇÖre now a team, me and the aircraft, weÔÇÖll do this ÔÇô definitely you strap that aircraft to your back. And the colleagues of mine over the years, especially when youÔÇÖre on board or back at Yeovilton in SomersetÔÇª You do, you are part of that weapon systemÔÇª Through the incredibly difficult, tough training you go through, to be successful you have to understand why itÔÇÖs important youÔÇÖre like that.
Cameron: Thanks for sharing that story, thatÔÇÖs a really great insight. WhatÔÇÖs your challenge to get back into that state, where everything happens seamlessly and decisions are made real time? WhatÔÇÖs 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-offÔÇª ThatÔÇÖs it now. That flow is there, weÔÇÖre there, weÔÇÖve 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, IÔÇÖm unstrapping and carefully getting out. Distraction is what breaks the flow state. That can be air traffic, it can be another radio call you werenÔÇÖt necessarily anticipating, but for me it has been air traffic, it routinely wouldÔÇª Through no faultÔÇª ItÔÇÖs quite right, they should make this radio call, but it wasnÔÇÖt what I was anticipating, and it does just stop the flow and you have to dismiss it if itÔÇÖs 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 youÔÇÖve 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 havenÔÇÖt gone through them in depth at all, but are there any that just instantly spring out at you that you think, ÔÇ£Yeah, this is definitely something IÔÇÖve focused on over the years to help me get into this happy place.ÔÇØ?
Matthew: ItÔÇÖs number four for me, mastery. You only need to mess up once in this business and youÔÇÖll never be invited back to do it again, thereÔÇÖs 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 donÔÇÖt really care whoÔÇÖs in the aircraft. There are aeroplanes that people want to know itÔÇÖs ÔÇ£Wow, look at the Red Bull Air Racers, arenÔÇÖt they incredibly talented at what they do?ÔÇØ but in vintage jets itÔÇÖs the aircraft they want to see. So itÔÇÖs being able to relax off the pressure of me and understand I can now master what I need to do to deliver. ThatÔÇÖs why I took it perhaps too seriously but very seriously this rehearsal, this understanding IÔÇÖve been able to get in and deliver. And I take time to understand, ÔÇ£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 capacityÔÇª Well, I donÔÇÖt 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 IÔÇÖll do.ÔÇØ So mastery certainly I feel is relevant. Yeah, IÔÇÖll stick with that.
Cameron: Okay, great stuff ÔÇô thank you! Coming to more of a wrap-up of this conversation ÔÇô and thank you again, Matthew, for your time ÔÇô 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 frequentlyÔÇª In terms of finding flow more frequently in that bubble, whatÔÇÖs one advice that youÔÇÖd 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 outÔÇª 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 eyesÔÇª and understand what it is IÔÇÖm about to do, and arenÔÇÖt I incredibly fortunate to be in a position to do this, just toÔÇª [takes a deep breath and exhales] smile at PK, shake his hand, get up the ladder.
Cameron: Okay, fantastic ÔÇô IÔÇÖd 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. WhatÔÇÖs life outside the cockpit for Matthew and whatÔÇÖs your biggest challenge moving forwards?
Matthew: Life outside the cockpit, my biggest challengeÔÇª HellÔÇÖs bells! [long pause] I think, interestingly enough, itÔÇÖs being able to accept that that position of flow, that incredible feeling IÔÇÖve had as a display pilot, IÔÇÖm 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 IÔÇÖve had that moment of going, ÔÇ£My goodness, things are happeningÔÇª having thought about it and rehearsedÔÇªÔÇØ ItÔÇÖs come back in a completely unexpected situation which I wasnÔÇÖt prepared for if IÔÇÖm honest! [laughs] It was good, it was a good feeling though, it wasÔÇª I was going to say it was addictive, but IÔÇÖm not saying itÔÇÖs addictive. ItÔÇÖs just a very intoxicating feeling for me when youÔÇÖre in flow. I know what itÔÇÖs like, I know how to put myself in it and IÔÇÖm going to take it across into my new career.
Cameron: Great stuff ÔÇô thank you, Matthew! Thank you for listening, weÔÇÖve 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 youÔÇÖre 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!