Chair Flying

Chair Flying

Chair flying to prevent failure.


Air Force pilot training. Del Rio. A city of 35,000 in Southwest Texas. Days are spent locked in the uncomfortably warm cockpit of a trainer aircraft built in the 1950s (which smells just as musty, dank and sock-from-gym-class as you would expect a 1950s vehicle to smell).

Nights are filled doing one of two things:

- Studying the 4-inch thick technical manuals of those stinky trainer aircraft. The manuals describe how to fly the plane in such detail it might as well be a blueprint for how to build the plane. 

- The other thing we’re doing if we’re not in the air or in the books: is chair flying. Chair flying is pilot speak for “rehearsing.” Chair flying is sitting in your home office, or dining room, or at a really long red light.

That chair becomes the aircraft’s ejection seat. 

That footrest becomes the plane’s rudder pedals.

Everything in reach is an exact replication of the cockpit switches, gauges and handles.

We chair fly checklists and aerial maneuvers.

But tonight. Tonight is a rare Friday night before a Saturday when we aren’t flying.

I head to the local dance club which is a country-music bar, because ... Southwest Texas.

In a male-dominated occupation like “pilot,” in a male-dominated organization like “Air Force,” the number of men eclipses the number of women (only 6% of all the pilots in the world, civilian and military, are women). Adding that to the facts that I don’t mind country music, am willing to pull my head out of the technical manuals for a night and willing to put my two left feet on the dance floor, I mirage into an ideal country swing dance partner for Aaron, another student pilot in my class.

Our trips to the Friday night dance floor become a regular routine. Over time, Aaron has trained me not to lead (up until the 3rd drink, I’m gonna lead) and we have built up quite a bevy of moves. Each move has a visual signal or a single word communicating what he wants me to do (besides not lead). With just a nod or a syllable, I might be sliding between his legs, spinning on my butt in a full 360 and flipping over his arm.

Tonight, Aaron meets me at the bar where I’m warming up (read: drinking).

“Mo, I have a new move for us to try!” His excitement is visible (not like that … I told you we’re fully clothed) and contagious (definitely not like THAT).

“Sure! Whatever you want!” Wow, drinks must be strong tonight. Rarely do I agree to something before knowing what the something is!

Aaron begins explaining the new move, and it goes like this.

The signal is his two hands out, palms up. At which point, I jump into his arms, legs on either side of him, reach back and grab a hold of his wrists. Once wrist lock is confirmed, he lowers his arms like a forklift, I throw back my head, flip backwards and transition seamlessly onto our next move.


We head out to the dance floor and make a couple rotations to clear the cobwebs and run through our repertoire of moves. Once Aaron has confirmed I won’t try to lead, he signals for the new move.

As soon as I see the palms of his hands outstretched, I jump into his arms with my legs on either side of him. But I do not reach back.

I. Panic. 

Instead of reaching back and grabbing hold of his wrists, I place a death grip around his neck.

Just to be sure we’re all seeing the same picture here:

Aaron and I are on the dance floor.

We are in an awkward embrace. 

My legs are on either side of Aaron (I think the word we’re looking for is “straddling”).

My legs are straight out. 

My legs are in Aaron’s arms (which anatomically means my ass. is. in. Aaron’s. palms.).

Oh, and of course, the horse collar I have around his neck.

Aaron, the ultimate professional, continues spinning us around the dance floor. My rigid legs on either side of Aaron knocking dance floor neighbors out of the way.

Instead of calling for a new move, he tries to get us out of the current one, “Let go!”

I want to let go, but my mouth utters what my body is already screaming, “No!”

We start a speedy, dizzying exchange which takes us half way around the dance floor and takes out half of the dancers on the floor, “You have to let go!”

“I know!”

“Then let go!”

“I can’t!”

Finally, we un-entwine, plucking out strands of jumbled dance partners tangled by our centrifugal force demonstration.

I’ll cut to the chase and let you know that Aaron and I never attempted that move — ever again. In fact, we never spoke of it again. It’s very Dance Club. And as you might already know, the first rule of dance club is, of course, you never talk about dance club.

We failed to plan for something that should have been rehearsed before it was performed (like, several times ... over a very soft surface). If we had put that dance move through a quick chair flight, we might not have crashed and burned like we did. 

Our failure led to flailure. 

In my daily life, I often look forward to future events. Sometimes I don’t do much in the way of planning and just address things as they come, because I know I can rarely predict what will happen. I have learned, however, that I can anticipate gaps and prepare by chair flying the future event to make smarter choices and respond to different possibilities. 

So when I jump into open palms with outstretched legs, I’ll be ready to grab hold of the wrists, flip backwards and transition seamlessly onto my next move.