Zen and the Art of Cross-Country Gliding

What on earth is that?

Almost without exception, the first question I’m asked about my glider is, “What does the writing on the fin mean?” In fact it’s the same as the registration, ZEN, just written in a Japanese semi-cursive script. But very few people really probe about why I chose D-KZEN as the registration.

All German motorgliders registrations are D-Kxxx and as D-KOOL had already been taken by the Dunstable-based EB28, I chose D-KZEN. Aside from a mischievous desire to be quirky, there are genuine good reasons for the choice.

There is a double meaning of “Zen” and “Kaizen” and the concepts behind these words characterise my approach towards gliding – and much else. It was during the last Soaring Safaris season in South Africa that these unconsciously held concepts crystallised and could be more clearly expressed.

Kaizen and Lean Thinking

Kaizen is often loosely translated as continuous improvement based on knowledge and is part of lean thinking. The pioneer of lean thinking was the Toyota Production System and nowadays it is seen in many guises, including Value Based Management and Six Sigma.

One of the commonly utilised tools in lean thinking is to breakdown processes into a value stream map, essentially a highly detailed activity flow. Such maps enable clearer identification of over- complex and iterative activities and help with the application of the five S’s.

The point is that if processes are well-organised and standardised then they fall into a predictable routine, with no disruption and higher efficiency.

OK, but what is the relevance in terms of gliding? Well in the simplest form, having a set sequence for rigging gives less opportunity to make any errors, such as not fitting the total energy tube or filling wing tanks before the tail tank. And if the sequence is properly ordered, then it should take less time. It possibly seems rather anal, but fast, efficient rigging means less rushing around getting to the launch grid and leaves more physical energy for flying.

In the air, flying the five S’s means flying crisply, decisively and automatically. It means having the instrumentation set up properly and understanding how to use it. It means having prepared the glider, studied the weather, sorted out the trailer (and organised a crew), and thought through the task. All this frees up mental capacity for decision making in the air. Get rid of all the polluting distracting thoughts floating around your brain and focus on the critical matters.

Eliminate Waste

Another lean tool is waste analysis. In every process there are essential value-adding tasks, essential non-value-adding tasks, and wasteful tasks. Often the maximum efficiency improvements come, not from doing the essential tasks faster, but from eliminating the wasteful tasks.

In an industrial environment there are the classic seven wastes: motion/movement, inventory, over-production, over-processing, waiting time, rework, transportation.

I’ve sometimes labelled wasteful gliding behaviour as the twin cardinal sins of turning in sink or flying slowly in sink. Add to these: not centring quickly in a thermal; not staying centred; eking out the last bit of height out of a thermal even though the climb rate has died off; exiting thermals in the wrong direction or at a slow speed.

I aim to eradicate such bad decisions, and later on make post-flight analysis using SeeYou to identifying my lapses.

Increasing Cross-Country Speed

The easiest (and classic) way to increase cross-country speed is to improve the average climb rate. Cut out the wasteful behavior and it should happen.

The more advanced second means of boosting speeds is to optimise routing during the cruise, finding and creating lines of energy so that less circling and climbing time is required. This requires mental capacity – so applying a disciplined approach to gliding will greatly help.

Zen – Reaching Enlightened Performance

Zen is about achieving the right mental and emotional attitudes to make the most from my gliding – and much else in my daily life.

For me, the concept of Zen is not mainstream Buddhist philosophy but more an enhanced form of sports psychology. My reference is by James E. Loehr1 as suggested by George Moffat many years ago in S&G. I recommend his book to anyone, straightforward to understand and grounded in real experience from training top sportsmen like Chris Evert and Dan Jansen.

Talent vs. Skill

When first learning to fly some pilots find they have a natural talent, but the vast majority of us have to learn and develop the hand-eye coordination skills. After a few flights though, the proficiency of the mechanics of flying become secondary to the ability to absorb information and make judgement decisions.

Early on we learn to look at the windsock before making a circuit, to assess the wind strength and direction and decide what direction to land, and decide on an appropriate approach speed.

When soaring, we learn to judge the location of the thermal core under a cloud, and to adjust the circle centre to maximise climb rate. And once flying cross-country, we learn to look at the clouds, to judge where the lift is likely to be strongest and route accordingly.

Talent becomes subsidiary to learnt skills combined with experience.

Mental Capacity & Enlightened Performance

In cross-country gliding decision making is critical. It takes considerable mental capacity to absorb and analyse all the available information, to compare against the databank of experience, and then to make appropriate decisions.

Creating the necessary mental capacity, particularly at times of high workload, requires being in an appropriate mental state. This is where the sports psychology and the state of Zen kicks in.

And beyond creating mental capacity, beyond relying on mere talent, skill and experience, the right combination of physical, mental and emotional conditions can generate enhanced performance levels.

Just occasionally I have reached this airborne enlightenment (or Ideal Performance State as Jim Loehr calls it), where my flying seemed faultless. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t experienced such a condition, but everything seems to click – just knowing there will be 10kts under that cloud, just knowing it will be working better in the blue – it’s like the flight is scripted and the pilot is merely an observer, watching the events unfold.

The Ideal Performance State is typified by feelings of confidence and calm, while being focussed, challenged and ready for fun and enjoyment. It is impossible to reach this state if there are feelings of fatigue, insecurity, fear, confusion or anger.

Physical, mental and emotional well-being cannot be isolated as they are interlinked. Being physically tired or hungry or dehydrated means being mentally stressed and emotionally low. And being emotionally over-stretched tends to sap energy and lead to lethargy.

Enlightenment Training

Sometimes the state is reached through the right combination of circumstances, but Jim Loehr asserts that top sportsmen reach and sustain the enhanced state through training.

Training should include cycles of stress and recovery, sometimes termed wave theory. Without stress, then there is no development. Without recovery, then there is breakdown. Sustained low level stress is neither stretching nor recovery.

The appropriate level of stress while practising is to go beyond the comfort zone but not beyond the (mental) pain barrier.

As pilots we are used to training, but usually limited to the mental skills like effective thermalling. Many or most pilots (me included) avoid physical training and overlook emotional training.

It is the combination of physical, mental and emotional conditions that enable higher levels of performance, and as the three are interlinked, then all three have to be considered during training.

Imaging and Acting

One technique of emotional management is to have a performer self and a real self. The performer self is acted out, believing or even becoming the role upon demand. Self-doubt doesn’t exist in the performer self, only self-awareness. Resorting to the performer self when poised on the edge of success can be a very effective mental block to choking or bottling.

But the real self cannot be subjugated; it must be broadly aligned with the performer self as the performer self cannot exist in isolation or be sustained for ever. This may sound schizophrenic, but the art is in developing and using the performer self’ to improve the real self.

I suspect that very few people have the same self-perception as friends and peers. Internal self-doubt and indecisiveness are not visible.  Sometimes it is better to live up to perceived image, to adopt it as part of the performer self.

More directed training includes imaging (projecting desired emotional and mental states) and emotional response practice (constructive positive reaction to challenging circumstances).

Reaching Enlightenment

So how to reach this enlightened state? I can only say what works for me.

On the ground I feel stressed and unfocussed if I’m not well organised, hence that application of the five S’s. By making lists of things to do, I can prioritise and temporarily discard the low priority or irrelevant. This can appear to be very clinical but organisation makes me feel in control, and so helps me be calm and relaxed.

If there is an issue causing distraction, frustration or anger, I either forcibly consign it as low priority (provided it does not need to be dealt with immediately), or I have to address it. An issue can cause a disproportionate level of frustration if it is the final burden on top of accumulated problems. Problems need to be confronted until they are at manageable levels.

In the air I make a distinction between problems and mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes; the real difference is how we respond to them. In the air, I feel very relaxed about mistakes, to the point of laughing at myself for making them.

OK, I don’t want to make the same mistake twice, so the key is learning from errors, not berating myself. After all, history cannot be re-written or a mistake undone. But learn from history, and don’t repeat errors.

At a low point how do you react? Negatively, with frustration and impatience? Or positively, with amusement and learning? Don’t dwell on the past; focus on the future.

Problems are conundrums to be addressed and solved. For example, if the thermals seem to have deteriorated – and I’m confident it’s not just my thermalling skill – then why? Has the airmass changed? Is there wave interference? There is a genuine enjoyment in solving the puzzles. I consider them as abstract external issues.

Talent and skill are no real substitute for experience2 so I try and fly whenever it is useful – but not flying for mere hours building. Flying in tricky weather is an investment for those difficult periods found in all long flights. Flying in easy conditions is ideal for trying to boost cross-country speeds.

To paraphrase Jack Nicklaus, “Yes, I’m lucky and the more I practise, the luckier I get”.


In my view, understanding the motivation for flying is important, then it is possible to maximise the enjoyment in flying.

It should be obvious, but if I’m enjoying a flight, then I fly better.

Motivations vary enormously so it’s vital to be self-aware. Ultimately you are the pilot, and you have to be self-reliant and able to make your own decisions. Know thyself, fly your own flight, live your own life.

1 “The New Toughness Training for Sports” by James E. Loehr,
ISBN 0-451-26998-9

2 Chris Rollings: “The first 10,000 thermals are the hardest.”

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