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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Bob Ross, CFI

I recently came across a Netflix series of Bob Ross episodes called "Beauty is Everywhere", and the wife and I have been working through them for the last several months. (Since I'm away flying so much, we get to watch one or perhaps two episodes a week together, so it takes a while to make it through a couple dozen of them.) For those who may not recognize him by name, he is the "Happy little trees" painting guy with the calm voice and the big fishbowl of hair.


In the past, the only time I would get to see him is if I happened to be channel surfing and a PBS station was playing a rerun of his show--which ended over 20 years ago. I would usually stop and watch the rest of the episode, hypnotized by his almost magical ability to create an amazing painting from scratch in only 22 minutes.

As I've watched through his work systematically, something jumps out at me about him: Bob Ross would have made an incredible flight instructor. One of the things that made Ross so popular and addicting to watch was not just his masterful artwork or how good he was at creating something amazing, but that he made you feel like you could be good at it, too.

Neil Peart, another master of his craft as the Hall of Fame drummer for Rush, said in Work in Progress that "the apprentice takes something easy and makes it look difficult, while the master takes the impossible and makes it look easy." As the best rock drummer in history, Peart would know. (His title for Work in Progress refers to his own continual, daily effort to get better at the thing he's already the best ever at. That continual strive for perfection--or at least continuous improvement--is also the hallmark of a good aviator.)

Peart said that in the context of how sometimes less is more in a song. One of the things that Bob Ross does so well is to create something that looks complex while using only incredibly simple techniques. He will paint trees that look intricately detailed, as if each tree must have taken hours to fill out. In fact, each of them takes less than a minute to make by doing nothing more complex than poking the canvas several times with the end of the brush, then adding highlights the same way with a smaller brush.

In one episode, he had less than two minutes left and a large part at the bottom of the canvas was still unfinished. He said he was going to put a lake there. I thought, "There is no possible way he has time to do that." But with a few downstrokes of a painting knife, he had a lake from nowhere in seven seconds and a full, beautiful canvas!

I believe that it a poor master who cannot pass along their skill. Ross's encouraging attitude creates a fertile ground for learning. Not only is he good, but he can make you good, too, which is purpose of an instructor. He is known (as the meme at the beginning of this post refers to) for saying, "There are no mistakes when you're painting. There are just happy little accidents." This encourages you to try something new and if it doesn't turn out well, you can gain from the experience anyway having learned a new way not to do it.

I used to tell my flight students when it came time to start pattern work that we'd be spending the next several hours finding 50 different ways not to land an airplane. Finally, we'll find one way that works for you. Bob Ross's attitude toward teaching others to paint was similar. Maybe along the way you'll find a way that fits better with your style than his would. Maybe you won't. But either way, you won't know unless you find out for yourself.

Many of Ross's qualities are qualities you should look for in your flight instructor. (Well, maybe not the hair. Most cockpits don't have enough room for all that hair.) A good instructor should be able to take a complex subject like flying and break it into chunks that you can put into your palette. Then they should let you use that palette. In other words, they should allow you to try out your own way of doing things if it's not working for you, within the bounds of reason and safety. A good flight instructor should have enough mastery of their craft that they are willing to let you paint right up to the edges of the canvas, if necessary, while still keeping you in a safe, productive, encouraging environment.

Most importantly, a good instructor should make you feel like you can be an artful aviator too, because you can be! See you next Wednesday!

P.S.: Just for fun, here's Bob Ross remixed:


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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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