License to Learn

Too anxious to fly alone

January 1, 2011

When Randy stepped into his Piper Warrior on a recent Sunday morning, he had no idea how difficult it would be to apply power for takeoff. His airplane was fine; his anxiety level wasn’t. He sat poised for departure but simply couldn’t prevail against the dread he felt at the thought of flying alone. This was the fifth time he’d attempted to fly solo, and it would be the last. A week later I received Randy’s letter asking for help.

Randy (not his real name) had 55 hours of flight time and needed one more solo flight to meet the requirements for the private pilot certificate. Earlier in his training, he soloed without hesitation. While he could easily fly with his instructor on board, he was suddenly unable to fly alone. Worse yet, his newly formed anxiety had no apparent cause. He had not been spanked by a spin, nor had a tryst with turbulence, nor encountered clandestine clanks from his engine.

Unfortunately, these orphan anxieties are often the most intractable problems. When anxiety has a distinct origin, we know where to search for the antidote. The solution frequently requires only a modification of the way we think.

During the early days of the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (then a colonel) confessed to feeling battlefield anxiety as he led his regiment against Col. Thomas Harris in Missouri. In his memoirs, Grant wrote about seeing a lot in battle during the Mexican war, but never while in command. This was new to him. As he pursued Harris, he admitted feeling as if his heart were stuck in his throat. Then something happened. Grant approached the campsite where Harris had been camped a few days before. At that point Grant said:

“It occurred to me that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before, but it was one I never forgot.”

Grant said that after that event, he never again experienced trepidation upon confronting the enemy. This is exactly how most pilots overcome their anxiety. They find a way to take a different view of the question that disturbs them. Normally, that means identifying the thing that scares them (fear of spinning, turbulence, engine failure, et cetera), testing the validity of that thought, then substituting a new way of thinking about it.

Unfortunately, for pilots like Randy this is difficult to do because they have nary a clue about why they’re anxious and immobilized. Theirs is an existential anxiety—a generalized fear of the future that sublimates into every thought they have about being alone in an airplane.

Over the years, it’s become clear to me that a pilot’s reluctance to fly solo has more to do with how he thinks he’ll be affected by his anxiety, rather than by the anxiety itself. In other words, pilots with Randy’s affliction are often immobilized by their anxiety over their anxiety. When this process reaches critical mass, the pilot is a mess. As Randy described it, “I really desperately wanted to fly but I absolutely dreaded the idea that I’d be in the air and start to panic while being unable to resist that urge.”

So how should a pilot such as Randy deal with this nuclear meltdown? Given that he’s unable to define the origin of his anxiety, he’s better off trying to accept his anxiety as part of who he is, rather than resisting it as if it were a psychic intruder. The premise here is that it’s the resistance to the anxiety that’s actually immobilizing the pilot, not the anxiety itself.

If that’s a bit too far-fetched to wrap your mind around, consider this. Many people have to travel by air for business, despite being highly anxious about riding in an airliner. What are their choices? They can quit their job, or learn to live with their anxiety. Most choose the latter and accept the discomfort as part of their lot in life. Sure, they may still be anxious about flying, but their anxiety doesn’t immobilize them.

A pilot in Randy’s position has two choices. He can quit flying—unfortunately, some do—or, if flying is important enough to him, he can learn to live with his anxiety by taking a different perspective, in the spirit of Col. Grant. Now he no longer thinks of his reluctance to fly as something foreign within him, deserving of resistance. He’s less likely to fear his fear, and by default less likely to worry about the possibility of panic.

At this point he must simply come to terms with whether or not his desire to fly is sufficiently strong to counteract the discomfort he experiences by flying alone. Embracing his anxiety diminishes his reaction to it, giving him a fighting chance to return to the airways.

There are many ways to approach a problem as severe as the one Randy experienced. Sometimes the solution involves flying with a wise and experienced instructor. Sometimes it involves an aviation-aware mental health professional. If a willing pilot still finds himself unable to return to the cockpit, then he or she should try learning to live with the fear.

Perhaps President Franklin D. Roosevelt summed it up best in his first inaugural address when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Rod Machado is a CFI and aviation speaker with more than 8,000 flight hours. Visit the author’s blog.