Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

Putting Out Fires

My neighbor loves to barbecue. Unfortunately, he's not that good at it. His burgers end up being 75 percent fat and 25 percent lighter fluid in a solid carbon casing. At least I've convinced him to keep some water nearby to control any runaway fires.

Some pilots do the same thing. They keep water nearby-in their fuel tanks. And it prevents those important little fires that we call combustion. In "Mystery Water" Bruce Landsberg explains how water can sneak into the airplane's fuel system.

While you're at it, take a peek at Jim Holloman's contribution about flying with foreign pilots. It's been said that you shouldn't fly with strangers unless you fly stranger than they do. Foreign pilots aren't necessarily strangers, but their certificates can be strange. Do you know how to convert a foreign pilot certificate to a U.S. certificate? What about the liability involved? Let Jim help you find the answers in "Foreign Pilot Liability."

Finally, Ralph Hood will help you get the respect flight instructors deserve. One reason a CFI may not get respect is that he's often late. The chief pilot may say, "You should have been here a half-hour ago." If the CFI says, "Why, what happened?" you can bet that his students won't respect him. Avoid these problems by reading "I Get No Respect."

From The Right Seat

Systematic Desensitization: Getting Nervous Flyers To Relax

As a flight instructor, you'll eventually encounter someone who is anxious about flying. This person may be a student pilot who was previously frightened in an airplane, a student whose fear is generated by the media, or even an experienced pilot spooked out of the cockpit for any number of reasons. If these folks are willing, you can help them overcome their anxiety with a technique known as systematic desensitization.

Systematic desensitization is a process where your student learns to relax in the presence of an anxiety-causing stimulus such as an event, activity, or idea. The process works by associating muscle relaxation with a gradual increase in exposure to the stimulus responsible for the anxiety. Eventually, the student will find that he or she no longer experiences the same degree of anxiety once produced by the original stimulus.

Before I continue to discuss systematic desensitization, let's be clear on one thing: You don't need to be a psychologist to apply this technique. In fact, this can be self-administered if someone wants to do something about his or her own anxiety. All you need are a desire to learn a few simple procedures and the patience to apply them.

Several years ago I encountered a student who wanted an introduction to flying but was frightened of airplanes-very frightened. Unusual? Not really. Like many who eventually become pilots, she was driven by the desire to overcome her fear of flying. She was, however, the most anxious student I've ever encountered, and I didn't realize it until she turned the ignition key.

As the engine started, Janet (not her real name) raised her voice and said, "I changed my mind. I don't want to fly today. Stop!"

"You're kidding, right?" I asked.

"No. I'm scared. I guess I really didn't want to fly that bad after all," she replied.

"Janet, that was just the engine. It's supposed to make that noise. We need that noise. It's a good thing. You'll learn how much you like it, especially if it disappears during flight."

It was obvious my humor wasn't working, but I wasn't about to let Janet off that easy. She needed stronger medicine to overcome her anxiety. I shut down the engine, and we talked. With her permission, I decided to apply systematic desensitization.

Here's how I proceeded.

First, I already knew several techniques for relaxing people. If you aren't familiar with these, I recommend that you read Dr. Herbert Benson's book titled The Relaxation Response. Benson shows how to progressively relax the muscles and use verbal cues (the word relax, for instance) to help facilitate this process. I've used progressive relaxation techniques on students for several years with great success.

I instructed Janet how to relax while sitting in the left seat. This took about 20 minutes. When she was sufficiently relaxed, I had her imagine the engine sound she had previously heard (using a mental recollection of the anxiety-producing stimuli instead of the real thing is called covert desensitization). Then I cranked the engine for a few seconds with the mixture at idle cutoff. I repeated this process several times, all the while cueing her to relax using the word relax as a stimulus (remember, the secret to making this work is to gradually introduce the fearful stimuli in small increments as the student remains relaxed). Finally, I started the engine.

It didn't take long for her to become comfortable in the airplane while the engine idled away. It was obvious, however, that we weren't going flying that day. Before we were able to fly, I needed to use systematic desensitization in helping her to perform low-speed taxi, high-speed taxi, and the takeoff roll. I used the same process of gradually increasing the anxiety causing stimulation (applying power to move, moving slowly, moving a little faster, etc.) while simultaneously cueing her to remain relaxed. It took two lessons (two hours of training total) before we were able to make one circuit around the pattern. Remember, this takes patience.

Many flight instructors find systematic desensitization very helpful when introducing stalls to students who've had some past traumatic experience with this maneuver. Here's one way to do this:

Instruct your student to learn Benson's progressive relaxation techniques before the next lesson. During the lesson, help the student to stay relaxed while you introduce the stall in tiny increments. For instance, start by having the student slow the airplane to a speed 10 knots above stall, then execute a gentle recovery. Do this as often as necessary until your student shows obvious signs of desensitization (reduced anxiety). Repeat the same procedure, but let the wing experience a gentle stall buffet before beginning the recovery. Be sure to help the student maintain a relaxed condition throughout this process. Approached in this manner, most students will eventually be able to perform full stalls with much less anxiety.

Systematic desensitization works by associating muscle relaxation with an anxiety-causing stimulus. Eventually, the mind links the stimulus causing the anxiety with relaxation. While anxiety may never completely disappear, it will become more manageable.

By Rod Machado

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