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Natural Fear

A member of the Flight Training family called about a month ago to chat. A student learning to fly along the Eastern Seaboard (let’s call him “Steve”), he said his training was going well and that he loved being in the air. When he started to talk about his upcoming phase of training—solo cross-countries—his words became disjointed, uncertain. I felt that there was something he wanted to talk about, but he wasn’t quite sure how to introduce the subject.

Having experienced this tongue-tied situation more than a few times myself, I told Steve of an adventurous cross-country trip I was planning. When I mentioned the “F” word—fear—Steve’s relief was audible. “You mean you’re afraid, too?” You bet. Every time I get ready to fly.

Fear is a relative term with many synonyms—nervousness, anxiety, apprehension, dread, trepidation, and worry—and some have argued that, given my position, I should not admit to these feelings in public. Perhaps. But I am nobody special, and every time I go flying, whether it be for a short pleasure flight with my boys, a lesson with my instructor, or a solo cross-country, there is a kernel of fear nibbling at my thoughts.

Fear is as natural as breathing, and in flying it can either help or hinder you. How it affects you (and me) depends on how you deal with it. If you let it paralyze you, consume your mind so you cannot think and act, it is a bad thing. But if you put fear to work for you, it can be an essential ingredient in the safety of every flight.

The easiest way to put fear to work for you is to make a list of those things of which you are afraid. “Doing something stupid” leads my list, because the majority of general aviation incidents and accidents are the result of what human factors researchers politely call “poor judgment.”

Because I’m afraid of doing something stupid, my fear is a voice of doubt that compels me to triple-check all my preflight time, speed, distance, and fuel computations. If I’m flying a new airplane and plan to take it someplace, I validate its fuel consumption numbers with my own tests and always plan to have at least a 2-hour cross-country fuel reserve.

Because I’m afraid of flying into bad weather, I investigate every source I can find before takeoff (including a call to the FBO at my destination). And in the air, whether I am VFR or IFR, I probably spend more time talking to flight service and Flight Watch than I do air traffic control.

Because I’m afraid of in-flight malfunctions, I inspect everything on the airplane, even if I don’t intend to use it. This quiets my voice of doubt to some degree, but not totally, because some problems do not make themselves known during the preflight. This is why “what if” is my favorite game.

“What if” is a simple game with just a few rules. You think of everything that can go wrong during each phase of flight and determine what you will do (based on the pilot operating handbook, etc.) if it happens. It really is a great game that makes those long legs go quickly—what if something breaks, what if the wind changes, what if the weather changes, what if I get lost, what if I see a car wreck on the road that cuts through the uninhabited area below me, what if I hear a call for help on the universal emergency frequency, 121.5?

I’ve been playing “what if” since I started flying in 1976, and, fortunately, it’s only gone beyond a mind game once—an electrical failure during a day VFR solo cross-country. The situation was a nonevent, however, and I wasn’t afraid of it because I already knew what I was going to do—land at a nearby nontower field, call the airplane’s operator, and say, “Hey, guess what happened to your airplane?”

By addressing the things that cause my fear before flight, I am able to make fear work for me and the safety of my flight. But before I take off, I still have a tinge of apprehension, especially if I haven’t flown for awhile. An hour in the pattern and practice area before a cross-country alleviates my concern that I have forgotten how to fly. And an instrument competency check with my flight instructor before an IFR flight does the same.

Fear is a natural thing, and a good thing if you make it work for you. Every pilot I have talked to, and who was honest enough to state his or her feelings, has admitted to some degree of fear before every flight. And the best bit of advice I ever got concerning fear came from a sage old Naval aviator who flew several tours at the Navy’s flight test facility at Patuxtent River, Md. While I don’t remember his exact words, his message was clear: The only time you should be truly afraid is when you are not afraid.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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