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FEAR and Flying

Understanding personal limits

The March winds howled feverishly as if the sky were trying to rid itself of pesky winged irritants. I was at the controls of one such winged irritant, training for my commercial certificate. The Cessna pitched and rolled violently as each gust slammed us without mercy. I felt more like a boxer than a pilot, fending off my opponent's blows, rolling with the punches, eyes wide open, looking for the opening when I would make my move. When the opening came, a pause in the stiff, gusty crosswind, I would plant the tires on the tarmac.

"Maybe I should have stayed home and played video games?" I quipped to my instructor, John. It was a joke, the kind I'd make when I knew I was in way over my head. The conditions were well beyond my personal limits, maybe even the limits of the aircraft. John didn't even crack a smile. He knew I was scared. "Why don't you let me demonstrate this for you?" he suggested, taking the controls and deftly maneuvering the aircraft to the tarmac.

The upwind wing nearly brushed the sod as we careened down the runway on one wheel. Full right rudder wasn't enough to keep us lined up on the centerline. A few more feet and we'd start taking out the runway lights. John wrestled the controls, furiously battling the gusts' onslaught, the violent coughs of an infected sky. Full throttle, flaps up, and we were airborne again. Wings level and crabbing to hold the runway's extended centerline, we climbed to about 50 feet.

Then it happened. The gust caught the left wing and rolled us nearly 60 degrees. The view from the cockpit was hideous, absurd, with trees rushing at us sideways. It was like a bad dream, the kind where everything happens in slow motion, but you can barely move. Frozen in fear, my mind sifted though all the accident reports I'd ever read. So this is how it happens, I thought. This is how pilots lose control and kill themselves.

John somehow managed to roll the wings level again. We skimmed over the treetops and continued the climb. At about 500 feet, feeling like the danger had passed, I turned to John. "Boy, I'm glad you had the controls back there."

"You know, that scared the #[email protected]! out of me. I don't think we'll try any more landings here today." He paused. "That's the closest I've ever come."

Fear isn't always a bad thing. It can be a positive emotion, promoting survival by leading us to cope with anticipated danger. When a situation turns sour, fear teaches us the importance of staying within our personal limits. Fear prevents us from exposing ourselves to undue hazards, and prepares us to deal with surprise situations. Whether we're rank beginners or seasoned pilots, situations develop that raise our stress levels and make us anxious, triggering the warning-siren emotion we call fear. The important thing is what we do next.

The Nature of Fear

Whenever we encounter a stress-provoking situation, it activates an emotional response. The response varies depending on the nature of the stressor - and our perception of the situation. At one end of the spectrum is the tingly sense of elation we feel when adrenaline pours into our system in response to the challenge of the unknown. For some, this is a major part of the allure of flying. The heightened stress keeps us on edge, attentive, ready to act or react to our environment.

As the stressors increase, our perceptions begin to shift. When enough stressors combine, we may begin to lose our perspective and develop tunnel vision as we focus on the object of our stress. We begin to lose sight of the big picture.

At the extreme end of the spectrum is panic - an overpowering fear caused by a real or imagined loss of control over a situation. When stress becomes overwhelming, we experience panic and lose the ability to function rationally. A panic-stricken pilot is no more than a passenger, and the chances of surviving an in-flight emergency diminish to virtually zero.

Stress and Fear in Flight

There's plenty in the sky to raise a pilot's stress level. Physical, physiological, and psychological stressors alike can cause anxiety, compromise our physical and mental capabilities, and induce fear. To mention a few, physical stress can be a cold or hot cockpit, a high noise level, or strong turbulence. A few hours bouncing around in a hot cockpit, straining to find landmarks in the haze can take the edge off any pilot, leaving him (or her) less focused and unprepared to deal with unusual circumstances.

Physiological stress includes such things as hypoxia, fatigue, and dehydration. The stress of flying at high altitude, without adequate sleep, or without the proper food makes it difficult, if not impossible, to cope with even routine piloting duties. The inability to cope can unleash fear as we unwittingly fly ourselves into a compromising situation.

Psychological stress develops as a response to our perceived situation, and it comes in a variety of forms. One form is task loading, or the mental overload that occurs when a pilot has too many things to do and think about. For an IFR pilot, the numerous physical and mental tasks, such as reading approach charts, tuning radios, and maintaining communications while coping with turbulence, can be taxing. Even for two-pilot crews, task loading can be a heavy burden. A VFR pilot attempting to negotiate marginal visual conditions likely will feel the effects of high task loading.

Another form of psychological stress can occur when something compromises one of our five senses. Vision is, perhaps, a pilot's most important sense. When something robs us of our sense of sight, it's easy to believe we're in deep trouble. In the close confines of a cockpit, a pilot can suffer claustrophobic reactions as clouds or darkness obscure the outside visual references. The resulting psychological stress makes it more difficult to read, interpret, and react to flight instrument indications.

Time pressure is another cause of psychological stress. This sense of urgency can develop in response to rapidly lowering ceilings and visibility, developing thunderstorms, dwindling fuel reserves, an upcoming instrument approach, or a systems malfunction.

When such factors combine, stress becomes the most formidable opponent in the game of safe flying.

Put a tired pilot in a hot cockpit with fuel gauges bouncing off E, and fear can rush in like the tide. With time-pressure ticking in the background, we quickly find ourselves squarely on the losing side of the safety equation.

Fear is the natural reaction to what we perceive as actual dangers, but often the threat is only imagined, or at least exaggerated. Whether a threat is real or imagined, the degree of our fear determines our ability to cope.

The Mechanics of Panic

Individually, many stressors appear insignificant. But, like falling snow, when enough stressors accumulate during a flight, the pressure piles up and we may lose the ability to deal with them successfully.

When enough physical, physiological, and psychological factors come together, the combined stress can cause panic. Referred to as the "psycho-respiratory cycle," panic begins when a pilot's respiration and heart rate increase in a physiological response to a stressful situation. The increased respiration and heart rate cause anxiety, and combine with the original stressor to fuel a vicious cycle. The increased respiration causes a carbon dioxide buildup, leading to hyperventilation. The result is a feeling of suffocation and loss of control, the key psychological ingredient for panic.

Once we feel we can no longer control what's happening around us, fear easily turns to panic, causing us to make rash decisions. Even minor system failures can escalate to more serious situations if we can't cope with the stress of the situation. Such was the case of a student pilot whose alternator failed. As the battery power dwindled, the fuel gauges settled to zero. Thinking he was out of fuel, the pilot made an off-field landing.

Who's Afraid?

Pilots tend to be a cool-headed lot, but there's a broad variation among us. A daily challenge for one pilot, such as strong crosswinds or IMC, may be enough to provoke fear or panic in another. But how frequently do fear and panic play a part in accidents?

Little has been published on panic in pilots, but several years ago, psychologist Judy Lasher completed a study that examined traits such as anxiety, thrill seeking, age, and experience as predictors of accidents among scuba divers. Like pilots, scuba divers receive training and operate in an unnatural environment. Her study found that among male divers, older divers and those with more experience in the water are less likely to have accidents. Perhaps the same applies to pilots as they gain experience and the insight that come with the passing of years.

Preliminary research suggests that panic may play a part in as many as half of scuba diving accidents. Aviation accident data does little to shed light on the issue, but anecdotal reports seem to confirm that our ability to cope with fear and forestall the onset of panic plays an important part in our continued safety in the sky.

In one such report a pilot was flying from Panama City, Florida, to Birmingham, Alabama, on a moonlit night. When one of the twin Beech's engines quit, the pilot knew he had a serious problem and notified ATC. Shortly after the pilot received a landing priority, the Beech's second engine quit. For a brief time, thoughts of "I'm dead" raced through the pilot's mind. Fortunately, he regained his composure and began searching for a landing site while attempting a restart. Although he was seriously injured in the crash, the pilot's efforts to control his fear and continue flying the aircraft probably made a life and death difference.

Maintaining Control

At one time or another, each of us will face some degree of fear in flight. The trick is to control fear, maintain a feeling of control over the situation, and avoid the pitfalls of panic. If we maintain control of our thought processes, we stand a much better chance of maintaining control over the aircraft, and successfully meeting the challenges before us.

People use several strategies to cope successfully with stress and fear in everyday life. These include biofeedback, transcendental meditation, and various relaxation therapies. Unfortunately, such strategies don't lend themselves readily to flying. Still, straightforward approaches to dealing with stress are available, and pilots may find them useful.

Back in the 1970s, researcher and therapist Donald Meichenbaum developed a series of techniques to help his patients inoculate themselves against stress. Meichenbaum instructed his patients to assess the reality of a stressful situation; control negative, self-defeating, anxiety-arousing thoughts; acknowledge the fear; and "psych themselves up" to perform well.

Assessing any problem accurately is critical to resolving it appropriately. For example, an aircraft with a failed engine will still fly, so as long as we're in VFR and not too low, our chances of making an emergency landing are good. All we need to do is follow the checklist and do what we've been trained to do.

Negative thoughts seldom help resolve a problem. Instead of focusing on a problem's negative prospects, we do better to focus on the desired outcome - and take the steps necessary to achieve success. That's where cockpit resource management comes in. Taking stock of our resources and applying them to the problem greatly increases our chances of a successful outcome.

Acknowledging fear is healthy. Without fear we might blindly soar to the heights of danger. We should remind ourselves that fear is both natural and positive, and should use it as a tool to guide our planning as preparation, as well as our actual flights. Finally, by mentally psyching ourselves up we often are better prepared to cope with the stressors that may accompany a flight.

Training for Success

Experience and knowledge help build confidence, and this is the cornerstone of a program to reduce stress and fear. As with the twin Beech pilot, it's our emergency training that ultimately will pull us through when things get tough.

The most important step we can take to limit fear and prevent panic is to routinely engage in a recurrent training program steeped in emergency procedures. Regardless of their total time or experience, airline pilots must routinely undergo recurrent training that focuses sharply on fear-producing emergency situations that don't occur in normal flight - and dealing with them. The periodic review keeps the procedures fresh in the pilot's mind, ready for immediate recall.

To help keep an edge on our emergency procedures training, we must review it frequently. The best time to do this is before each flight. As part of our pre-takeoff procedures, we can mentally rehearse the steps we'll take in the event of an emergency. By preprogramming our mind with the emergency procedure, we'll be ready to react properly - and quickly - in the event a problem occurs.

Advanced or specialty training can also help limit fear and panic-inducing stressors. For example, a pilot who has aerobatic training is less likely to be stressed when turbulence threatens to roll the aircraft, or when the stall warning chirps during a climb at low altitude. Earning an instrument rating can help pilots cope with low visibility and ceilings, allowing them to fly comfortably and safely in conditions that previously would have been impossible to negotiate. High terrain can be intimidating, but those who have taken mountain flying courses and gained the necessary knowledge and insights can transform their fear into a healthy respect.

Perhaps the best strategy for safe flying is to avoid the stressful situations that can lead to fear and panic. By thoroughly evaluating conditions and carefully planning our options, we put ourselves in a better position to make that all-critical go/no-go decision. Whatever our personal limits or fears may be, we must be careful not to exceed them.

Parting Thoughts

After my commercial crosswind experience, I thought about it for weeks. The question of how I could have better handled the situation haunted me. Rushing toward the trees in a steep bank, would I have maintained control over my mind and the aircraft, or given up in fear? The answer remains elusive, but the experience taught me several important lessons that have remained in my mind throughout my flying career. First is the importance of knowing my personal limits. As we push the envelope of our comfort zone, we severely limit our margin of safety. With time and experience, these limits change, but we must constantly be aware of where they lie.

As my instructor demonstrated on that flight, the most important thing to do, no matter what happens, is to keep flying the airplane. To my eyes, an ugly crash appeared inevitable, but he continued to fly the airplane until the emergency was resolved.

Finally, I learned that fear is not only okay, it's an important part of a pilot's mental survival kit. The minute we lose our fear, we lose the warning siren that alerts us to danger. When fear is gone, we let our guard down - and safety is compromised.

Tips for Reducing Fear and Preventing Panic

Stay Current Even a short break from flying can degrade our skills. Active pilots are more comfortable, and better prepared to deal with problems. Even if you're legally current, consider getting some dual instruction to practice emergency procedures and sharpen instrument skills.

Check the Weather

Even if you plan to stay within the airport environment, remember that weather can change quickly, so always get a thorough weather briefing. If the conditions are beyond your experience level, or beyond the aircraft's capability, cancel or postpone the flight.

Make a Thorough Preflight Check

Equipment problems in the air can precipitate more serious situations. A thorough preflight inspection will help ensure that the airplane continues to function properly throughout a flight.

Monitor Your Progress The last thing you need in the air is a surprise like running out of fuel or getting lost. Make it a habit to closely monitor fuel and engine gauges, and keep a close eye on navigation by cross-checking radio navigation with pilotage or dead reckoning. In addition, take stock of your physiological and psychological condition. If you become hungry, fatigued, or dehydrated, end your flight early.

Observe Your Personal Limits Any time you push the envelope, you put yourself in a position where you can become over stressed and mentally lose control. Any time you don't feel physically, physiologically, and psychologically up to par, refrain from flying. Don't push yourself to fly in excessively rough conditions, strong winds, or conditions of low visibility. Avoid peer pressure and stay well within your experience and personal limits.

Learn More Sir Francis Bacon once wrote, "Knowledge itself is power." Learning more about flying should be every pilot's goal. Think about attending a seminar on weather, taking aerobatic instruction, or a mountain checkout - or earning an instrument rating. Any form of advanced training will help you develop new techniques and skills, which can make demanding environments and situations less stressful.

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