Several years ago, a fellow pilot, whom I’ll call Norm, confessed to an anxiety he developed about flying his airplane. “I just suddenly started worrying about engine failure, and it’s getting to me. I can’t shake it,” he said. “I’m going to hang it up if I can’t get past this.”
Welcome to Norm’s world, where feeling comfortable in the air is no longer the…norm.
Occasionally, we let something about airplanes spook us. Yes, spook happens. If you’re lucky, you can identify provenance of your anxious disposition and follow the footprints to its source. Perhaps you were unnerved by an engine hiccup at night over the mountains or a low-altitude flight over open water during the Discovery Channel’s televised Shark Week (it seems like every week is Shark Week on that channel). Either way, identifying the signature experience that spooked you means you can tackle your anxiety “head-on,” and you don’t need to call Spook Busters to do it. You only need to find a good instructor to help desensitize you to the problem.
By way of personal example, I remember being frightened of dancing in public when I was a teenager. It seemed as if every time I shook my booty on the dance floor, my spastic ticks and twists resulted in some healthcare professional looking for my medic-alert bracelet. I confronted the problem head on by taking contemporary dance lessons from a capable instructor. Problem solved. Unfortunately, disco disappeared a few years later, and I didn’t get the memo. That’s why healthcare professionals seem to circle me on the dance floor even to this day.
The type of anxiety Norm had is something that lends itself quite well to the head-on type of solution. This solution is similar to that used by parents when their child believes that monsters are under the bed. Dad lowers the mattress to the floor. Monsters be gone!
Knowing the source of his anxiety, Norm lowered his own mattress to the ground (so to speak) by seeking and finding an instructor who would let him land without the use of an engine. Now I realize this statement might set off someone’s “crazy switch,” if I didn’t mention that this event occured in a glider. In Norm’s case, being able to approach and land without the use of engine power help reduce—normalize—his anxiety level.
Over the years, I’ve flown with individuals having various aviation anxieties. These range from landing in strong crosswinds, flying instrument approaches to minimums in actual conditions, handling in-flight turbulence, and so on. In most instances (not all, of course) the solution to their problems involved exposing them, then acclimating them, to the source of their discomfort.
For instance, a while back, I met a private pilot who just withered at the thought of landing in a strong crosswind. So we waited for the opportune time, which came early one windy morning. Then we flew off to a nearby airport having crisscrossing runways and exceptionally strong winds.
We asked the controller for permission to use the crosswind runway, and he immediately obliged our request. This was good training for us, and it produced an instant home entertainment center for the controller. It turned out that the crosswinds were so strong that it was impossible to track the runway centerline using only a sideslip (for a flight instructor, this is proof that God does exist). So we used a combination of sideslip and crab to track the centerline during a series of low passes and touches and goes.
Later that day, this young private pilot flew home a different and more confident pilot. As far as your brain is concerned, when you learn something new, you become something new. He learned how to be more confident in his flying abilities that day.
So what scares you? What makes you hesitant to fly? Identify it. Challenge it. But do so in a responsible manner. Begin by finding a highly experienced instructor to assist you, but don’t speak to him in metaphors. Asking him to lower your bed will make him think you need help moving. Instead of monsters be gone, you’ll experience instructor be gone. Tell him or her what ails you. Develop a plan to experience the disturbing thing slowly and responsibly. That’s one way to overcome your anxiety and fly more confidently.
Rod Machado’s latest book is the How to Fly an Airplane Handbook.