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Keep Cool

Talk aloud, take a sip, believe in yourself

When do you get nervous? Nervousness is a natural part of the flight training experience, particularly when it comes to your first solo flight. However, there are many techniques to minimize the nervousness that any sensible student pilot feels the first time he or she goes up alone.
Keep Cool
Illustration by Peter Hoey

Talk to yourself

It may sound crazy, but psychologists have learned that it’s natural and helpful to talk to oneself. Smart people do it, and so do I. I even answer myself. It’s a habit I was taught by my first instructor, Leo Meecher, an old World War II bomber pilot.

At first, he had me speak out loud what I was doing, step by step, so he could evaluate my thought process. When it was time for my first solo, Meecher suggested I still call out my checklist and everything I was doing—not only because I’d be nervous, but, “It’ll help you mentally visualize your situation and hear if your plan makes sense,” he said.

According to psychologist Linda Sapadin, “Saying it out loud focuses your attention, reinforces the message, controls runaway emotions, and screens out distractions. Top athletes do this all the time by telling themselves to, ‘keep your head down, keep your eye on the ball, breathe.’ It works well for them, why not for you?”

Sapadin adds, “It helps you clarify your thoughts, tend to what’s important, and firm up any decisions you’re contemplating.”

Speaking out loud almost makes you think you’re not alone. Also, once you’re FAA certified, talking out loud may help nervous passengers. Tell them you’ll read your checklists out loud and talk though all the maneuvers. They’ll appreciate being warned when you’re about to turn or reduce the power.

Tackle mic fright

Public speaking is the number one cause of anxiety for the general populace, and “mic fright” is public speaking for pilots. It causes too much anxiety for too many general aviation pilots, and not just new students. For any flying student who’s afraid of flubbing radio calls, a few simple things can help.

Of course, confidence that you know whom to call, when, and how is the first step to reducing communication stress. This is a skill that students can practice on the ground. Aeronautical Information Manual Chapter 4, Section 2, provides information on communications phraseology and techniques, but most radio transmissions can be boiled down to the four Ws: Who you’re calling, Who you are, Where you are, and What you want.

Take a moment to think over what you need to say, and what ATC’s response may be. Even better, say it out loud before you press the mic button. If nervousness gives you dry mouth, sipping from a bottle of water or sucking on candies will keep your tongue working well.

At towered airfields, nerves can be calmed by a visit to the control tower. You’ll see that (most) air traffic controllers are people too, not evil overlords of the skies.

Slow it down

For seriously nervous pilots, hyperventilation (breathing too rapidly) could be a concern. Rapid breathing can cause a pilot to feel lightheaded. The symptoms of hyperventilation can be alarming, and a pilot’s reaction may make the situation worse—but recovery usually is rapid once normal breathing is restored. It may seem counterintuitive, but talking out loud can help prevent a pilot from hyperventilating. It’s hard to breathe fast if you’re talking. Perhaps even sing, or recite your high school Shakespeare? “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”

Anticipate, don’t obsess

What if something goes wrong? Before you take off alone, you’ll practice handling simulated equipment malfunctions and engine failures, and prepare for other emergencies. You’ll also gain experience recognizing when an approach isn’t going as planned and deciding to go around—and other curveballs will test your response to abnormal situations (see “Solo Ready,” this page). Watchful attentiveness is a skill you’ll develop in training, but don’t let it lead to obsessive worry. As I fly I keep an eye open for emergency landing fields and make a mental note of the winds. I think about my options all the time, but I’m not worrying about it. Preparing for emergencies and abnormal situations can help reduce the fear of them.

Strive for perfection—but don’t beat yourself up

People don’t care about you. That may sound callous, but it’s true in a good way. Do you feel like everyone at the airport is watching and judging your flying, especially those bouncy landings? In reality, people are not wasting a moment thinking about you. A particularly bouncy landing might elicit a “hmm, landed three times with that one,” from the local Lindberghs, but they’ll have forgotten about it before you’ve shut down the engine. And here’s news: They’ve all done it, too.

If you think Chuck Yeager, Neil Armstrong, and Charles Lindbergh never botched a landing, you’re fooling yourself. Do your best and aim for perfection, but know you’ll never achieve it. Be proud of how well you do. I don’t agree with the old saying, “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing,” but if it’s safe and you learned something, gained experience, that’s good.

Build confidence, step by step

Confidence—hopefully well-founded—is the best antidote to nervousness. Remember that your instructor is not going to sign you off for solo flight until she is very confident that you’re ready to go. If she has confidence in you, you should be confident in yourself.

And you don’t have to take on the world all at once. My instructor let me solo, making three takeoffs and landings, but then he flew once more with me. Next, I made a short solo flight to the practice area and then flew dual again. Then, he let me make a couple of local flights before flying with me again. He didn’t just sign me off to fly solo and let me go. If you’re a nervous solo pilot, fly to your local practice area, where you’re comfortable, and then work your way outward from there. Fly with your instructor if you feel the need. Fly to a nearby airport where you’ve made landings with your instructor, then push farther out on the chart with every solo flight to build your confidence, step by step. Much of your confidence is gained just by spending time in the air, alone.

Keep CoolYou can do it

The person who “can’t be a pilot” is extremely rare, and I’d like to meet an instructor who’s had a student who should just give up. That probably says more about the instructor than the student. Most people can work through a normal case of nerves. You’d be a fool not to be nervous. But, just as when you passed your driver’s test as a teenager, your nervousness should pass with experience. Remember, you can do it. If you need more practice to feel confident, get it. Learning to fly is difficult, but the rewards are worth the effort.

Dennis K. Johnson is a freelance writer and pilot living in New York City. 

Dennis K. Johnson

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and pilot living in New York City.

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