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Proficiency: Flight fright

The psychology of penetrating clouds

By Steven Mark Sachs

My brother, Gary,  is a retired Boeing 737 captain who accumulated many of his pre-airline hours as an instrument instructor. He tells the story of an instrument-rated pilot we’ll call Tom who came to Gary for what is now called a flight review.

P&E December 2019

All of Tom’s instrument training took place in a desert environment, so 100 percent of his airborne instrument training was simulated under the hood. Gary and Tom took off uneventfully into a stratus layer along the Santa Monica, California, coast. Upon entering instrument meteorological conditions at 800 feet agl, Tom let go of the controls, dropped his head into his chest, and froze. Tom said not a word until Gary had flown the instrument approach back to the airport and they had taxied back. What had happened?

In simple language, Tom experienced a fight-or-flight response, and his brain chose flight. Flight in this context means to run away from or avoid the stressful situation, not to demonstrate competent airmanship.

I’m sure Tom was shaking after that flight. His reaction gets to the root of biopsychological problems we may have when we experience cloud penetration and subsequent intracloud flying.

IMC has teeth

Instrument meteorological conditions are those where the pilot is inside a cloud that limits outside visibility. In most cases, this comes with a complete lack of external visual reference. (Flying in true darkness—with no moon, no visible horizon, and no lights or reflections on the ground—can be just as dangerous as cloud penetration and merits handling by an instrument-rated, instrument-current pilot.)

Attempted flight in IMC kills lots of pilots who are inadequately trained and insufficiently current. According to the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s twenty-eighth Joseph T. Nall Report on general aviation accidents, 40 percent of all GA airplane accidents taking place in IMC result in fatalities.

While it’s true that some clouds are less dense and permit limited visibility in certain directions, for purposes of this article, we will consider cloud penetration as instantly entering zero outside visibility.

Cloud penetration requires immediate, major, highly refined changes in a pilot’s behavior. The visual world can go from richly visual to no outside visibility. Millions of responses that have been honed and conditioned into the pilot’s aeronautical repertoire during flight training and experience can become completely unworkable.

Another element of cloud penetration in many cases, particularly in cumulus clouds, is the instant onset of turbulence. Not only does turbulence shake the body, but it also can render instruments unreadable, and can make knobs or other controls hard to manipulate. Turbulence also can be distasteful to passengers, and their reaction may add to what the pilot must handle.

Entering a cloud can be devastating or fun, depending on the pilot’s instrument training and developmental experience.

The nervous system’s role

Understanding the human physical phenomena of cloud penetration helps us comprehend the psychological reactions one may experience when flying into a cloud.

A part of the nervous system—called the sympathetic nervous system—responds to changes, particularly if those changes are severe or are perceived as potentially adverse. It is this system that prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response.

When the sympathetic nervous system predominates, the body pumps out lots of extra adrenaline (also called epinephrine) and makes numerous other changes to body chemistry and behavior. This rapidly increased adrenaline causes the heart to pump faster, the breathing rate to increase, the blood flow to several organs and voluntary muscles to increase, the pupils to dilate, and much more.

Collectively, these changes get the body ready for fast, powerful action. This is the fight-or-flight response. It occurs when a part of the brainstem forces the adrenal glands to put out those massive doses of adrenaline.

Fight or flight isn’t just a body-changer. It’s an experiential changer as well. We feel different as the extra adrenaline courses through our body. Emotions may become sharper. Fear, if we experience it, can be magnified. The body may shake because of its increased muscle tone as well as any substantial fear the pilot may be experiencing.

This body shaking lowers one’s ability to control the airplane. Handling the yoke or stick; turning knobs or pushing buttons to change frequencies, set autopilot controls, or other manual pilot inputs may become harder to accomplish or even impossible.

Remember poor Tom bailing out of his pilot responsibilities upon entering IMC? Fight or flight was taking over, and he relinquished control of the airplane.

Confusion and contextual stimuli

Cloud penetration can bring up another impediment to safe and effective control of the airplane: the loss of contextual stimuli.

When we learn something (like how to fly), there are thousands of stimuli around us we associate automatically with our flying behaviors. We do this without paying attention to these contextual stimuli, so they are in effect “invisible” to our consciousness. The absence of contextual stimuli can throw us off, creating stress and invoking sympathetic nervous system predominance.

An example could be the sound of the wind when turning base to final. Few pilots pay attention to this sound, but it is nevertheless registered in our experience and associated with the base-to-final turn. Making such a turn when that sound is gone could create confusion or concern, both of which would invoke some level of sympathetic nervous system response.

In cloud penetration, pilots lose contextual stimuli such as sound; objects on the ground, shadows, the horizon; and their comfortable familiarity with the aeronautical environment.

All flight students have some experience during training with illusions of flight, and instrument pilots are subject to a particularly wide array of such illusions. Many illusions are potentially deadly.

The majority of these illusions involve either visual errors or somatosensory errors, which are errors caused by the brain’s misinterpretation of the stimuli it receives from mechanisms in the inner ear that indicate acceleration and gravity. The table below describes several of these.

Experiencing an in-flight illusion is not stressful because, while being fooled by our brains and often our ears, we usually don’t perceive that anything is wrong. The major stressor that can throw us for a loop (sorry) is when we realize that there is a disconnect between what we think the airplane is doing and what it actually is doing—when we realize that we have been fooled.

For an unprepared, undertrained pilot, the associated startle response and feelings of loss of control can render us virtually useless to handle the airplane, and the consequences can be dire.

Intensification of adverse psychological reactions

The level of sympathetic activation depends on how severe the stressor appears to be. Turn base to final a moment earlier than you intended to? Minor stressor, minor sympathetic nervous system activation. Enter a graveyard spiral at high speed with screaming passengers and no visual reference to assist with recovery? Major stressor, major sympathetic nervous system activation. We enter the realm of intensifying levels of activation and plummeting levels of pilot competence.

In addition to the bodily responses to stressors are the cognitive (thinking) and affective (feeling) responses we can experience with cloud penetration or other status changes. The cognitive effects of cloud penetration, particularly in the inexperienced pilot, can include feelings of doom, perceiving a lack of self-control, experiencing reduced self-worth, perceptions of irresponsibility, confusion, inability to interpret the instruments, and perhaps visualizing an accident. The affective responses can include fear, giddiness, sadness, and more.

Higher sympathetic nervous system activation leads to more physical, cognitive, and affective effects; this can lead to the airplane becoming more out of control; that would lead to higher sympathetic nervous system activation. It can be a vicious spiral of continually decreasing pilot effectiveness.

What’s the poor pilot to do?

Habituation, training, and experience

We can rely on habituation, training, and experience to help minimize or remove the adverse psychological effects of cloud penetration and its subsequent intracloud flying. Habituation is a phenomenon where the response to a stimulus declines over time with repeated exposure to that stimulus. In general, the more you experience something, the less you respond to it.

Put on a watch in the morning, feel it on your wrist (stimulus) for a minute or two, then you no longer feel it. You have habituated to the pressure on your wrist.

Professionally contrived exposure to cloud penetration and intracloud flying happens when you’re flying with your CFII and you experience cloud penetration. Keep in mind that we are talking about habituating within real cloud penetration and real IMC, not simply flight under the hood.

Having an instructor with you can have a psychological effect a little like flying under the hood: You have a safety net sitting next to you, taking some of the threat away. What’s the threat? Being 100-percent responsible for keeping yourself (and your passengers) alive while in real IMC.

Still, your CFII can present situations to you in real IMC that would otherwise be too dangerous or unlikely.

Go up with your CFII (even if you are a VFR-only pilot) on cloudy days specifically to experience cloud penetration and intracloud flying. Have your CFII present you with illusions and ways to counteract them.

IMC encounters may happen several times during a trip, and most such experiences will enhance your habituation to the cloud penetration phenomenon. The experiences that could counteract some of the value of habituation would be those with adverse consequences. Fortunately, the more you are habituated to cloud penetration, the less likely you will have issues entering or flying within clouds.

If you’re instrument-rated and instrument-current, venture out on some of these days with the plan to penetrate and fly within clouds. You may want to request block altitude if the conditions are right so you can go in and out of clouds frequently.

The best way to master cloud penetration and intracloud flying is to do it often, and when possible with a CFII accompanying you. If there are particular elements of the experience that are particularly problematic for you, have your CFII give you extra instruction on those things. For example, in-cloud instrument holds and/or those that involve in-and-out cloud penetration are great to practice with a CFII. Multiple changes, such as transitioning into a climb while changing heading and indicated airspeed at the same time, can be refined under a CFII’s guidance.

Flying is a fun but serious enterprise. Accomplishing it with aplomb and safety should be every pilot’s goal, and doing so while dancing with the clouds can be an expression of amazing instrument competency. Maximizing your preparedness through deliberate habituation and guided experience can make that dance spectacular.

Steven Mark Sachs, Ed.D., is a private pilot who lives in Washougal, Washington.


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