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Train out the fearTrain out the fear

Maybe some pilots reach the point of feeling comfortable with everything they might have to demonstrate on their next checkride, but earlier in our careers most of us struggle with certain maneuvers we don’t understand, can’t get right, or simply don’t like. A new fixed-wing student might, for example, experience problems coordinating steep turns, trouble maintaining directional control during soft-field takeoffs, confusion about the roles of rudder vs. aileron in crosswind landings, and abject terror during simulated engine failures … all on the same stage check.

Accumulated exasperation has led some of these students to question why the offending maneuver is required by the practical test standards in the first place. You might legitimately reply that whatever the reason, it’s there and they’ll have to learn it if they want to earn the rating, but this may not be the best time to offer that particular answer. Of course, providing a better one would be easier if you yourself knew why that maneuver is in there, and that isn’t always obvious.

Taking off from a grass strip is a choice, not an obligation. Even some professional pilots go through their entire careers without ever doing it. Lazy eights are of no obvious help in getting passengers or cargo from here to there, while eights on pylons are a great example of the kind of thing you don’t want to do on a demo flight. The 180 power-off spot landing is a performance maneuver, not an emergency drill, and a light helicopter with a low-inertia rotor system that loses power in a hover will probably be on the ground before its pilot knows what happened.

Even when a direct argument can be made, it may be tenuous. Modified and done into the wind to minimize the turning radius, a well-executed chandelle might be your last best chance to avoid flying into a box canyon—if you recognize the situation and set it up in time. A good sense of an airplane’s glide performance never hurts, though consciously pulling the throttle back abeam the intended touchdown point doesn’t teach you to push the nose down after a real engine failure. The muscle memory of responding to a sudden left yaw with right pedal and a collective pull might eventually mean the difference between a helicopter that could be used again one day and one that’s crumpled into tinfoil, even if those on board would walk away from either. It could happen.

At the risk of sounding like a father asserting that “suffering builds character,” another answer—and maybe an underappreciated one—is that the discomfort itself is at least part of the point. It’s not just that most students initially find some element of the curriculum unsettling. Students with no desire to pursue instrument ratings may regard the approved view-limiting device as an instrument of torture, but the fact that mastery of is required means that students must also master their unease until sheer repetition (or sudden enlightenment) erodes their trepidation. Learning that the intimidating can become comfortable with experience is an essential aspect of flight training. Learning to manage uncomfortable situations is essential to flying safely after the checkride.

Stay in aviation long enough, and it’s almost certain you’ll eventually find yourself in a situation that makes you wish you were somewhere else—bucking moderate turbulence over mountains, say, or facing deteriorating visibility on a VFR flight. Merely getting lost can trigger full-blown panic if you can’t stay focused on the matter at hand (and even in these days of smart phones and GPS, it still happens). The discipline built while learning eights on pylons, slope operations, or power-off landings provides assurance that you can master your unease and concentrate on what really counts: flying that aircraft all the way back to the ground.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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