©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved
Originally published in Flying July, 1997
Every pilot who has been flying for any length of time knows the feeling. Your mouth suddenly gets incredibly dry. A cold, clammy sweat coats your skin. Your mind seems frozen even as it races through a dwindling list of ways to get out of your dilemma. Deep in your churning gut lies the regret for every stupid decision you made that brought you to this moment of truth. Any number of situations can produce this reaction: fuel indicators bouncing on empty with no airport in the vicinity, clouds closing in around the non-instrument rated pilot, the first glimmer of ice on the windshield in a plane without anti-ice capability.
The amount of fear elicited by a particular situation varies greatly between different individuals. Some people seem to experience no fear at all. They face every crisis with the same detached, professional manner. Their tone of voice doesn’t even seem to change, no matter how serious the problem is. At the other extreme there are those who start having an anxiety attack as soon as the possibility of a problem intrudes into their thought process. This difference between individuals is very evident to flight instructors. Some students do not get excited by anything, in fact the more “hairy” the flying the better they like it. The instructor could go right into an accelerated stall or even aerobatics on the first flight and they would be asking for more. Others need to be lead gently into each new adventure. Even a simple straight ahead, power-off stall is unnerving, and many of these stalls must be accomplished before advancing to turning or accelerated stalls.
Neither of these extremes is particularly good. Some nervousness and even fear is normal when a person is introduced to something which has an element of danger to it. The pilot who shows absolutely no hesitation or fear during training is more likely to blunder into dangerous situations when they get off on their own. They have no respect for the risks involved in aviation. On the other hand, students who do not quickly lose their nervousness as they practice a maneuver have a deep seated anxiety which could make it very difficult for them to handle any sort of a problem or emergency in flight.
The types of anxiety or fear we experience in the cockpit vary greatly also. Most people are at least a little nervous before and during a flight test or checkride. This is a normal reaction because we want to do well and we don’t want to let our instructor down or be embarrassed in front of the examiner. This slight case of nervousness can actually sharpen our senses and help us to be more alert to what is going on around us.
One of my students who busted their checkride actually had been flying without supervision for many years before he came to me to finish the necessary dual requirements and prepare for the checkride. Because he had so many hours he felt that he was definitely a cut above the normal student. While I was not worried about his flying ability when I signed him off for his date with the examiner, I was worried that he was so self-assured. As he departed on the first leg of the cross country portion of the checkride, he was so impressed with his own flying ability he failed to recognize that he was headed 180 degrees from the desired course. Even when the examiner gave him a few hints that something was wrong, he completely failed to pick up on them. Finally the examiner had no choice but to fail him.
Too much nervousness can block our situational awareness or cause us to miss items which we would not ordinarily overlook. I was pretty nervous on my own private pilot checkride. As I set off on my cross country leg, I was soon aware that something was not right, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Although I was following the desired heading exactly, our track was nowhere near the line on the chart. I was very good at pilotage skills, so I just ignored the directional gyro and followed my desired track using landmarks and the sectional. I could see the examiner chuckling at me out of the corner of my eye. Finally he reached up and tapped the compass. In my nervousness I had forgotten to set the directional gyro, and it was nowhere near the correct heading. On the other hand, I didn’t panic or get lost, so I still passed the flight test.
Most stressful inflight events are of our own making. Get-there-itis, invulnerability, macho, impulsivity, perceived pressure or any of the other traps of human nature overcome our best judgment and lead us to make decisions and take actions that are against all our training and normal inclinations. We know we really should stop for fuel, but we’re late and we should still have at least twenty minutes in the tanks when we land. We can see that the weather is not nearly as good as forecast, but continue on in hopes that it will clear up in a few miles. The winds are flirting with the maximum allowable crosswind component for our aircraft, but we still taxi out to the runway. When the problem is of our own making, our reaction is complicated by our sense of pride. Although it may be very evident that we are in over our heads, we don’t want to admit we made a mistake, leading us to continue even further into an untenable situation. The charade is made complete by the calm, professional exterior we maintain even when our guts are tied up in knots.
At least in those cases we have some idea of what we are getting ourselves into so our ultimate predicament does not come as a total surprise. With an inflight emergency we have no such preparation. One moment the world is as it should be and we are the masters of our fate, the next we are in the grips of a crisis which seems to paralyze our minds, removing all ability to reason or make decisions. In a recent “I Learned About Flying From That” the pilot did an admirable job of describing how our minds and bodies react to the stress of an emergency. He was cruising along in his new (for him) Citabria when his wife told him that it smelled like something was burning. When he closed his vent, he could actually see the smoke coming up from behind him and being sucked out the window. An event such as this triggers our “fight or flight” coping mechanism, causing the adrenal glands to produce large amounts of adrenaline. The adrenaline increases our heartbeat, rate of breathing, blood sugar level, and perspiration. It also dilates our pupils and slows our digestion. This initial reaction provides us with a burst of energy, increases our strength, and sharpens our hearing and vision. The pilot described how “his breath was coming in short little pants and the stick slipped wetly in his hands.” He said that his heart was hammering in his throat making it difficult to talk. The bottoms of his feet felt hot, leading him to suspect that the fire had progressed under the floor, but when he reached down to touch the floor he found it was cool.
Next came the realization that he was on his own, that “no CFI in the back seat was going to shout ‘I’ve got it’ and take over.” Only he could get them safely to the ground. Fortunately for him, his wife remained very calm. Often pilots in the middle of a crisis are forced to deal with panicking passengers, reducing their ability to effectively handle the problem. Finally, he had to actually do something, to stop staring at the ground and “force his brain to work.” I have been amazed at how frozen the human mind can be in a crisis. At SimuFlite I used to develop the Line Oriented Flight Training (LOFT) scenarios for the simulators. When I went through those scenarios during my own recurrent training, I knew what was going to happen but I didn’t know when the instructor would choose to initiate the emergency, and I found that my mind would still initially tend to freeze when the emergency occurred.
The first key to dealing with fear in the cockpit is to be prepared. Know your aircraft, its performance capabilities and its emergency procedures. Every month or so take some time before a flight to practice all the emergency procedures using your cockpit as a procedures trainer. Prepare a list of possible emergencies and then run through each problem on that list, touching the appropriate switch or control. Take the fire extinguisher out of its holder and make sure you know how it works. In a retractable gear aircraft, open the cover to the emergency extension mechanism and attach or unfold the handle. You might be surprised to find how awkward some of these procedures are until you practice them a few times.
When an actual emergency occurs, realize that your initial reaction will be fairly automatic, based on your personality. Try to maintain a balance between carefully assessing the situation and taking some sort of action. People who are faced with only a few choices, none of which they particularly like, may end up doing nothing. In most cases it is important to get started on some sort of plan for dealing with the problem. The longer you wait, the fewer alternatives you will have, until your indecision forces you into one particular outcome which probably was not the best solution. It is especially important to deal with gradually building problems such as continuing into bad weather. The fight or flight reaction takes a lot out of us. A person in a constant state of high stress will quickly become exhausted, further degrading their decision making and flying capabilities and leading ultimately to giving up.