Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

What's the Scariest Part of a Frightening Experience?

South African student parachutist Lareece Butler was on a training jump on Monday when, according to the UK Telegraph, her chute got tangled and she plummeted to earth at high speed. She wound up with a concussion, a broken leg, and a busted pelvis. Read More

Extreme Fear

I had a considerable fear of flying once I got my private license. Even though my instructor and the license examiner assured my I had the skills to fly safely, I always felt I knew better. In fact, rarely did I take anyone flying for fear of killing them along with myself. To overcome my fear, I decided I had to discover what it was like when the plane was in extreme attitudes. I felt if I could discover the limits of its odd and unusual attitudes, I could bracket that behavior and therefore know when I was ok and not ok. To learn this I decided to take aerobatic lessons. It was the best remedy for my fear. After learning to do hammerheads, loops and rolls and spins, I discovered that I enjoyed aerobatics more than flying from point A to point B. It's amazing what I can now make an American Super Decathlon do (with a little professional training). I urge anyone having a fear of flying to give it a try.

Amazing story

That's very cool! I'm reminded of a story I read a long time ago about a girl who was terrified of bugs, and to overcome that fear made herself look at pictures of bugs, and then to look at them in real life from across the room, and then close up, and then finally to touch them. In the course of the process she became so engrossed that she developed a lifelong fascination with insects, and in fact made a career of entomology. The lesson being that there's a fine line between anxiety and excitement, and that pushing the boundaries of our fear can lead ultimately taking great joy in the things we once dreaded. Which is wonderful, really.

Been there...

I completely get what you wrote about pre-flight butterflies. I am a going for a light sport pilot license and right after my first solo flight I botched a landing at a small rural (no tower) air strip. A tail wind caught me and drove the nose of the plane into the runway. I remember seeing the nose gear go sliding past as I grinded to a full stop.. nose down of course.

It took a week for me to get back behind the controls of another plane. But now that I’ve experienced an actual aircraft accident, and survived it, I actually am less nervous, though far more serious about the whole business of flying, as sport in which it quickly becomes clear that you have to do things 100% right, 100% of the time.

As the old saying goes, there are two kinds of pilots, bold pilots and old pilots. There are no old-bold pilots.

I'm a skydiving instructor...

...and have been for 14 years. I find her claim that they pushed her out of the plane to be highly suspect. She did a static line jump. A static line is kind of like a 10' long ripcord that is attached to the plane so when you fall away it automatically pulls and opens the parachute for you. The best way to do this is to have the student climb out the door and hang on the strut, this puts them in a more-or-less proper body position to facilitate the canopy opening properly.

I know that she had a malfunction and the main parachute did not open fully, this is actually not that uncommon, in fact as the article states, she was trained on what to do if there was a malfunction. I know from my instructions you have the student practice it numerous times using pictures of malfunctions until they can look at a parachute and determine if it is malfunctioning and if it is landable or not. If the student does not show they are capable of this, they do not get in the plane, period. A typical first jump course lasts 4 to 6 hours, depending on how many students there are and how quickly they are learning the material.

I think that it is more likely they convinced her to jump and she is calling that the "push". There is no question in my mind that she was not physically pushed out of the plane. She was probably mentally pushed i.e. "Come on, you can do it, it'll be OK, go ahead, climb out".

This is just my 2¢ based on my experiences of being a skydiver since 1992 and an instructor since 1996.

Thought of another thing

She said she noticed a problem with the three that went in front of her. I call BS on this as well. First, if she noticed they had problems, why was she not able to determine her own problem. Second, if you are not sitting right next to the door with your head out, you can't see anything. There is really no way she could see how the other students did. This is, of course, dependent on the type of plane they used, but a typical plane to jump from for a static line student is a small Cessna, from which I have hundreds and hundreds of jumps.

Yes, reasons to be suspicious

The report that she was pushed was second or third hand by the time it appeared in print; it's easy to imagine she said something like "I didn't want to go and they made me" into "I was pushed." And I don't by for a second that she really saw two or three other chutes fail to open properly, for the reason you cite. However, I find it exceedingly plausible that she was terrified, and that her fear caused her to screw up the reserve chute deployment.
It's funny, but thinking about this makes me want to go skydiving, for some reason. Once you're in freefall it's really quite a blast. Here's a question for you: How many jumps before you're no longer terrified at the doorway?

If it wasn't scary it

If it wasn't scary it wouldn't be fun!

I've got almost 1000 jumps and I'm scared every time. But it's a different kind of fear now, as a student it was a fear of not knowing what the hell was going on. Now the fear is based on the fact that I am fully aware that I am hurtling straight down at 120mph.

Aerobatics as a training for fear of flying.

As J Wright said:
After you have been pointing straight at the ground numerous times and upside down hundreds of times, regular flying does not scare you anymore. I have always felt thta a scared pilot is a dangerous one.
An average pilot gets nervous if the plane gets into a slightly abnormal attitude. Aperson that flies aerobatics can stay calm and think better in unusal flight conditions and attitudes.
Please if you decide to do aerobatics get the peoper instruction and always keep extra altitude. NEVER SHOW OFF.
Aerobatics never killed anyone, but hitting the ground does.

Follow Up and Bees In The Cockpit

Anonymous (in an earlier post) encouraged aerobatic pilots to use caution and get good instruction. I was fortunate to have as my instructor Charlie Jarrick of the Dallas Texas area. He was (and may still be) a professional show pilot flying Pitts and Sukoi (sp?) aerobatic planes. Charlie could put the plane anywhere he thought it to go; he was an amazing pilot. I remember asking him how I was doing as a pilot. He answered by saying I wasn't very good, but he could change that with instruction and time. What he especially DID like about me as a student was that I did not get sick within the first ten minutes of inverted flight. He says that is something he can't do much about.

On another matter, I recall my FIRST solo flight. Immediately upon takeoff while still in the traffic pattern, bees started to fly out of the fresh air vent in the Cessna 152 I was flying. Here I was scared to death to begin with with my first solo flight, only to have a bunch of bees flying around - and I am allergic to bee stings. I had to decide whether to allow them to fly around the cockpit as I started my landing procedure or try to swat them with my hat. I decided on the former. Upon landing, I pulled the plane over to the apron, got out and swished the bees out with my hat, got back in and took off for my second of three solo flights. Guess I was lucky!

Skydiving and flying

I can confirm the fear factor for that first jump: I was scared! It took about 6 jumps to calm down. By 246 jumps, it was almost boring for me.

On my first solo, I was more than ready for it. Flying came natural to me. I tookoff, looked at the empty rear seat, and smiled. No more cigar smoke from my instructor sitting back there. Eventually I self-taught myself what I thought was proper aerobatics. Duane Cole at Vista Airport (closed long ago) set me straight on that mis-conception. When I asked him what I did wrong, his answer was, "Oh, just about everything." Later, as a CFI, I occasionally taught basic aerobatics. Some pilots were naturals, but most weren't. Too many airplane drivers instead of pilots. One was actually afraid to fly, so why did he?

student pilot

"For the record, I found my first student flights terrifying, yet when I was back on the ground I inexplicably found myself wanting to go back up again"

This is EXACTLY how I felt when I started learning to fly! The first 3-4 flights, in fact, were so scary I thought I was hopeless. Why I kept going back up I'll never know, it's like you said, it's unexplainable. I didn't feel like it was a "momentary" fear, it just built up during the whole flight.

I experienced the momentary fear at my first solo... I was lined up on the runway and hesitated for a moment because I could feel my heart beating. But once I was in the air and had done my first turn in the pattern I felt like the actions were just automatic, and everything settled.

Another kind of fear

There's another kind of fear I have from time to time while flying, that I've hardly talked about, and that I don't think anyone but a pilot might understand. But sometimes, while flying along, I'll start to feel anxious, and a bit lightheaded, and it occurs to me that no one can get me safely down onto the ground but me. Usually it happens when I'm flying on a long trip with nothing much to do, and I find that if just occupy myself -- say, by putting in a call to Flight Watch to ask about the weather, or changing altitudes -- the feeling goes away.

Acting in the presence of fear

I also have experienced the fearful realization that no one can bring me down safely but me. Felt it right away on final on my first solo landing, but it quickly switched necessarily from panic to self-mastery, and produced one of the most satisfying moments of accomplishment I've ever felt. Emerson said, "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer." While it would be pretty presumptuous (though appealing) to place "pilot" on a continuum between "ordinary man" and "hero," I think there's similarity in that the fear may not actually go away. Rather, you learn to find the place within you that can hang on to the willingness to act in the presence of fear a little longer than may be required in ordinary life on the ground.

Oh, those butterflies!

I was so glad to read this article. Here, I thought I was the only one getting the willies before heading out to the airstrip. I'd even occasionally wondered why I'd gotten my private pilot certificate if the 'before leaving the house' anxiety wasn't going away.

I agree with the author, though. Once I get to the preflight, and then hear the engine start, those fears all melt away... I feel like I was BORN to fly!

Glad there are so many pilots chiming in

It's great to get so much feedback from fellow aviation enthusiasts. Psychology is so important in flying, but it's something we pilots tend not to talk about much. Anyone who's interested in the topic might want to check out my book, "Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger," which uses a lot of case studies from aviation. My blog about it is here: jeffwise.wordpress.com

Been there also...

I fly a hot air balloon and I have pre-flight butterflies through the the night before my flight. I'll get a weather briefing between 7pm and 8pm local time for the following morning and make a go/no go decision. If the morning weather looks good I'll be in bed by 9pm and I'll wake up just about every hour on the hour with butterflies. As I pre-flight the balloon those butterflies go away. My first real big fear was when I was signed off to solo. There I was, all alone in the basket. I knew I could talk to my instructor on the radio which is not the same as him being in the basket with me. I took several deep breaths and told myself "You can do it!" and I did. Other than the pre_filght butterflies my biggest fear is high wind landings. I have had three of them in my ten years of flying. One during a training flight with an instructor, one during a solo flight and one during a flight review.

Flying Magazine eNewsletter reference

I'll be referencing this thread in this week's Flying Magazine eNewsletter. I'd love to chat offline on this topic, as it's a hot button for me in general. (I live in New Jersey)

BTW: I also had a bee as copilot on my first solo back in 1978 (he's probably dead by now). I was so calm and collected on downwind I decided to pop open the fresh air vent of the Cessna 150, and zap, this poor bee got propelled into the cockpit by a 90 knot blast of wind. He was clearly annoyed, but seemed to leave me alone long enough to let me land okay. Maybe he realized that his ultimate fate depended on my ability to perform what came naturally to him.

Mark Phelps, Editor: Flying eNewsletter

Flying Fear

I have been a commercial pilot and flight instructor since 1991. I first experienced fear in the cockpit during the first few flights then, it went away until I was on a cross country to take my CFII ride. I looked down and saw an empty area and BAM, I was just afraid.

I flew for a few more years and then quit in 1999.
I have recently come back and like the article states, I am most fearful at home before flying but once Im on the way to the airport and actually in the plane Im ok except on long flights alone I do sometimes feel anxiety for no reason.

What's strange is that I thought I was alone and was ready to give up on aviation, even though I've been told I am one of the best pilots they have ever flown with by several examiners and even a FSDO examiner: high praise indeed and it just makes me feel better to know that other pilots have experienced similar situations.

I get such a sense of accomplishment when I fly that I have found nowhere else in life I guess I have to take the bad to get the good.

Note: It only happens in singles...in multi-engine aircraft I never give it a second thought...guess I need a job as a Lear captain LOL!

Thank you!

I want to thank Mark Phelps for posting a link to this article and discussion. I am a low-time private pilot. I could not make any sense out of the contradictory feelings I experience.

It has been very difficult for me to reconcile the anxiety I experience at home before a flight, the transition to "flight-mindedness" during the drive to the airport (when I can), then to "PIC-mindedness" during the pre-flight and flight, culminating in the grin upon landing and the immediate yearning to fly some more.

To read that these are a shared experience, step-by-step, is amazing. I wish this experience would be explicitly and clearly addressed as an aero-medical topic early in flight training, to expect this and learn how these feelings might make me a safer pilot. I wonder if this would significantly improve the primary flight training dropout rate.

I started flying in the 70's

I started flying in the 70's and earned a Private Pilot Rating. I flew for a few years and then stopped to raise a family. I had about 200 hours at that time. I have always loved flying whether it is a two seat Decathlon or a 737 Airliner.

In 2003, I wanted to continue my flying. I went to the local airport and told them I wanted a flight review. How long has it been since you have flown, asked the instructor. Oh, only 25 years. After about eight hours of flight time, my instructor told me that I was good to go. I sure did not feel confident at that point.

I have over 500 hours of flying time to date. I still struggle with flying somewhere by myself. I am sure that I am not alone with this problem. I feel I am a very good pilot, practice with instructors every few months. I read and practice risk management, plus try to be a safe pilot. Why I can not shake this problem of flying by myself is beyond my comprehension. I have even taken a few hours of upset training. Well, I did not like that feeling either.

I am still flying and working on being comfortable in the aircraft. One thing that I do not understand. Why I have become more conservative as I have aged(60+)? I always felt it would be the other way.

White Coat Disorder/Blood Pressure/.....

Nice to see so many people expressing their views.

Ive just got my CPL in India and our annual medicals are done by the Air
Force , they are not that strict but during my initial Class 1 was diagnosed with high Blood Pressure I was just 20 then (now 22),...so they suggested an ambulatory blood pressure machine, now the next day this machine is attached to my arm .. constantly records Blood Pressure every hour or so. What they found is that the BP was normal and high when someone was measuring it ..White Coat Disorder... Now what puzzles me is this am physically active no problems what so ever..and this BP is constantly high during medicals ... People suggest take medicines before medical ... shall calm you down but I am against it.

Have not tried Yoga yet.Help needed.

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Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.


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