One instructor friend with whom I chatted recently told me that on a “high percentage” of initial flights, the student is visibly afraid of the process, and this is despite the very best efforts of the instructor to assure the student that everything will be just fine, and it will be. In terms of both fatal and serious accidents, flight instruction is one of the safest types of flying there is (which is a good subject for another time). Even multi-engine training, which used to exact a heavy toll on the safety record, has become a paragon of safety after the FAA finally realized that its attempts to teach and test safety were the biggest risk to safety of all.
The intersection of fear and complacency is an interesting one, not only because it’s hard to define — when does “confidence” morph into “over-confidence?" — but because so few pilots seem aware that they are in in charge, at least to some degree, of identifying what is risky and what is normal. Stalls, for instance, are normal, and I’d argue that it’s important for every pilot to practice stall recovery on a regular basis, not only to improve the skill but even more importantly to learn to be okay with flying slightly outside of the dead middle of the envelope.
As someone who flies with other people in their airplanes on a very regular basis, I’ve had the chance over the years to see the spectrum of anxiety. I’ve had the misfortune of flying with guys who felt as though it was their mission in life to show the journalist just what kind of fearless pilot they were by doing things in an airplane that were illegal and downright dangerous, and I’ve flown with guys who were so worried about what I might do that they were sweating straight and level flight. One time I was a little high on short final and thought about slipping the airplane but chose not to for fear that my flying companion would have a coronary over such an “unusual” flight attitude.
Another pilot friend I flew with once was so afraid of departure stalls that he held the airplane down in ground effect until we were nearly at cruise speed before he rotated, eating up almost all of the remaining runway in the process. I was stunned, and when I asked him about it, he seemed not to understand that his attempt to stave off disaster put him at much greater risk than flying the airplane normally would have. It was his fear talking, not the POH, as should have been the case.
The best teacher for fear is experience; as you might know, the best medicine for phobias is aversion training. Teach people to gradually approach and then finally confront the thing they’re afraid of and you’ll make some headway.
Luckily, it's easy to do this with flying. Safety practicing stalls and slips and steep turns and Dutch rolls and chandelles is not only good fun but a great way to remember who’s in charge of the airplane and how wide that envelope of safety really is when you understand in the seat of your pants how an airplane really flies.