Yep – a handful of times at the beginning of my student pilot days I turned around on the way to the airport..."I ain't getting in that thing, not today."
I'm much more familiar now – and comfortable – with the risk involved. It wasn't until I got comfortable with maneuvering flight, that the discomfort with flying went away.
I took my mother-in-law for her first flight, and she was very uncomfortable in even shallow (very shallow) turns. I pointed out that the only way we could get back to the airport without making any turns was to fly around the entire planet for the long straight in back to the runway we departed from :-)
I never really had a problem with the lower edge of the flight envelope. I think it was because I used to fly model airplanes. You get accustomed to the edge with no instruments and no accurate indication of attitude. You can push the envelope with infinitely less risk. Engine out landings are a common occurrence. So I had a good idea of what was going on.
I did snap a wing spar on a model, and as a result I was scared of pulling g's and felt uncomfortable with the yellow arc of the airspeed indicator. Only exposure and practice got me over that. My instructor demonstrated 2 g's on a 60 degree bank to prove the wings wouldn't fold up. Steep turns got much easier after that.
I can't say that I ever had a fear of flying even as a beginner, although I will admit that my first few takeoffs felt like I was riding on a wild runaway horse. In the air, I was quite comfortable, but when it came to learn landings, the sight of a measly 2,000 foot runway in front of me was intimidating to say the least. After weeks and many attempts at landing, I noticed that my instructor was using less and less input on the controls and making fewer corrections for me until one day, I brought the plane completely to the ground without him ever touching the controls. As I rolled to a stop, I noticed that my ankles and knees were shaking rather vigorously. Was I afraid? Maybe, but it was one of the happiest moments I've ever had in my life because I accomplished what seemed impossible to me only weeks earlier.
Yes, there were times when I was definitely afraid, but it's nothing like a fear of flying. Perhaps it's more of a concern about operating an unfamiliar piece of machinery well enough to stay alive in the process of learning.
I think a tiny bit of fear is actually a good thing as it tends to keep you on your toes and makes operating an aircraft all the more exciting and rewarding and if a student isn't completely overcome by fear, it's certainly a thrill factor.
Most of my students were terrified at first. I have never fully understood why. After my pre-flight briefing for slow flight and stalls, students sometimes lost their nerve. I remember that I said something like, "we will raise the nose to an abnormally high attitude, loose all airspeed, wait for a stall, the controls will become unresponsive, and maybe a wing will break".
I've had a lot of really bad students too.
I wonder how many instructors passed on their fear of stalls or unusual attitudes. As an instructor, I fully explain in pre-flight briefing what we're going to accomplish, ask for feed back and do the lesson. When in the aircraft, I sit totally relaxed while the student flies through the maneuvers, including approach and landing flare and role out. I'm ready to take over instantly, but don't show it. I've noticed, when being checked out in other clubs, many instructors "tells," e.g. nervous arm, hand, feet or finger movements. Students sense an instructors fear or distrust. What happens when an instructor doesn't show and allow the student to experience the entire flight envelope appropriate for the certificate or rating they're working toward is an under trained and unsafe pilot.
I too was afraid of many maneuvers, but pursuit of more certificates and ratings, plus an old fashioned instructor teaching stalls and spins every which way, with absolute calm, passed the attribute on to me.
I've never been a flight instructor, but as a teen I used to teach sailing in small boats. One of the things people worry about - a lot - in small boats, is capsizing the boat. Every time there's a gust of wind, the boat heels over and the clients' eyes would get big and round, and they would stop thinking: either freeze, or panic.
Interestingly, although they masked it better, I realized that my adult clients were much more affected by this than my teen clients.
I adopted the practice of sitting on the downwind side of the boat, with my back to the water. As the boat heeled over, the client would be looking across the boat at the water - and at me, sitting cool as a cucumber, totally unconcerned about the sea rising toward my back.
I practiced showing no awareness of the boat's condition - no hesitation in my speech, no glances over my shoulder - other than to say, calmly, "doing great - head up a little into the gust - there you go - now bear off again..."
Of course, I was very much aware of the heel of the boat, and I was sitting in a place where I could jump in quickly, if needed. But I never let the clients know that.
It worked. Clients don't know how to respond, emotionally, to unfamiliar situations. They look to their instructor for cues. If the instructor looks utterly unconcerned, the clients will relax. And vice versa.
I can't tell you how many flight instructors I've had, whose voices show tension in slow flight.
I was scared to death of my first stall. The instructor said we were going to practice some slow flight and reduce power and hold the nose up untill the stall warning came on. The stall warning came on and he said keep the nose right where its at and the next thing I know the horizon dropped in the windshield. He says congratulations, that was your first stall. I was disappointed that it was that easy.
Stalls don't worry me but I won't be satisfied until I've done spin training. Even with that I'm more excited than worried. What had me more than a little frightened was flying just over the runway during roundout! I developed the habit of rounding out too high and then flaring/sinking from 8 or 10 ft up. The solution? To get away from the busy GA airport for a week and learn to fly tecnam-style ultralights at a rural 4000ft grass strip. My instructor let me repeatedly fly the length of the strip in precautionary configuration and skim along just over the ground, getting a proper feel for the sight picture. Fear and exhilaration really aren't far apart. Psychologists will tell you that they're simply two combinations of the 2 x 2 table of arousal vs valence. In this case, high arousal and either negative or positive valence. After my week out of town, I went from frightened to really excited by the chance to zoom along just off the ground during roundout. To finish that week I did five final solo circuits and nailed all five landings like it was my job :-) I bet good instructors know and get a real kick out of seeing people go through what I just described. Mine was grinning like an idiot when I taxied in. I had a two hour drive home and I was singing the whole way.