Fighting Fear

Showing the worst-case scenario can ease the fear of stalls.

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While most people start flight training because they’ve had a lifelong desire to learn to fly, some start training to overcome their fear of flying. During initial training, future pilots of both categories seem to have, if not a fear, a healthy respect for slow flight and stalls. Their bodies naturally feel that there is something awry when the controls start getting mushy.

While I had my fair share of white-knuckle time during my primary flight training, I was surprised to experience the increased level of apprehension my middle aged male students exhibited. It was not uncommon for left seat legs to start shaking with fear while the plane slowed for stall practice. As a young female flight instructor, it was a good challenge to get these gentlemen - many of whom were used to being in charge and in control – comfortable with unusual angles of attack.

One student was particularly uncomfortable with stalls. He owned a Cessna 150 that we were using for his training. Its speed and climb performance were not confidence boosters in the first place, and any time I mentioned that we were going to practice stalls, my student would start sweating profusely.

I tried my best to make him as comfortable as I could. Keeping a calm tone of voice to make sure I didn’t add to his stress, I would show him how easy it was to get the plane back to a stable state. We would do one or two stalls, and then practice something more enjoyable – sort of like a Pavlovian reward. But nothing seemed to make my student at ease.

Finally I made a radical suggestion. “Let me show you the worst case scenario,” I said. “Let’s go and do some spins!” I knew the Cessna 150 would give us a good ride, but I also knew that getting the aircraft back in control was easy. I was surprised and relieved when my student accepted my proposal.

After a seemingly endless climb to 5,000 feet AGL, I asked “are you ready?” My student nodded silently and acknowledged that I was now in control of the aircraft. I brought the throttle back and pulled the yoke closer and closer to my midriff. Stall horn blaring, I felt the break and kicked in full right rudder. The plane entered a tight spin, which I managed to maintain for a couple of turns before I kicked the opposite rudder and released the backpressure on the yoke. The spinning stopped and I slowly brought the nose back to the horizon.

Mr. Saucer-eyes in the left seat was silent, but fine. “Do you want to try it?” I asked. “No, but you can demonstrate another one,” he responded. I was happy with that response, because I knew he was already getting my point. He took the controls for the slow climb back up to our initial altitude. I proceeded to show him another spin. The third time, I told him I was going to let go of the aircraft while it was spinning. I wanted to show him what would happen. His eyes got even bigger as he watched the Cessna recover itself from the spin. But this time, his eyes showed more a-ha and less fear.

I wouldn’t recommend this to any instructor who is not one hundred percent comfortable and current with spin training. Not only could it be extremely dangerous, it could increase the fear that the training is intended to ease. I hope instructors are humble enough to refer these types of students to someone else if they are not in a place to do it.

But in my case it was definitely the right thing to do. While the training didn’t make my student love stalls, he felt much more comfortable knowing the worst-case scenario and how to get out of it.