Getting Over a Fear of Flying

I had residual sweat marks on my shirt when we got out of the Bonanza and my friend looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “I run fairly warm when flying on instruments,” I said. Ben Younger

I haven't been the same since I totaled my airplane in Telluride, Colorado, last May. Over the past months in these pages I've detailed the fears and anxieties that plague me as I try to get back to being the pilot I once was. Caution that exceeds reasonable risk assessment. Fear that grounds me in situations in which I once took to the sky with no reservations. It ain't fun. At some point there is only one way through: Push the throttle to the firewall.

So, I’ve been flying. A lot. Nantucket, Portland, Columbus, Miami, Key West.

I force myself to fly in conditions that are viable but that nonetheless make me uncomfortable. The path to recovery started with a flight lesson I took a couple months ago with a CFII who is a BPPP graduate (Beechcraft Pilot Proficiency Program). This is an instructor who specializes in teaching in my make of aircraft.

It makes a difference.

I met Eric Eviston at his home field just outside Scranton, Pennsylvania.

We went flying after doing a thorough preflight of the airplane. I flew my first instrument approach in IMC since last May. My palms began to sweat and my vision narrowed as soon as we dipped into the clouds. Eric was serene and measured, allowing me to focus on the job at hand and quickly dispel the fear. The Garmin 530 I have in the airplane is not WAAS enabled.

I was hand-flying and making all the step-downs for the RNAV approach. I could feel a layer of scar tissue dissolving as we descended through the clouds at 500 fpm. Even with the single-sided yoke in my airplane that would make handing the controls over to Eric quite difficult, to know that I was with an expert allowed me to put aside irrational fear and fly the airplane. Although I started with a fear-triggered autonomic response, his presence allowed me to see that it was unnecessary and I avoided completing it with a fight-or-flight reaction. Instead, I flew the approach and greased the landing. The problem is when your instructor is not there.

Last year I flew a buddy of mine from Santa Monica to Monterey, California. He and a friend had their flight into San Jose canceled because of fog and I offered to fly them myself. I saw that some of the nearby fields were reporting 600-foot ceilings — within my comfort zone at the time. The feeling of being able to save the day was both appealing and motivating. I protected myself from over-reaching by explaining that I could not promise which airport I would deliver them to, only that I would get them as close as possible.

We departed into sunny skies but were soon in the soup: 10,000 feet msl with a few bumps but overall an uneventful flight. The autopilot was doing its job and there was a lull in the conversation. My brain wandered. I suddenly got the idea that I would not be able to get us down safely. Don’t know where it came from. Don’t know what triggered it. But it was intense.

It’s something when your body betrays you because of a single, errant and — most importantly — incorrect thought. I struggled to regain control of my suddenly fast-beating heart and shortened breath. I wanted to slap myself in the face but I reasoned that would not have been a particularly confidence-inspiring message to send to my two passengers.

Instead, I talked myself back from the ledge: “Nothing is wrong. You’ve got this. You’ve done this dozens of times before.” Inner voice, mind you. Saying that out loud would have been only marginally better than the physical reprimand I initially thought of.

Sure enough, I was able to change my body’s very real response through thought alone. The pendulum swings both ways. All of this took place in less than two minutes and I ended up flying a perfect approach to 150 feet above minimums into Monterey. I had residual sweat marks on my shirt when we got out of the Bonanza and my friend looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “I run fairly warm when flying on instruments,” I said.

When a fearful stimulus triggers your brain, it sends the sensory data to the thalamus. Initially, the thalamus doesn’t know if the danger is real or not, but forwards the information to the amygdala just in case. The amygdala receives the neural impulses and takes action to protect you: It tells the hypothalamus to initiate the fight-or-flight response. There are times when this is helpful and times when this is not.

I find it supremely unwelcome when piloting an airplane.

Pilots must ask themselves one very important question when fear triggers them: Is this a valid reaction? The old saying about computers holds true here: Garbage in, garbage out.

This is a tricky subject in the safety conscientious world of GA. I am not condoning any kind of unnecessary risk-taking. But there are times when you must push through your fear and do the uncomfortable thing when all the criteria are met — everything from your own ability and currency to the state of your aircraft — yet you find yourself still wavering. Having an instructor with you at first can help as it did with me, but the training wheels have to come off at some point.

Sitting in a mediocre hotel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, last week I realized that my decision-making was coming back to center. I was en route to deliver N1750W from Monticello, New York, to Greeley, Colorado, where she will be down for a few months to get a new Garmin avionics panel and the old interior from my salvaged plane switched over. A day prior I was delayed leaving New York by a bad seal on my left main landing strut. Phil Criscenzo from Taylor Aviation did me a huge favor by driving over from his shop (an hour away) and recharging my strut with hydraulic fluid and nitrogen.

Unfortunately, by the time I departed Sullivan County Airport on Monday afternoon, a low-pressure system sat over the Midwest, and Fort Wayne was as far as I got.

I parked the airplane and went downtown to find a hotel and some BBQ. I accomplished both, then went to my room and waited for a break in the weather that did not come. I sat there for two days staring at METARs of 1,000-foot ceilings and PIREPs of light-rime icing. Known icing makes up your mind for you. I was staying put.

On Wednesday morning the ceilings went up to 3,300-feet AGL and the icing reports dropped away. More importantly, I could see that just a short flight heading northwest would deliver me into CAVU conditions. Another large storm system was moving in the following day and this was my only window to depart. But still, the fear was there.

I seriously considered leaving the airplane in Indiana and flying home commercial, then finding another pilot to fly the airplane to Greeley the next week. I stopped, took a deep breath and looked at things plainly and with a critical eye. This was an absolutely defensible flight plan. The terrain from KFWA to Chicago is flatter than a pancake and the winds were calm. It was time to go. I took off with flight following and stayed low, flying under Chicago’s Class Bravo from Fort Wayne past Lake Michigan. Thirty minutes later the overcast ceilings opened up and I climbed out into the blue. It felt almost as good as on my private check ride. My trepidation was unwarranted in this case. Another layer of scar tissue removed.

Sometimes there is no circumventing fear. Sometimes you have to just address it head on and get the stink off. I pushed through and came out the other side. I love flying again.

I made it to Greeley that day and George at Advanced Aero let me turn some wrenches the following morning. I took out the entire interior of my airplane and was dismayed to see that there was enough mouse activity under the floorboards to do a Ratatouille sequel.

Now the work that began with the pilot continues with the plane.

Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Find him on Instagram @thisisbenyounger.

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