The Holy Shiver

Pilots aren’t the only ones to feel the threat of approaching storms. Courtesy Adam Chambers

Fear is something I frequently confront in many of the activities I choose to do with my free time. From motorcycle racing to surfing to backcountry snowboarding, I am often faced with that familiar chemical release when my brain believes I’ve written a check my body can’t cash. Daniel T. Blumstein, an ecologist at UCLA, wrote a book titled In the Nature of Fear: Survival Lessons from the Wild. The book is a history of the emotion itself. Fear is fascinating. Blumstein describes fear as fundamental in all animals, but that it requires nuance to be effective. We need to be aware of dangers but not so afraid that we are paralyzed by them. We balance our inclination to stay away from polar bears with our need to leave the house for food, social interactions and a healthy sex life. Being mauled by a polar bear while meeting a friend in New York City is a long shot unless you’re trespassing at the Bronx Zoo in February. The margins narrow considerably for the primate flying an airplane.

Fear makes us act conservatively in the face of danger—which awards us security—but, Blumstein writes, at a cost. Foolish animals don’t live long, but overly nervous animals (like some pilots) will suffer physical and emotional consequences. Adrenalized and afraid, we all experience the heiliger Schauer, or “holy shiver,” of prey sensing danger. “Terror,” he writes, “makes wildlife of us all.” Fear, at a certain dose, is unhelpful to a pilot trying to get an airplane on the ground in bad weather. How, then, to reach that Goldilocks zone? Not too afraid, not afraid enough, but just right.

When learning to fly, the instructor’s goal is to make a strong enough impression on the student that they are sufficiently convinced of the danger of flying but not so scared as to avoid the activity entirely, developing a healthy fear that stops short of paralysis. The instructor’s job is made that much more difficult because no universal method exists to achieve this goal. Every one of us responds to fear differently. As students, we all require a different approach.

In my most recent column, I wrote about a trim incident I had as a new pilot years ago. It was equal parts luck and good reflexes that got me out of it. The fear I felt in the moment made a lasting impression. However, coming close to real injury isn’t a feasible teaching strategy because it comes with an unacceptable mortality rate.

When I was his student, I am sure that Neil, my instructor, went over the importance of properly setting pitch trim for takeoff. I still forgot. What if during his instruction he had said to me, “Trim is an item that can kill you”? For me, that would have been helpful. For others, less so. Introducing the idea of death in such stark terms might turn off some students, but it may protect others.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

This is where the instructor must read the student and tailor not the syllabus but the delivery. It requires the instructor to be knowledgeable and technically proficient but also, just as important, an astute observer of human behavior. I believe this is why some cops aren’t particularly good at deescalation. If all you have is a high school education (current requirements to become a police officer in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I lived this past year), then there is little chance you are going to have the training to read a volatile situation and cater your response to the individual. I believe every police officer should be required to have a college degree and a master’s degree in social work. Flight instructors too. These jobs should require the same amount of schooling and training as a surgeon. There is just too much on the line.

Neil knew me well enough to know that I was someone who needed to make mistakes in the cockpit in order to learn. He let me make them, deftly allowing fear to imprint upon me while keeping us both out of real danger. Later, I had an instructor who helped me transition from steam gauges to glass. He did not stress the importance of the annunciator panel. He didn’t ignore it, but he didn’t focus on it. I learned its utility by making a mistake: I forgot to switch from heading to approach mode while in hard IMC, an error now chemically branded on my midbrain. I got off without a penalty in this case, and I doubt it will happen again with the fear now attached to the action.

Flight instruction should carefully use fear to prepare the new pilot for the dangers they will inevitably face, like a vaccine employing antigens to trigger an immune response. Flight instructors should scare us when it’s safe, so when it isn’t, our primordial emotions will be put to good use.

Recently, a friend of mine told me that a flight instructor we both know predicted that it was just a matter of time before I killed myself in an airplane. The instructor came to this conclusion from reading my column, my friend said.

For me, writing Leading Edge is like going to see a psychiatrist to talk about your marriage: You don’t spend the hour recalling how great your home life is. You address what isn’t working and hopefully get some advice that ameliorates the issues. This would not be a very interesting column if I just wrote about my occasional well-shot instrument approach. What reader would care about my B-plus expertise? If self-aggrandizing narcissism was my objective, I’d run for president.

I don’t want to write about how average-incredible I am. I’m here to write about mistakes, issues, barriers—and the current of fear that runs behind it all. Am I going to kill myself in an airplane? Decidedly not. But I am going to share every moment that made me feel like I might.

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. Follow Ben Younger on Instagram: @thisisbenyounger.

This story appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

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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