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At first glance, fear of flying might sound like an unexpected issue for student pilots. However, it’s much more common than you might think.
Imagine you are in a flying lesson in a single-engine Cessna and your flight instructor is stall recovery maneuvers with you. I bet you and most other student pilots will have sweaty and shaky hands in this situation. No matter if you are a pilot on the first solo flight or if you land a commercial airline jet with 180 passengers in the back for the first time, as a pilot, you will always encounter nerve-racking situations during your career.
The most efficient way to overcome fear when flying as a pilot is to arm yourself with knowledge, experience, and confidence in your skills. In addition, careful preparation before each flight and analyzing potential hazards are crucial to avoid getting caught by surprise and dangerous situations.
We will discuss in detail why pilots potentially become fearful, how to fly without fear, and how you best prepare yourself as a student pilot and overcome your anxiety to take off.
Much of this article is based on my own personal experience as a pilot, those of several pilot friends of mine, and the science to back it up.
What Is Fear And Why Is It A Potential Safety Issue For Pilots?
Firstly, it is essential to understand that, according to psychologist Paul Ekman, fear is one of the seven basic emotions and is an integral part of human existence. As a result, anxiety is one of the emotions that are equally found in all cultures worldwide.
Feeling fear is, therefore, quite normal. Anxiety, like the other basic emotions, has a fundamentally valuable function. It can warn you to be careful in dangerous situations, or it can signal your limits and make you ask for help.
Highly stressful situations can make you act irrationally or freeze up. This phenomenon is known as subtle or cognitive incapacitation in the aviation industry. It occurs in cases with a high workload and is challenging for the remaining pilot to recognize. That is why having too much fear is a safety issue in aviation.
An excellent example of subtle incapacitation is the French Bee incident on Flight 711 in February 2020. Therefore, it is always better to ask for help before it happens.
Now let's turn to why pilots become fearful. I have executed a short survey among my pilot friends and asked them about their most fearful training situations as student pilots. The top answers were stall recovery training, crosswind landings, and engine-out training.
How To Fly Without Fear As A Student Pilot?
In most cases, pilots feel fear when they don't have the knowledge, skills, or confidence to get themself out of a situation. However, it is expected that new pilots can get in a situation like this as you have to learn about new concepts and systems and acquire an entirely new set of skills.
As mentioned earlier, the best way to avoid fear is to arm knowledge and mentally prepare yourself for potential hazards that might occur on a flight. Familiarize yourself with procedures the evening before the training flight.
In the stall recovery training example, go through the entire scenario mentally. Do you know what the warning sounds like? Are you familiar with the respective angle of attack principles? Do you know what physically happens to your aircraft in a stall situation? What are the respective procedures?
In a different scenario, if you are an airline pilot and you recognize on the flight plan that you will cross a jetstream according to the flight plan? Do you know if you can avoid it by flying higher or lower?
The more you are prepared for your flight, the better. It will help you become confident in your skills and training, which is extremely important when flying and will make the experience much more comfortable for yourself and everybody around you.
Open and honest communication with your flight instructor is also essential. Your flight instructor will not put you on your first solo flight unless he is confident that you have mastered all the necessary skills.
Always remember, that a certain amount of respect is good, but too much anxiety can be dangerous when you act as a pilot.
Another extremely crucial part of overcoming your fear of flying is experience. Especially after maneuvers where you have made a mistake, it is important to analyze the error, learn from it, and try it again. Of course, nobody expects you to be perfect in every maneuver. However, the more you practice, the better you will get.
But, there is also a more indefinite type of fear, which you can sometimes not even name. This type of fear hinders you from taking longer flights across the country because you are scared that something will go wrong.
To me, the same principle applies here, try to find the cause why you don’t have confidence in your skills and knowledge as an aviator. At the end of the day, you must trust the training process and just take action. You will notice that the more often you do something, the more comfortable you feel. If you take action, your brain memory will help you remember your training in an emergency.
As you can see, the best way to overcome your fear of flying as a pilot and feel comfortable in the cockpit is by arming yourself with knowledge and getting more experience, which will result in greater confidence in your training and skills.
How to Prepare Before the Flight To Avoid Fear As A Student Pilot?
White the above information in mind, I have gathered a few additional tips on how you can ideally prepare for your flight.
Go mentally through the entire flight, so you know what to expect. Make sure you are confident with standard radio phraseology, for example. When things get busy on the ground, it helps if you are not struggling with radio communication, which adds additional pressure.
A very precious principle in the aviation industry, in my opinion, is to talk about the mistakes you make so others can learn from them, and it can help prevent you from making the same mistake. Therefore, an excellent preparation method is to read safety-related reports from incidents from other pilots.
For example, in the airline I was working, we received a bulletin with collected safety incidents to learn from every couple of months. There are even aviation safety networks online where you can add your experiences and help fellow pilots improve their skills.
The night before the flight, getting a good rest and plenty of sleep is also important. If you are too excited to sleep, maybe listening to a podcast will help.
On another note, on the day of the flight, make sure you plan plenty of time to get to the airport before your flight lesson or even exam. It will not help your nerves if you get stuck in traffic due to an accident on the highway and get mentally upset before you even get to the airport.
During the Briefing
It is the time to discuss all open questions with your instructor. Don't be shy to ask your questions here. Of course, as a student pilot, you won’t take off from bustling international airports like Atlanta or New York JFK right away. Still, it helps to carefully study taxi charts, standard departure routes, current weather situations, etc.
During The Flight
It might sound surprising, but if things get busy and the workload increases during the flight, slow down and take your time to do things properly. In such situations, stick to the good old principle of “aviate, navigate, communicate.”
For example, it sometimes helps to read checklists out loud and speak with yourself. That way, you can reassure yourself that you are doing everything as you are supposed to do.
Can Simulator Training Help Reduce Fear Of Flying?
Yes, training in the simulator is a great additional possibility, although more often used for airline pilots. Commercial pilots from all major airlines worldwide practice emergency scenarios in simulators regularly.
It is a great way to train for all sorts of emergencies. Thanks to modern technology, these simulator sessions are highly realistic and a great way to train current pilots and increase their skills, knowledge, and confidence.
Even for non-commercial pilots, it is a great experience, although you will have to find a publicly available flight simulator.
What To Do If You Get Overwhelmed And Fearful On A Flight?
The most effective way is to focus and trust your skills and training. In severe cases, It is helpful to speak to yourself, as it is also harder to hyperventilate when you talk.
If the above doesn't work, it is essential to tell your flying instructor about your feelings as soon as possible so he can take over control of the aircraft and land in a safe manner.
There are additional techniques and ways to recover from fear or even a panic attack, but most require regular training.
When anxious, we are often tense and adopt a very tight, tense posture. This is a common effect, so to speak because this habitual posture again signals to your system that you are on the alert and that danger is imminent.
Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR for short, is an effective tool for breaking this vicious circle. With PMR, you can specifically work against it and loosen up. If you do this for 10 minutes 3 times a week, you will achieve a long-term effect.
In addition, there are great exercise videos on the Internet that you can use to learn how to relax your body again when you feel anxious.
Meditation goes in a similar direction. However, meditation involves thoughts and trains you to let thoughts simply be thoughts.
And finally, if you are in real trouble or an emergency situation, never hesitate to call out for help with a mayday or pan-pan call. In such a situation, ATC, ground staff, and fellow pilots will do everything they can to help you get on the ground safely, especially as a training pilot.