Flying can mess with your head
Fear of flying is a complicated business
Aviation in the early 21st century is mind-bogglingly safe. Despite the high-profile nature of airline crashes (and the intense news coverage), they are vanishingly rare. In 2022, there were 32.2 million commercial flights. Five of them suffered fatal accidents. A total of 138 people died.
There’s almost nothing else you can do in life that’s that safe. According to the latest data, you’d have to take a flight every day for more than 25,000 years in order to definitely be killed in a crash.
What makes this even more mind-boggling is that humans are not meant to fly. We have no physical ability to do it unaided, and we need a lot of technical help to stay alive at speed and at altitude.
So, despite the hard truth that flying is safe, a lot of people fear it. Why wouldn’t they? When we fly, we exist in an entirely unnatural state. Isn’t it sensible to be afraid of this?
Research into the fear of flying is surprisingly thin. It’s possible to get a medical diagnosis for it, and treatment is pretty much the same for someone with general anxiety. But what are the underlying reasons or causes? Why does it affect some people and not others? Who is more susceptible? The answers are often unsatisfying.
These questions, however, started being asked in the First World War. Air forces saw first-hand that some were suited to flying and some weren’t. The stresses placed on aviators were extreme. There are stories everywhere of men suffering from mental breakdown.
Fear has a power over us that is hard to describe, and impossible to quantify. It is haunting, tormenting, terrifying. It can leave you paralyzed and unable to act. It can cloud your judgement. It can seep into the corners of your mind and infect everything. Sometimes there’s no escape.
At other times, fear can save your life. It can keep you out of danger, prompt good judgement and lead to sound decisions.
What’s it like to live without fear? Many people might think of the mountain climber Alex Honnold. He does outrageously dangerous things that could kill him in the blink of an eye, such as climbing vertical rock faces with no ropes or other safety gear. Many others have died doing what he does. Scans of his brain show that he has virtually no response whatsoever when shown images that would scare almost anyone.
But Honnold rejects the idea that he is fearless. It is possible for something to scare him, he says. But he has an amazing ability to control anxiety, learn from previous experience, and understand the situation facing him at any given moment.
Fearlessness is not what we’re after here
Pilots have a complicated relationship with the concept of fear.
It’s easy to say that pilots should be fearless. Of course they should, since that is the opposite of being afraid. But pure fearlessness is dangerous.
Pilot literature is riddled with aphorisms that serve as a reminder that fear can be a good thing.
It's always better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here
Learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make all of them yourself
Keep looking around. There's always something you've missed
A certain amount of fear is healthy, because it keeps you from doing dumb things, or falling into complacency. But the fear has to be controlled, otherwise it will seize you, pin you down so you can’t move, suffocate you.
Can you chase the fear away?
Just after the war ended, a Royal Navy surgeon named Graeme Anderson published a book called The Medical and Surgical Aspects of Aviation. He had spent the previous few years researching the physical and mental effects of flying. Because aviation was still so new, hardly anyone had studied it before Anderson. He interviewed trainees at flying schools, as well as accomplished pilots who served in the war. He was also a pilot himself.
To better understand how fear works on aviators, he analyzed his own first solo flight. Was he afraid? Not really.
He had been training at a school, taking flights with his instructor at regular intervals. Then all of a sudden one day, without warning, he was told to do his solo flight. Get in that plane right now, and fly it yourself. Anderson had no time to prepare, but also no time to worry about what might happen. Had he been given a few days warning, the anticipation could have consumed him with anxiety and what-ifs. The element of surprise eliminated that.
Even once he was airborne, he says he wasn’t afraid. This is more interesting, because it would be easy to let your thoughts spin out of control into a fear doom loop. What if I make a critical error? What if I forget to monitor the airspeed? What if a big gust of wind destabilizes the plane? What if the engine quits?
But these thoughts never came. Anderson says it was because he was too busy flying the plane. He was distracted from fear by the job at hand. Most of the student pilots he spoke to said they had the same experience.
In 1976, Harold Leslie Satchell, a British pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, was interviewed by the Imperial War Museums about his time in the First World War.
He said he was never frightened. “No, no, you’ve got too much to think about.” Not even in the middle of a dogfight with the Germans? “You never get frightened when you’re scrapping. Sometimes you wonder when you get back, aren’t I lucky?”
Then the interviewer asked if he was frightened of being shot down. Satchell said, “Well you never thought about it. You occasionally saw a chap shot down in flames and he couldn’t do a thing about it. Terrible sight.”
Satchell seems to have had an eerie ability to simply not worry about things he could not control. He wasn’t naive, and he doesn’t come across as a daredevil. He describes his observer being shot in the head and killed during a flight. The bullet could have easily been for him. Satchell was sad to lose his friend, of course, but it didn’t scare him, and it didn’t infect his mind with anxieties.
The ideal aviator
Such was not the case, however, for many other pilots in the war. They were afraid, not just because they might die violently. They grew to fear flying itself.
Even in those early days, there was an emerging realization that flying wasn’t something just anyone could do. If the wrong type of person ended up piloting a plane, it would not end well. For some it was a mistake that led to a deadly crash. For others, it was mental breakdown.
In his book, Anderson describes the ideal aviator as someone who is mentally alert, able to make decisions quickly, and can concentrate on many things at once without being distracted. Mental sluggishness in flying spells disaster, he says.
He warns against those suffering from virtually any kind of emotional disturbance. “Candidates with a history of neurasthenia, nervous breakdown, or mental depression, rarely do well in aviation.” Even smaller things like fidgeting, knee-jerks or general restlessness were red flags. Beware the pilot who can’t sleep well.
And because flying is so mentally taxing, Anderson said pilots should rest their brains as much as possible. “A hobby, according to the tastes of the individual, is an excellent mental distraction, preferably one which takes the subject into the open air.” In other words, take a long walk, ride a horse. If you must play billiards or cards, don’t spend too long inside.
Once the fear seeps in and the stress builds to an intolerable level, it becomes a disease, at least in the minds of early researchers. Anderson called it “The Aero-Neuroses”.
I’ll get into that next time.
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