With enough training, a pilot's perception of an incident will change so that fear doesn't come into play.
I'm constantly asked about my unique line of work as an air show pilot, "Do you get dizzy?" or, "Do you wear those earrings when you fly?" But probably the question I'm most asked is about fear—"Aren't you afraid when you're diving toward the ground?" I smile, say no and think, "Afraid?" When I fly into the air show box, I'm in a state of complete trust and confidence, relying on a well-maintained airplane, my ability and skill I've achieved through training. There's no reason or time for fear. Richard Petty once said, when a fan asked him about fear, that there was no reason to be afraid while driving. If something goes wrong, you deal with it, and there's certainly no reason to be afraid afterward. Exactly!
Fear is a reaction based on perception, and fear isn't the reaction we want to have when the you-know-what hits the fan. Perception isn't necessarily truth or reality. We perceive events the way we want to see them, and are conditioned and trained to see them a certain way. Everyone has a unique personal history, so everyone has a different way of seeing things. Our perception of events, our performance, challenges, other people and even ourselves, our taste, beauty, love, is unique to each of us. Sure, we agree on certain universal truths about aesthetics, some foods, the cuteness of babies, but even then our cultural differences and unique personal experiences change our perception in slight or extreme ways.
Sometimes, we think we see things clearly, but our mind can play tricks on us, too. An example I like to use is how different a creaking floorboard can sound in a house on a dark night alone. One simple creak can jar open our primal fear receptors, and we're certain an ax murderer lurks around the corner. On another night, it's just a creak in a floorboard. Odds are the ax murderer is never going to be there, so it's our perception of the sound that changes, not the creak in the floor. We talk ourselves into fear or calmness. It's all about perception and our reaction to it. We all know an engine runs "instant rough" when flying out to sea or single-engine at night over the mountains. Nothing really changes, but every engine sound is intensified, you can hear each piston, each breath of exhaust.
So, while I'm not afraid of flying upside down at 20 feet, I'm afraid of something else—fear itself. Fear paralyzes and affects our ability to act in a rational manner.
We don't always know how we'll react to an emergency until it happens, and our perception of the event will affect our reaction to it. This is why emergency-procedures training, unusual-attitude training, staying current and, "Practice, practice, practice!" are so important.
I'll never forget my reaction to the first time my prop stopped in the air. I was practicing tailslides for the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship in Sherman, Texas. The "box" at the airport wasn't open, so I had to fly 10 miles away over open fields and no airports. A tailslide is a maneuver in which the airplane goes straight up until it stops, the pilot brings the throttle back to idle and, with careful centering of the controls, the airplane slides backward through the air before it flops over into a vertical down line. The tailslide is a technical aerobatic maneuver, and the skilled pilot has the ability to flop the airplane forward or backward after the slide. It's a great air-show maneuver because people hear the power come back and are sure the engine has stopped. And sometimes it does stop because of the way the airflow affects the propeller, which is why it's never a good idea to do one unless you're over a runway!
I had climbed to about 4,000 feet AGL over a broken cloud deck. I pulled up for the tailslide, pulled the throttle to idle and waited for it to slide. It slid alright, but I couldn't believe what I saw—the propeller was suddenly stopped in front of me. I don't remember feeling fear, but I was paralyzed into inertia. The instrument panel looked foreign, as though I had never seen it before—a sea of toggle switches. And although I knew very well where the magneto switch was, it took several seconds and a couple of thousand feet for me to actually turn it to on and get the prop turning again.
Before that incident, I thought I knew what my reaction would be. I knew the prop could stop during a tailslide, but hadn't actually sat in the cockpit and practiced my response to it. As the only real thing we have to rely on to maintain a cool head in an emergency or a perceived emergency is training and repetition, if I had practiced my response, I would have instantly hit the magnetos, gotten the prop to turn, the engine to light and would have saved myself 2,000 feet of altitude. Honestly, the incident was no big deal, but I knew that if I had been practicing at a lower altitude, I could have easily ended up with my airplane balled up in a field. I wouldn't have been the first or the last person to do just that.
A few years later, I witnessed a really sad event. A light complex airplane flew into the small uncontrolled airport where I was flying. The pilot called Unicom and announced his intention to land. As he got closer to the airport, he called again and said he had a gear problem. This was going to be exciting! We offered to look at the gear if he made a pass, but he flew over the airport, and we assumed he was dealing with the problem by recycling or cranking the gear down manually. The plane soon flew over the airport and disappeared from view over the trees. We waited and heard nothing, but then saw a plume of black smoke. I can only imagine what happened, but I suspect the pilot reacted like I did when my prop stopped, perhaps paralyzed by fear and indecision, and in his distraction he let the airplane get too slow, stall and spin. The worst that should have happened that day was a gear-up landing on the paved runway, which is almost always bad for the prop, exciting for the spectators, but a non-event for the pilot. The crash, on the other hand, killed him and two of his friends.
We all want to be filled with confidence when we step into a cockpit, so we need to perceive ourselves as confident pilots. When I step into the cockpit, I'm 100% certain of my ability to deal with any situation. I don't believe I'll be guilty of a major pilot error because of my training, and since there's always the possibility of something unexpected happening, I try to always leave myself an "out" and give myself plenty of room for error. Good pilots don't let doubt or fear enter the picture, whether shooting an approach, doing a ribbon cut or cruising along.
How do we do this? If it sounds too easy, it really is. Airlines in the United States have a fantastic safety record not only because of their good equipment, but because of their standardized approach to training and emergency-procedures training. I grew up helping my dad update his Jeppesen charts and quizzing him on his six-month check rides. His airline had an almost perfect safety record.
Reacting to emergencies with confidence and not fear is about our perception of the event. Are we prepared? Have we practiced? Have we memorized the procedures? GA pilots must be as disciplined in their training as the airline pilot. I believe if we stay current and do more than what's required by a BFR, practice emergency procedures, review speeds before takeoff and use checklists, we'll enter the cockpit like the airline pilot does, perceiving ourselves to be confident and skillful pilots. Masters of our universe! Training, thought, preparation and practice take the guesswork out of, "How will I react?" if it happens to you.