Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 8, 2012


It's your perception, not always reality, that causes fear

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!


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