Fear is a topic that comes up a lot when I talk to people at airshows. One of the most frequent questions I get is: Are you afraid? Don’t you get scared? I usually reply that I wouldn’t do it if I were afraid, a true, but simple answer. For me, flying airshows is about control and finesse, and since I’m hardly fearless, the better question might be: How do you deal with fear?
It bugs me when people are paranoid about flying. Fear should be based on rationality, and since flying is statistically safer than driving to and from the airport, I suspect the fear must be based not on flying itself, but on giving up control. Still, when people see me diving at the ground or doing an inverted ribbon cut, it’s understandable that people would wonder about it.
The short answer is, heck, yes, I’ve felt fear while flying. I’ve been afraid and I’ve scared myself. Any airshow pilot who says they haven’t either is crazy or isn’t being honest. And, to set the record straight, I hate fear. I want to fight it, belay it, run from it, conquer it and slay it. I train for it, I think about it, I practice for it, yet there’s an indisputable downside to being in the air. What goes up must come down. Gravity always brings us back to earth, whether we want to be there or not.
The Palace of Fear has many rooms. The safest, most diligent pilot can be surprised by an undesirable situation—flying into worsening weather, a rough-running engine, an inadvertent stall and upset situation. Recurrency and training will help you respond positively, in most cases, but there are those chance moments when all you can do is react. In my experience, I’ve found that different situations create different types of fear and different responses to it.
I was flying the Extra 260, which had a complicated fuel and smoke oil system. The smoke oil tank doubled as a fuel tank for ferrying, and after I slushed out the smoke oil and put fuel in it, I had to switch a valve from “smoke” to “fuel” so the fuel wouldn’t pour into the exhaust as the smoke oil was designed to do. This was a necessary, but an obviously precarious setup. I was flying across Illinois, heading to a show, and I’d burned up my wing tanks and had to switch to my ferry tank. I switched tanks and then froze. Had I forgotten to switch the valve that would keep raw fuel from pouring into the exhaust? I felt like I was wearing a fuzzy suit that made me tingle all over as I waited for the fireball to explode. Nothing happened. I had the valve set correctly. The incident only took two or three seconds, but time stood still.
Another time I was flying an Extra 300S. The fuel system was an improvement over the 260, but I had added a ferry tank behind the seat to give me more endurance. The fuel cap was designed to tighten by turning it, and I had put a small chain to hold it in case it ever came loose. I was flying in the aerobatic box, about two miles from the airport, when I felt the elevator jam and freeze up. I didn’t want to troubleshoot in the air in case things got worse, so I turned back using power and trim to control the descent. It wasn’t a pleasant situation, as the airplane wanted to diverge on its path and I was afraid of it getting out of my control. I felt like I had a stone in my mouth. I focused on getting down safely, but when I landed, my hands were shaking. The chain around the fuel cap had held the cap in place, but it had jammed between the tank and my elevator torque tube.
“It takes a certain personality type to accept the risks inherent in extreme sports or flying low to the ground, but the inherent risk in anything we do should be a challenge to us to find ways to minimize it. I’m afraid of a lot of things…but I’m vastly more afraid of the things I can’t control rather than the things I can. We can’t change the fact that fear is inevitable, but we can change how we react to it.”
Sometimes you’re just fat, dumb and happy not even knowing how much peril you’re in. I was flying in the South Pacific as a passenger on a 727 Island Hopper. The approaches were all non-precision, meaning our decision height for an instrument approach was anywhere from 800 to 1200 feet AGL. From my vantage point as a passenger, the emerald green trees and mountains looked beautiful wreathed in and out of clouds on a typical tropical afternoon. We were close to landing, but suddenly we did a sharp bank to the left and a steep-climbing go-around. It didn’t faze me that much. When I lived in the Alaskan bush, our 737 often would do several go-arounds before landing. After another missed approach, the pilot came in from a different direction, went around again, and on the third try, we landed. When we disembarked—surprise, everyone clapped! The people on the ground said they had thrown themselves on the ground during the first approach because we were so low we had almost hit a beacon at the line shack that was about 50 feet high. What apparently happened was that the pilot lost sight of the runway after descending below decision height. This reminded me of the cartoon person walking down the street who just misses getting smacked by the proverbial pie truck. They’re smiling as they step over the curb, never knowing how close it was. Ignorance truly is bliss.
Then there are interesting, purely physical responses to fear. We had flipped upside down at the end of the runway. The pilot didn’t use full length on a muddy dirt strip, flying a fully loaded Cessna 206. The passenger in the back seat and I crawled out of the airplane into the mud, and we looked at each other and noticed that our knees were shaking uncontrollably. We started laughing. It was simply a physical reaction we couldn’t control. Another time, at an airshow, I waved goodbye to a good friend I had just had lunch with, who was going out for a practice flight. Not long after, I got word that his airplane crashed and that he wouldn’t be coming back. I couldn’t move. My feet were encased in lead. I tried to walk to my car, but it was disconcertingly difficult and unreal. I’ve never experienced anything like that before or since.
“Fear is fear, but there are different types and different lessons to be learned… It can be hard to regain confidence after a scare, and it can take willpower and determination to transcend the experience. In my personal relationship with fear, I’ve found it important to own up to it, understand it and then let it go, knowing that I’ve been given the gift of a valuable lesson.”
One of the most uncomfortable feelings is when fear creeps in slowly. I was flying a Pitts in marginal weather. I had no radio, no compass and no navigational equipment. I guess I also had no sense. The weather was getting worse and the road I was following took an unexpected turn. At about 800 feet AGL, with the skies darker ahead of me, I started following some railroad tracks, but before long, I realized I didn’t have a clue where I was or which way to turn around to get out of the bad weather. Have you ever had that metallic taste in your mouth when you realize you’ve done something really dumb and there was no easy way out? This is one of the worst situations, because you know it’s your own stupidity that put you there, plus you feel shame and frustration, which only makes things worse. This is where you start making promises that you probably won’t be able to keep, but hope for a miracle anyway. This is also where you see the accident report flashing in front of you: Took off into worsening weather, did not file a flight plan.
Fear is fear, but there are different types and different lessons to be learned. Fear can be instantaneous or a long, slow uncomfortable process. It can also be insidious and lingering, eroding your self-confidence. For the airshow pilot, this is especially detrimental. It can be hard to regain confidence after a scare, and it can take willpower and determination to transcend the experience. In my personal relationship with fear, I’ve found it important to own up to it, understand it and then let it go, knowing that I’ve been given the gift of a valuable lesson.
It takes a certain personality type to accept the risks inherent in extreme sports or flying low to the ground, but the inherent risk in anything we do should be a challenge to us to find ways to minimize it. I’m afraid of a lot of things, like certain insects and strange food, but I’m vastly more afraid of the things I can’t control rather than the things I can. We can’t change the fact that fear is inevitable, but we can change how we ultimately react to it.
How will you react in a bad situation? Will you panic and let it paralyze you, or will you become resourceful? Will you continue to fly the airplane? You don’t really know until it happens. But, in general, I think fear is best handled on the ground—lying in bed at night thinking of the things that can happen, reading an accident report, mentally rehearsing a situation, staying current and getting additional training. Soldiers say: “Fight like you train, train like you fight.” Fly the airplane. In many situations, you can change your reaction to fear with practice and training, and I do know, without a doubt, that you’ll react to many bad situations the way you’ve trained for them. Patty Wagstaff is a 3-time U.S. National Aerobatic champion, and one of the world’s top airshow pilots.