One of the side effects of pushing yourself to new limits, expanding your horizons, and generally living life to its fullest is that occasionally you will sense the inevitable presence of fear. I’ve never encountered someone who is immune to fear. I’m not sure it’s possible. If it is, I’m not sure it’s healthy. What I’ve found personally is that fear must be managed. It must be appreciated as a motivating factor, but you must keep it just behind you. If fear starts to take hold of you, it can draw you in and paralyze you. Use this as a motivating factor and keep fear at arms length in the proper direction: behind you… and then keep moving.
To use some more pilot stories, there are times when I’ve let fear ding me, and there are times when I’ve clearly manhandled it into submission. I’d like to share both because they are great learning experiences.
The first instance that comes to mind was my very first night flight in low IFR (that means taking off into the clouds) all alone in the airplane. There is nothing like flying alone in the clouds even in daylight, but try doing it at night and you will discover that your heart can beat at speeds you never thought possible. You will discover a new meaning of “alone.” I took off from Fulton County Airport (KFTY) headed to Thomasville, GA (KTVI). One of the procedures in the plane I was flying is to use a fuel boost pump for take off, then switch it off at a certain altitude. In this plane the boost pump switch is on the left side of the cockpit in a row of about four switches. Usually there is enough ambient light in the cockpit to see the switch labels clearly, so they are not backlit. This dark and cloudy night, I took off and was in the clouds almost immediately. Dealing with the business of Atlanta airspace’s traffic control, juggling controllers and takeoff checklists, I was already pretty anxious… but then it came time to switch off the boost pump, and because it was so dark, I realized I couldn’t tell what the switches were! And worse… I couldn’t remember the order of them on the panel. So it was the oddest thing, but I could feel the fear grab me and began to squeeze.
My heart was racing and my mind was slowing down to fixate on one tiny, stupid, essentially insignificant which switch decision! I was terrified I was going to turn off the master switch, instead of the boost pump, (which wouldn’t have turned off the airplane, just so you know) but it would have turned off most of the lights in the cockpit, while I was in the clouds all alone. Not where I wanted to be. Yikes! That’s when it was very apparent to me that fear had grabbed me and I was becoming ineffective. Who knows what other, more important details I was missing.
My lesson learned from this is that fear is sometimes born from being unprepared. In that particular situation, I simply should have known the airplane I was flying better, and I should have known exactly which switch to flip just as a blind person can read brail. Also, had I been able to manage the fear better, I would have calmly realized that maybe the best decision was to just leave the boost pump turned on, which was perfectly fine.
Back in 1996, I was sitting on the bus with the great Alfred Watkins, one of the directors of the Atlanta Olympic Band and we were on the way to the Olympic Stadium to perform at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics. I asked him “Are you nervous?” His response was this,
“Why would I be nervous? We are prepared. If you prepare, then fear is irrelevant. You simply know you can do the job. We are prepared. No fear.”
So be prepared.
Another airplane story for you that isn’t quite as stressful. I was flying home with a friend one night from a work conference in Miami and we had stopped in south Georgia for fuel. We were flying a DiamondStar DA40, that was equipped with a cylinder head temperature (CHT) monitoring instrument. That meant we had a temperature reading for each of the 4-cylinders in the engine pushing us through the sky. The procedure is to monitor those bad boys and keep the airplane just at the right temps. Too hot and it’s the first sign of trouble in the hamster wheel. To make a long story short, we took off just at dusk, climbed to altitude quickly and all of a sudden the temp on cylinder #3 shot way up… like to 1700 F… and they were supposed to be around 1400. I didn’t know that Mr. Farenheit went that high, and I sure as hell didn’t think that we would see a number like that without seeing smoke first. Dude!!
However, this time there was no fear. My friend and I knew what had to be done. We had altitude, so we pull back the power, we call ATC explain the situation and ask for the nearest airport. Following all the training and emergency procedures in the book, we turn towards Albany, GA (KABY), called the tower. They asked if we needed emergency equipment ready and the we waited until we were sure we could glide to a successful landing before we responded with the negative. We landed safely and all was well… and my favorite part about that was that it was a great demonstration of Alfred Watkins mantra… preparation makes fear irrelevant. Instead of fear taking hold, we were harnessing the elevated anxiety and thinking faster, clearer, and more effectively.
Takeaways from this post:
1. Keep fear behind you.
2. Be confident that you are prepared.
3. Keep moving.