Nearly every pilot will experience some degree of fear during their flying career. How we each deal with it can make the difference between reaping maximum enjoyment from our chosen sport or perhaps even choosing to abandon our dreams of free flight.
Fear is a perfectly normal human reaction but if you think it is simply an emotion you are wrong. Fear is really the combination of the emotion anxiety combined with the biological stress response. Now for some background that will help us understand the underlying processes better.
Our brain is a very complex organ but for simplicity let us consider its three main parts. The brain stem is the most primitive part of our brain and is concerned with basic self-preservation functions such as breathing, blood pressure and cardiac output. As we moved up the evolutionary ladder we developed the limbic system which is concerned (amongst other things) with basic instincts – this region is also sometimes called our sub conscious. As man, we developed the cortex, the third and largest part of our brains. It is within the cortex that we think and act and it is also the seat of out emotions.
The stress response is a well described physiological process and provides the key to understanding fear. It directly involves the brain, autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system.
Okay, so we trigger a stress response – what happens then? Your limbic system is stimulated which next triggers the autonomic nervous system and the pituitary gland. The stimulation of the autonomic nervous system causes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, as well as causing increased sweating. The pituitary gland produces a precursor molecule pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC). POMC is then split into multiple smaller molecules. The ones that concern us are the natural opioids called endorphins and Adrenal Corticotrophic Hormone (ACTH). The endorphins spread throughout the central nervous system. ACTH circulates in the blood and stimulates our adrenal glands to produce cortisol and aldosterone. The upshot of all this is that stress causes the release of endorphins, cortisol, aldosterone and adrenaline.
So what does this chemical soup do to our bodies? The endorphins are natural opioids which act like heroin to relieve pain and induce a euphoric state. Cortisol speeds up the body’s metabolism and causes the release of sugar into the blood. Aldosterone stimulates the kidneys to retain sodium which increases circulating blood volume which in turn increases blood pressure and cardiac output so the heart pumps more blood. Adrenaline potentiates the above effects, causes blood to be directed preferentially to the heart and muscles and away from the gastrointestinal system (this lack of blood is what causes those “butterflies” in your stomach), and also increases the excitability of the entire nervous system.
So now perhaps you can see why the stress response is also called the fight or flight (an English word which means in this context: to run away) response. The entire response has been carefully tuned by nature to help your survival when threatened. It stimulates your brain and nervous system, increases the amount of blood pumped by your heart and directs it to where it is most required, provides the muscles and brain with extra fuel, increases blood volume in case you bleed, provides pain relief in case it hurts, and even provides extra sweaty grip on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet.
That rush you may feel before take off or landing is simply part of your stress response as your body prepares for the upcoming challenge. Research conducted by the US Air force and others has found that increasing stress levels actually improves pilot performance up until a certain point. If stress levels rise above this point then performance drops off dramatically (red zone). It follows that there is an optimum stress level. The problem with trying to operate too close to this level (orange zone) is that there is no ability to cope with extra stresses – these can become the straw which breaks the camels back. Our aim should be to regulate our stress level so that performance is enhanced without approaching the danger level where performance suddenly diminishes (green zone). You can see how this ties in with the previous article where we saw an initial pilot error increasing the pilots workload and stress level and potentially leading to further errors and perhaps an accident.
We are now in a position to understand that what we call fear actually represents a complex interplay between mind and body. Unfortunately the system does not always work as designed (rather like PCs, DOS and Windows! – Mac forever). A threat may be real but is often only imaginary. It is received through one of our many sensory pathways. A lot of signal processing is done by the brain and there is a lot of information exchange between the three levels. Sometimes the information never makes it to the conscious (cortical) level. Sometimes messages gets garbled. Just as anxiety can cause a stress response so the converse is also true – a stress response can trigger anxiety. Sometimes the whole system gets overloaded and crashes.
So how does all this theoretical stuff help us to deal with fear. By now you should understand the processes involved in generating fear, its potential performance benefits and risks. We can now look at some practical ways to keep our fear at an optimum level. This level is different for every individual.
We now know that the stress response, although designed to work for us, can lead to problems if it gets to strong. Triggers of the stress response include: hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar from not eating, or eating very sweet foods), caffeine, nicotine, hangovers, fatigue, sleep disturbance, infection, injury, heat, and dehydration. These are all potentially avoidable if required. Their effects are additive. Getting a good nights sleep, eating a good solid breakfast, and drinking plenty of fluid will all help pre flight nerves. One or two cups of coffee in the morning will do little harm. I’m sure you’ve all heard enough about the evils of tobacco and alcohol so all I’ll say is one word: moderation.
Triggers for anxiety side of the equation are many and varied. The non flying related ones include money troubles, family troubles and job problems. These are outside the scope of this article but can be dealt with by compartmentalisation – put them away before you go flying. If you can’t put them away consider not flying until you can. Fortunately flying related triggers for anxiety are easier to control.
A major issue is flight skills and currency. After a long lay off you will not be as well in tune with your glider as you were when last flying regularly. Make it easy on yourself by choosing mellow conditions for your first flight after a long lay off. If you are unhappy with basic skills such as launch and landing then consider going back to the training hill, with or without an instructor, to hone your technique. Currency and top notch flight skills are great confidence boosters.
Another issue is your glider – many of us are seduced by new ever higher performance ships. Unfortunately as well as their higher performance they also usually offer more challenging flight characteristics. Can you really fly your glider? Are you comfortable with its safety characteristics? Do you actually enjoy flying it? Do you really need, and will you use, the extra point of glide or 4kmh higher top speed?
Learn to walk before you try to run. Enjoy each progressive stage of your flying development for the unique pleasures it can offer. The sky is like the ocean – it can be easy to get yourself in over your neck.
Follow the old axiom of only changing one thing at a time: glider, site, conditions, harness. This helps you concentrate your focus on flying.
Have a flight plan. In fact have several. Learn to plan ahead so you know what to do in any given situation before it happens. Be pro-active, not reactive. After all you are flying the glider, it isn’t flying you.
Always listen to the little alarm bell in the back of your mind – it could be your subconscious trying to tell you something. Examine the cause of your anxiety. Define exactly what’s worrying you. If the problem is real then act to fix it. If not be reassured that sometimes the wires do get crossed. As a fellow instructor once said “If you’re not nervous at take off then you’re taking to many drugs!” Remember take offs are optional but once you do elect to launch use total commitment and focus as anything less is asking for trouble.
How lucky we are to be the few human beings among billions privileged with the amazing gift of free flight. So many people dream of flight, perhaps the ultimate symbol of freedom, and yet so few actually fly. We live in an age when for the first time in human history technology allows man to carry a wing to the top of a mountain, run with that wing and soar to the clouds. I can fly…..what a truly amazing statement!
I ask myself why everyone in the world isn’t flying. Why are they satisfied living their days on the ground, watching birds and only dreaming of the freedom of flight when it is available to those who make the effort? Perhaps the primary answer is fear.
Learn to master your fear, use the heightened performance and sensations it brings to your benefit, and the golden dream of free fight need never tarnish. In fact it will become more rewarding than ever. For in the end everyone who lives, dies; yet not everyone who dies, has lived.
We take these risks,
Not to escape life,
But to prevent life
From escaping us! – No Fear Slogan