Healthy fear can turn to paralyzing panic if youre unprepared for an emergency. With preparation, its all second nature


If you fly long enough, no matter how outstanding your maintenance program, no matter how thorough your preflight, no matter how highly trained you are, you will eventually face a major emergency. When that day comes and the yogurt hits the fan, how you react may determine how you spend the rest of your days. If you survive, that is.

Will you spend your golden years playing with your grandchildren and hanging out at the airport telling lies to other old fliers? Or will you be propped up in a wheelchair and rolled into the family room to watch Days of Our Lives and Jenny Jones every day? To the extent made possible by the circumstances, its up to you.

If faced with an emergency that could be life threatening, there is one thing you must do first, and its not best glide speed. You must not panic. Panic is the ultimate manifestation of fight or flight.

Panic includes losing the ability to think clearly as the rush of adrenaline and other chemicals take over. If some big, bad dude has you almost cornered, you might be able to break the world record for the 100-meter dash. But it youre IFR at night over the mountains and the engine quits, you dont want to be lacing up track shoes in the cockpit of a Cessna.

The good news is that panic only comes to those who are unprepared.

Different people have different ways they react to fear. For most, theres a slightly sickening sensation in the stomach, clamping the jaws, maybe the beginnings of a stress headache. Hands and feet sweat and feel clammy. Some even get to the point of hyperventilation and nausea. Then they may be ready to start the engine.

When it comes to flying, one of the best ways to keep fear at bay is to be prepared. That includes memorizing and practicing the bold-faced emergency procedures in the POH. The first step in any of them, well, after dont panic is to maintain aircraft control.

If you have to be reminded of that, you cant think straight and youre progressing from fear to panic. The symptoms might be sweating, disrupted speech patterns, higher pitched voice and tension in the shoulders.

Its important to recognize the symptoms because that will help you stop them from getting out of control. Getting a handle on the fear will help you deal rationally with the situation. Of course, its often hard to recognize the symptoms in yourself, although others may point it out. If you instantly deny the symptoms, its evidence of a macho attitude than can be hazardous.

Will You Panic?
How susceptible you might be to fear or panic varies continually. It depends on such things as how much stress you brought with you to the airport that day – a fact that is psychologically measurable.

For example, work a crossword puzzle in a quiet setting and measure your performance. Then try another puzzle of equal difficulty in an environment filled with obnoxious noise such as, for me, hard rock music or the Rush Limbaugh Show. There will be a measurable decline in your performance.

If you understand the role of stress in affecting your ability to cope, youll have a leg up on determining how well you might perform in a crisis.

Aviation psychology outlines three basic ways pilots might respond to an emergency. They might handle the situation quickly and properly; they may panic and take immediate action, even if its wrong; they may freeze, unable to decide what to do.

Consider the plight of an airline crew rejecting a takeoff. According to the first officer, the captain failed to apply the brakes, failed to apply the thrust reversers and seemed fixated on trying to extend the spoilers. The first officer said he was just staring straight ahead and appeared to stop functioning.

The aircraft came to rest in a 50-foot-deep ravine about 600 feet past the end of the runway. Several passengers were killed.

A review of the captains training folder contained a notation from a past instructor that he hasnt got much of a clue how to fly an airplane. I dont really know whether hell ever learn to fly or not. His employer removed him from flying status, but he was returned to the line after filing a union grievance. Shortly after the runway overrun he resigned.

The common behavior problems associated with frozen pilot syndrome is that experienced pilots – sometimes entire crews – can become fixated on one particular action and allow the aircraft to crash without taking the actions necessary to recover.

Psychologists say the fixation may be a coping mechanism to relieve the anxiety brought on by the unforeseen event. The practical effect is that they cannot deal with the emergency at hand.

Turning It Around
Fear, however, can be turned to your advantage.

Fear is your body and mind shifting into a self-preservation mode. Your senses become heightened, attention focuses, and that nap you were battling a few minutes before is lost in the propwash. Your system is crying out for you to do something to halt the chemical buzz that has gotten you so excited and alert.

So far, this is good. Thanks to a miracle of physiology, you are as ready to handle a dangerous situation as you will ever be. Up to now, fear is your friend. Its what happens next that determines whether youll become strong or fall to pieces.

Will you be guided by intellect or emotion? Do you have a plan, or just wish you had a plan? Time is of the essence.

Air Force humor consists of telling a trainee, A good screw-up is better than nothing at all. This helps reinforce the notion that they should do something other than sit idly in bewilderment. In real life-or-death situations, of course, there are no good screw-ups. Thats why its critical to keep fear under control and keep it working for you.

The single most powerful weapon in your personal arsenal is to be prepared. Are you prepared to fly a good approach to a smooth landing? Of course. Are you prepared to recover from unusual attitudes under the hood? Definitely. Are you prepared to take immediate and correct action if your engine fails on takeoff or you detect smoke in the cockpit at night? If you arent so sure of your answer to this one, you must take three steps promptly.

First, and most important, is to learn the bold-faced emergency procedures cold.

Human factors scientists confirm the common sense notion that the better learned a response is, the greater the probability that it will occur, as if by reflex, when the time comes. Says FAA human factors scientist Clay Foushee, Theres no substitute for gaining experience in dealing with real emergencies. The problem is that an airplane is a bad place to get it.

Another take on the essence of emergency management comes from Dr. David Jones in Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine. Physically practicing procedures will help in making them reflexive under stress. The wise pilot will anticipate the things that can go wrong with him or her and the airplane, and develop a plan for dealing with them, he says.

Then hell practice it, either in the air or mentally, on the ground. Actually going through the motions will give the pilot a kind of kinesthetic memory, in the same way that one learns to shoot a basketball through practice. The muscles know how to do things that cant be put into words – if theyre shown how.

Armed with this attitude, proceed to step two, which is perhaps the most important thing you can do in aviation without spending money.

Sit in the cockpit on the ground and go through each step of each procedure, taking the time to think about what happens when you perform each step and why.

Sure, it sounds hokey. Sure, youll look like a geek sitting in an airplane acting out a Walter Mitty fantasy. But it works.

And maybe if other pilots see you doing this, theyll feel more comfortable doing it themselves. So youre really doing everyone a favor by trying it.

Finally, familiarize yourself with all of the other emergency procedures. You dont have to memorize them or rely on some vague recollection you think is right. Instead, these you can battle by referring to the checklist.

The manufacturer has graciously put forth its collective wisdom in the POH, or perhaps you opt for an aftermarket commercial checklist. In any event, just pull out the checklist and follow the procedure outlined there.

There are many different psychological phenomena that can happen to pilots in crisis. Denial is a big one. Im just imagining the smell of smoke, or This warning light must be broken. When you finally gnash your teeth and mutter, This cant be happening to me, what youre really saying is, This isnt happening to me. Dont engage in wishful thinking. If you ignore the problem, odds are it will not go away. Airplanes arent known for healing themselves in flight.

Fear is a normal reaction to dealing with unexpected and potentially life-threatening situations. Panic is a different story. Aviation psychologists say your chances of recovering from a panic attack are not good, which only reinforces the notion that prevention is the best cure.

What should protect you from panic is confidence in your own ability to deal with the emergency, which can only be gained by learning the crucial steps in procedures – and practicing them.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “When Fear Threatens to Take Hold.”
Click here to view “Tricks and Traps.”

-by Gerald Harman

Gerald Harman is a 7,000-hour former Air Force pilot who spent 28 years as a government pilot and investigator.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here