When to Listen to Your Fears, and When to Ignore Them

In response to an earlier post here on what part of a frightening experience is the most scary, Mark Phelps of Flying magazine has written an interesting article about his own fears — specifically, to the jitters he feels when he’s getting ready to make a flight. As anyone who flies knows, fear is a crucial part of the experience of flying. I think that no other factor leads people to abandon their training, or give up flying after they’ve gotten their license, than the sheer psychic difficulty of constantly having to battle against one’s sense of trepidation. As Phelps acknowledges, our fear is often a useful indicator that we’re about to engage in behavior that might not be in our best interest, and sometimes we just have to listen to it. But if we listen to it too often, we’ll never break through to that state of exhilaration that we can find swooping above the clouds. The key he writes, is to rationally assess the actual dangers involved, asking: what really is the danger here? And then:

If the answer to ‘What am I afraid of?’ is ‘200-and-a-quarter, low oil pressure and a skipping engine’ then yeah, I’d taxi back to the hangar. But if the answer is more vague, and the other side of the logical, decision-making scale is loaded heavily in favor of a safe flight, then rational thought should easily outweigh the sense of apprehension. We pilots have lots to be afraid of, given that our activity involves hurtling along through thin air a couple of miles above the unyielding surface of the Earth — but we also need to see that very rational fear for what it really is and respond to it accordingly.

That’s good advice. Of course, it’s precisely when we feel the grip of fear that rational decision-making becomes most difficult. My own rule of thumb is: if I’m uncomfortably nervous, I take a rain check and promise myself that I’ll come flying another day. As the old saying goes, “Better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, then in the air wishing you were on the ground.”

Follow me on Twitter: @extremefear.