I head south out of the valley, following a highway that’s winding its way through the southernmost vestiges of the Appalachian Mountains. The highway is getting a little blurrier, but I’m used to squinting to make out landmarks in smog and haze. I check in with flight following, refold the sectional, and note that the highway and I have now parted ways as it heads further toward the east. I look out at the remote mountain landscape around me, which is harder to distinguish without the contrast provided by the highway but still visible. I look inside again to reset my DG against my compass and check the engine instruments. All is well, and I pat the instrument panel and give a little sigh of satisfaction that lasts only until I turn my glance outside again.
It’s gone. My heart stops, and I feel the instant cold rush of adrenaline flooding through tightening muscles from my heart to every extremity of my body. I squint harder, disbelieving. It can’t be. The trees, the landscape … the world I saw outside my canopy just a few seconds ago is now gone, replaced by an indistinguishable ocean of gray haze. I peer harder into the murk, hoping that by sheer force of will I can get something to appear; some thin line of horizon, perhaps, or some vague outline of landscape. I think maybe I see the outline of some trees just in front of my wing root, looking straight down. I have a brief moment of hope until I glance back at my instrument panel and see a nightmare staring back at me. I’m in a forty-degree bank and descending.
With a pounding heart, I level the wings, bring the nose up, and try to breathe. In an instant, I don’t just remember everything I’ve ever learned about vertigo and disorientation. I know it with an immediate, visceral, and three-dimensional clarity that has etched itself with jagged, breathtaking sharpness through every cell of my body. But still unwilling to believe that I’m really in this spot, I sneak another look outside again, searching for a horizon. It’s a futile effort, and in the process, I get the airplane back into another descending bank. My heart rate jumps another few notches as I level the wings again.
This is not good. I’m in trouble, and my mind and body know it. I focus on the instruments, trying to keep them where they ought to be while I figure out what to do. The classic 180-degree turn actually doesn’t seem like a good option at the moment. According to Flight Service, the haze and mist are supposed to be worse in the mountains behind me, and the terrain there is higher, as well. I’m already headed out of the mountains, toward where conditions are supposed to be better. I just have to stay in the air and under control long enough to get there. To that end, I realize that there might be some peaks around me that are higher than I am. I tell approach control I’m climbing 2,000 feet. At 6,500 feet, I will be above all the terrain in my path. It may also be harder to see the ground, but I figure that’s less important at this point.
At first, I keep looking outside to try to find the horizon, but each attempt results in another round of vertigo, and I finally give up the effort. As the minutes drag on, the full impact of my situation begins to set in. I am not an instrument-rated pilot. But like it or not, I need to fly this airplane by instruments if I want to live to see dinnertime. And the task is harder than I ever imagined it would be.
On a clear day, with an instructor sitting next to me, I’m an excellent instrument student. I’ve even landed an airplane under the hood without breaking into a sweat. But this is not a drill, and I don’t have anyone here to bail me out if I screw up. And that changes the whole equation. I find that simply controlling my less-than-rock-solid Grumman is all I can manage. I’d give a lot of money right now for an autopilot, a wing leveler, or even an airplane I could trim to fly hands-off.
Switching frequencies sends me into another turning descent. I try to look at the sectional to get a check on my surroundings and find the airplane banking again. Forget the sectional. My tiny little Garmin Pilot III handheld GPS sitting on my glareshield is now my best friend, and the course I’ve programmed into it is my best hope at salvation.
But difficult as it is, I find that controlling the airplane is not the biggest problem I have. The biggest danger I now face is an invisible demon that is gnawing at my stomach, trying to claw its way out to attack the rest of my body. And if it succeeds, it just might end up killing me.
Ernest Gann once wrote about the difference between fright and fear. Fright, he said, was a sudden and brief event, generally prompted by some visual or audio cue, that actually could be useful because it sent a pilot’s mind and body into full battle alert. Fear, he said, took longer to develop. But if it had the chance to take hold, it was a debilitating force that could cause a pilot’s mental and physical performance to degrade to the point of disaster.
I suddenly feel a strong bond of empathy with this celebrated bard of early airline flying. For what I feel as the minutes drag on and the situation doesn’t improve is not concern, tension, or anxiety. It’s full-blown, battle-ready, mind-paralyzing fear.
Fear, I’ve discovered, is an interesting and powerful animal that comes in several different flavors. There’s the garden-variety kind of fear, such as fear of the unknown or of certain types of challenges. That kind of fear is something we just have to turn around, face, and push through, because the harder we run from it, the harder it seems to pursue us. But the kind of fear that Gann was talking about is an entirely different animal. It’s a deadly kind of demon that turns our minds into our own worst enemy. It doesn’t need to be faced or worked through. It needs to be suppressed, controlled, and locked firmly away somewhere where it can’t inflict too much damage.
All alone in my little Cheetah over the mountains of North Carolina, the struggle for control of the airplane is only a sideshow. The battle that will really decide the day is the fight between the voices of fear and control that are raging inside my head.
“This is how pilots die,” a frightened voice inside me says. I can feel a sense of panic tearing at my stomach and the liquid tears of fear rising and pressing against the back of my eyes. I want to cry. I want someone to come and rescue me. What I really want more than anything else is to be anywhere but here. “You’re not instrument rated,” the voice continues. “You can’t do this.” Part of me is filling with an overwhelming desire to sit down, give up, and just cry. And as my fear grows, it becomes harder to keep my heading and altitude steady.
Fortunately, that frightened, fearful voice inside my mind has some competition. Part of me is overwhelmed with fear. But even bigger part of me, I discover, would make good drill sergeant material.
“Giving up is not an option!” another voice inside me commands in no uncertain terms. “You are not going to die today. You can do this. All you have to do is keep this plane level, and you know how to do that. No ifs or buts. Just fly the airplane. Keep a scan going. Level those wings. Keep that heading steady. Focus!”
I am buoyed by the stern control in my drill sergeant’s voice, and my heading and altitude stabilize. For several minutes, I am firmly in control. But fear is still lurking at my shoulder, waiting for the opening that a single moment of doubt will give it to pounce. And as another interminable five, six, and then eight minutes go by and nothing improves, the fearful voice starts in on me again. “This is bad,” it says in rising, panicked tones. “How long is this going to go on? How long can you stand it? Maybe you can’t keep this up.” I can feel the fear descending on me like a shadow slowly suffocating me from behind. My heading is slipping again, and I feel my chest tightening as my breathing becomes unsteady.
“Hey! None of that!” the rescuing voice of my drill sergeant commands again. “Correct that heading! Watch that pitch! Let’s go, kiddo, keep that scan going. Just keep the wings level. Piece of cake. You can and will do this. Giving up is not an option.” I am back in control, and I realize with a shock how dangerous my doubts and fear really are. As the cartoon character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” If I don’t make it through this, it will be my own mind that defeats me, not the haze or the airplane.
It’s an unnerving conclusion, but it makes me realize that if I want to survive, I need to control my mind as well as the airplane. And now that I see the enemy more clearly, I can fight it more effectively. Every time I feel a doubt forming in my head, I attack it with a vengeance, shoving it forcefully back into the baggage compartment. There will be no victory for fear today. I will not let it happen.
For 45 long minutes, the battle continues. Then finally, almost unbelievably, I catch sight of a sign of contrast outside the cockpit. It’s hazy, but there it is, as welcome as summer rain after a crop-withering drought. It’s a horizon and, below it, the shape of trees and the outline of a little country road. I want to yell, cheer and cry, all at once, and I take my first deep breath in nearly three-quarters of an hour. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so glad to see a silly rural farm road before in my life.
Two and a half hours later I touch down safely at my destination. The battle is over. I have won, and my only casualty seems to be a headache that sets in soon after I land and lasts almost a day and a half.
As I sit by a tranquil lake the next day at a Fourth of July party that I conceivably might never have made, I have time to reflect on it all. I have learned a valuable lesson, but I can’t help wishing someone had warned me about it on the ground so I would have been better prepared to handle it in the air.
Every flight instructor I’d ever worked with had dutifully warned me that if I lost visual references, my body would betray me. But none of them ever told me that my mind might betray me, as well. When we hear of VFR pilots going down in instrument conditions, we generally assume that they simply failed to focus on the instruments or control the airplane adequately. While that may be true, I would now argue that there may be another factor involved as well. The outcome may be due at least in part to a battle waged and lost in the pilot’s mind—lost, perhaps, because the pilot didn’t realize the battle was there to be fought until it was too late.
Pilots are loath to talk about being afraid. We’re “concerned,” “alert,” or maybe even a little “anxious,” but we rarely admit to ever having been really, truly scared in an airplane. And more power to any pilot for whom that’s actually true. But I suspect that I’m not the only pilot to ever find myself battling for control of my mind as well as the airplane in a dicey situation a few hundred or thousand feet above the ground.
We keep silent, because we somehow understand that there’s an unwritten code in flying that forbids all true and worthy pilots to admit to the weakness of fear. But by denying the struggle and keeping our silence, we leave our friends and fellow pilots adrift to learn about the demon all by themselves. And some of them may not learn it in time.
If someone had ever told me that my mind could betray me as quickly as my body, I would have been far better equipped to wage the battle to control it. It’s not easy for me to admit to the battle I fought, but I can’t help thinking that somewhere out there might be other pilots who might find themselves in a similar situation someday. And if they do, I would want them to remember two things. The first is that fear is a deadly animal that will attack and twist your mind and needs to be stuffed as far back in the plane as it can go, because it can kill a pilot as fast as ice on the wings. The second is that sometimes the best chance at winning the battle is a simple, steadfast and ironclad refusal to surrender.
“How’d you do it?” asked the friend who picked me up at my destination that day when he heard about my adventure.
I thought long and hard about that one. “I don’t know,” I answered at first. But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I heard an indignant protest from the drill sergeant part of me, somewhere inside. “No, that’s not true,” I said slowly. “I did it, I think, because I decided that giving up was simply not an option.”
Somewhere in my mind’s eye, I saw the drill sergeant give a satisfied smile and paste a little gold star in my logbook. “Ah, yes,” I heard her say. “Maybe there’s hope for this one yet.”
A Demon Called Fear
By Lane Wallace
© 2001 FLYING Magazine
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, March, 2001
It happens so gradually, I don’t even see it coming. I’m at 4500 feet, coming out of Asheville, North Carolina, and it’s a gray, hazy kind of morning that leaves everything with soft, blurry edges, as if the enchanted world of dreams is still lingering around the edges of the waking day. A layer of mist had blanketed the valley earlier in the morning, but the visibility is now four miles at all the reporting points along my route, which seems pretty good by Los Angeles standards.