Oddly, I flew infrequently on commercial airplanes as a kid with no real fear. Like most children, I was oblivious to the idea of death. Somewhere along the way, this changed. The cause of my growing fear of flying (as I reflect back), was not due to any one single event or attributable to any series of experiences, but it was a steady growth nonetheless. I did discover rather young that I had an uneasiness of really tall heights but no real fear climbing in my backyard tree. As with most instances of this sort of thing, it started as “vertigo” which most human beings have and then turned slowly into phobia (fear). Early examples that were a cross between vertigo and fear were: whenever I approached the perimeter edge of the penthouse or roof of a really tall building or steep ledge of a cliff, or rode on a ski lift chair, the tight stomach feeling would visit me. Results would be shortness of breath or strained breathing, some dryness of mouth, and a cold sweat would develop. I remember this tall heights type thing being very real in my teen years and in my young 20′s. I remember a particular instance which did actually occur when I went to the top of the Empire State Building in New York, in 1976. I not only felt this famous building’s terrifying height but I felt it actually move in the wind (sway) as well. The Empire State had an outdoor roof top area which made it more scary (unprotected). I loved the view but I couldn’t breathe comfortably. Was it normal vertigo or the onset of fear, I wonder now as I recollect?
Over the years a part of me inside started augmenting the fears of heights. Ergo, I would picture things like an earthquake happening in conjunction with my being at the top of a tall building. At about this same time, I discovered that being high up in an airplane was a similar phobia to that of a tall building but much, much worse. An airplane was a fear of heights on steroids as it were. An airplane was not only way above the ground like a skyscraper, it was also “not in any part of my control” nor “solid” and “affixed” to the ground like a building. So my subconscious augmented the FEAR of FLYING” to even greater heights (if you’ll excuse the pun) with such things as: perceived slipshod maintenance where the engines would possibly quit, bad inexperienced pilots, sleepy air traffic controllers, renegade planes that could hit the plane I was on, or the age of the airplane I was on being past the time for its retirement, or weakened fuselage aluminum from constant compression from pressurization, or lazy bag-check people that could allow a terrorist bomb in the cargo hold, etc. So as you can guess, my subconscious developed and grew the scary thoughts of a plane crashing the more I flew. I developed what I will affectionately call a “book of worries” to add to the “height” issue. My conscious side would always say, hey, this is silly, airplane travel is far safer than driving in a car. Of course I would try and put all the wrong fear thoughts out of my mind but they would cycle back to the forefront of my thoughts when I was up in something high up, with wings that could snap off (Yikes). As my travel friend was resting comfortably in their seat next to me, I would be listening intently to the hydraulics working the wing parts (air brakes, flaps, slats, spoiler, aileron, rudder, elevator, stabilizers, etc). As you can guess, I didn’t like to hear the wrong types of squeaks, crackles and crunches as I listened intently to these moving parts. I always looked at how I would get out through the emergency door in a crash. I always pictured the tail “elevator” motor on the horizontal stabilizer quitting, or hydraulics getting stuck, or the cable snapping or jamming the tail “elevator” so the plane would get stuck in a nose down condition giving me 2 minutes of mortal fear to make my peace before exploding on the ground .
Over the years, other aspects fueled the growth of my fear of flying, ergo: news reports, pictures, videos, movies, television shows showing plane crashes, et. al. Any stories that showed parts of the fuselage blowing wide open gaping holes and passengers being sucked out of the plane still strapped to their row of seats, or fuel tank explosions due to faulty wiring or fuel tank leaks and fumes, or bad maintenance with rivets where a motor falls off, or pictures of planes exploding and engulfing in flames in crash landings due to landing gear failure, or running off the end of the runway into an icy river, etc. The accumulation over the years of media reports became indelible in my mind’s eye and only grew my ever expanding list of fears all growing my “book of worries” I listed a couple of paragraphs above. Mind you, I could still fly, but with an ever growing uncomfortable worry. Let me not forget to add this comforting aspect to this story: for some odd reason, I always had a dream (nightmare) that I would die in a plane crash one day; why this is, I don’t know.
When I got into my late 20′s and early 30′s, I was offered the chance to travel more to places like, Mexico and to Hawaii. Over the course of approximately 4 or 5 trips to these places, each trip grew my concerns and worries when I was told the experiences would or should lessen my fears. Breathing was becoming more constrained not less, nervous perspiration and (dare I say) some adrenaline was actually now being felt especially when any odd plane sounds or turbulence was heard and/or felt. I can remember one or two episodes of hard turbulence that scared me where all I could visualize was the plane breaking apart and getting sucked out like those Hawaiian Airlines passengers did in that one case that was on the news some years back. The worry thoughts pervaded when relaxation and looking forward to fun on my vacation should have been on my mind. I don’t know if it was my subconscious creating and developing these fears or what it was exactly, but I didn’t fly much anyway so I let it go and did not see a specialist for help. I began avoiding flying altogether, and about the age of 37 or so, I chose not to fly for the next 15 years.
At the ripe young age of 52, I had decided that my life would not be whole without my realizing my travel dreams. I had to do something. Of course terrorism had grown huge to now be a full chapter in my “book of worries”. In fact, to add insult to injury, my Aunt and Uncle were killed on the 2nd airliner that hit the World Trade Center on Sept 11th, 2001. Yes, I often pictured sitting next to them, reliving their fear as they faced imminent peril with zero control, zero escape. But even with this added to my augmentation of fears, I had to travel the world before my time runs out. I decided to take action.
Epiphany: My thought was that I would be able to avoid terrorism and other chapters in my “book of fears” if I confronted my fear of flying in a small “general aviation” airplane (avoiding commercial aviation altogether). That was the logic. Funny how the premise of that logic would soon be debunked.
I began looking into flying and getting my own small plane. I envisioned a ballistic parachute on the top of the small airplane so that in case of an emergency, I would have this as my failsafe feature. Lastly, I would be “in control” of piloting, luggage cargo, and also some oversight with maintenance. One day while researching online on my computer I found this “open house day” put on by a flying school at the Tacoma Narrows Airport (TIW) in, Tacoma WA. It was a BBQ coupled with getting to sit in various general aviation aircraft. There would be lots of ability to ask questions of professional flight training people. So I told my best friend, Lisa that this was something I was thinking of doing and she prodded me to go ahead.
Well, I loved the open house. I asked many questions and sat in some airplanes and the owner of the school chatted with me and inspired me. Wow, the planes felt nice to sit in (while on the ground!!!). I was so gung-ho, I asked about all the flight school aspects and took home a bunch of brochures. I was excited and I shared these feelings with my close friend, Lisa. So after a couple of days of tossing the idea around, I went back to Tacoma Narrows airport and bought the class books and tapes and went home again and started reading. Yes, before you ask, I did purchase the training materials before I even took a test flight even though they offered to give me a test flight first (for a fee). I decided I wanted to get all excited and grow my desire to fly and conquer my fears with the book materials before actually doing the flying part to help offset some of the fears I would surely encounter when actually flying. I looked at small airplanes online again, and began to dream of myself and some special someone with me on soulful flights to capricious places far and wide. Freedom to the extreme without fear was my crazy vision, go figure….
Well, as you can certainly wonder in this story, the day of reckoning soon came a couple of days later. I showed up for my first day of flight training and was assigned a (an adrenaline junky as I call him) 21 year old brand new CFI flight instructor (his name was, Lars). My fate was cruelly sealed with a beginner CFI instructor who was without a fear bone in his body. We seatbelt strapped ourselves into a Cessna 172 and he started the engine. Oh MY GOD… panic hit… my fear quotient was at a level 10 on a 10 scale and we hadn’t even gotten airborne. To my utter chagrin, this thing they call an airplane was a “rickety tin can” beyond belief. It had sounds of coming apart. The thing was loud and the wings wobbled. The engine seemed too powerful for a weakly built toy they call a Cessna. The windows were tiny, I could not see upward on my side due to the high wing design. I could not see very well out front over the instrument and gauges panel either, being so high in my line of sight. Geez, how could one see to actually drive this plastic and tin beer-can contraption? Before you ask; no, I did not want to let anyone at the flight school know I was a afraid or a coward. I was not going to give anyone the slightest impression that I was a big baby that had to be coddled or treated differently than any other common flight student; rather I was a fearless man…yeah right…!!!!
We soon we’re on the taxi ramp and he was speaking in gibberish to the tower. He asked me if I was okay, and while practicing what I will call my mortified breathing techniques with the tightest sphincter muscle known to man, I whinnied out, “yeah, just fine, let’s go.” Soon we were shooting down the runway and I held on tight. Every muscle in my body was like I was lifting 500 lbs. It was like I was shooting down the big drop on a roller coaster ride and we were only just taking off… He kept asking me if I was having fun. When soon we were up and out over the water of the Puget Sound and he was banking a left turn. He tried explaining the “turn coordinator”, but holy moly, ease up you dumb kid I thought. I thought to myself, hey, go easy, not so steep; can’t this kid break me in easy, I was a beginner… Soon my face was pasted on my left seat door panel window. All I could see was the ground and nothing holding me in. I couldn’t breathe but I managed with adrenaline to (barely) not pass out. Once he leveled us off and I quelled my hyperventilating breathing, he let me grab the yoke and I did even though my eyes were still watery from the turn we just did. I kept the coke can with a propeller on the straight and level and looked straight ahead (not down). We were at about 3000 feet or so, and for a brief moment I felt like a pilot (yeah baby, look at me!). But soon he takes me back towards the airport but with some more 45 degree banks that felt like 80 degrees. I asked , “are you going to roll this thing,” he said, “no we’re only angled at about 45 degrees”…. says who, I thought. Kid is lying in his adrenaline haze. He explained the gauges and instruments a little which were cool, but my focus was more on life and death.
We landed on good ol’ terra firma (and hey, I was still alive!) and he asked me what I thought and of course I BS’ed him with some macho pilot response like, “it was great, a piece of cake”. I quickly left my buddy, Lars and was so happy to get behind the yoke of my four tire on the ground vehicle and head home. I called, Lisa and told her of the mayhem I experienced inside while flying, and how my muscles ached due to being totally taught for over 30 minutes of flying without breathing. I said to Lisa that this is way worse than any tall building or flying commercially (previous logic debunked). I confided in her and said I want to get my money back for the books and tapes; she said, “don’t”. She advised me to give it two or three days to mull it over before my next scheduled training lesson was to occur, before I made my final decision about whether to quit this silly nightmare.
My 2nd flying lesson was constantly on my mind for the next two days. I was constantly mulling over the pros and cons. Both sides of myself argued their side of the debate. The fear side would say this is stupid, just quit. The side that wanted to conquer this fear said, “grow a pair”. So my friend, Lisa and I talked again, and I decided to try one more lesson. So off I went to fly again with my 21 year old adrenaline junky CFI. Low and behold, I would soon find out that he would send me into maximum orbit overdrive on the fear scale this day.
Soon after arriving at the airport school, we took off and climbed up to about 6000 feet and he said we would try out some what he called, “maneuvers”. “Maneuvers” is airplane-speak that loosely translates into meaning: you’re going to get the fertilizer scared out of you today. Power off Stall, slow flight, 360 degree turns while maintaining altitude and speed, turning the engine off to show me how it glided (this actually helped alleviate some of my fear), but then the grand daddy of them all came up… ” POWER ON STALL”. Now for you novices out there that don’t know what this is, it is a maneuver whereby a supposedly sane human being turns a powerful engine attached to a rickety tin coke can to “full power” and proceeds to point the nose straight up like a rocket. In a snap I was flying with, Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone. Suddenly, Lars gets the plane going fast on full power or nearly full power and then yanks the yoke back which he explains will causes the nose to go straight up. Uh hello, anybody home? Did I agree to rocket ship training? I looked over in mortal fear at the 21yr old adrenaline nut, and he was giddy-gleeful… “Whew we, this is great,” he exclaimed. All the while, I am holding on for dear life. I was catapulted instantly to a level 20 on my fear scale that only goes to level 10!!! I couldn’t move or breathe, at all… Adrenaline is coursing through my constricted veins. Low and behold the coke can with a propeller starts to chug and slow to “zero forward velocity” as we’re pointed straight up in our, NASA Discovery Cessna. Oh no, what now I thought as the plane is coming to a dead stop in mid air pointed straight up… you got it, it start to fall backwards, tail first, where I can’t see anything. But in my mind’s eye I could see us flying backwards into the ground… Uh, can you say we’re going to CRASH but not see when. Suddenly, to add insult to injury, he makes a PILOT ERROR by not applying left rudder and the plane dives off to the right nearly upside down, and goes into an “out of control” spin where the wings and controls no longer work (yeeeeooowww!!!). Uh, are you with me here; can you picture this scenario being experienced by a complete flying virgin who is deathly afraid of flying and heights? Can any of you reading this account say: “Skid Marks” in ones shorts. All I hear is, “hold on, I’ll recover us”. RECOVER… WTF…. I am going to be worm mush on the ground… I abruptly ask myself while gasping for air as my stomach is now in my shoes: whatever lead me to this crazy idea of flying in the first place? Sure enough, my childhood nightmare of dying in a plane crash was happening this odd day.
Soon we are spinning and cascading downward and the wings are buffeting… yeah that’s right, I look over at the wings and they are actually wrinkling like cloth, acting like they’re going to break off. It is abundantly clear to me now by looking out my window; THESE WINGS ARE CHEAP PLASTIC, and that my life depends on cheap plastic that no longer works. I hear things like, “wow, this is cool,” coming out of my kid CFI beside me in the right seat. Soon, as I take my first breath in nearly 5 minutes, the kid now points us nose down like a rocket. Yes, you read that correctly. We were pointed straight up like a rocket now we are pointed straight down like a rocket, but now we are moving 10 times faster towards the ground. Are you kidding me, we are rocketing like a pile driver into a very hard thing called the ground, yikes. I push myself back into my seat bracing for an impending impact until he says” we’re recovered”, and just then he pushes the full power on again and we Kamikaze U- loop from straight down to back upwards again. Yeah, my stomach loves negative and positive G’s, let me tell ya. I was crying, tears were rolling down my face. He said he was sorry, and did I want to go back to the airport, I whimpered, “yes, please take me back right now”…
16 months later, I was a full-fledged licensed Private Pilot. Moral to the story: yes, I had to conquer my fear with the only thing that does that: “COURAGE”
From that eventful 2nd lesson “power on stall” fiasco described above, I moved to another school in, Renton Washington (outside of Seattle). I was directed to a couple of great CFI instructors that worked with me, most notably, Ruth Morlas. I took longer to get my license than many, partly due to switching over to a Sport Pilot, then back again to a Private Pilot, and also due to long gray rainy winters with limited VFR in my area. So it took me 16 long months to get my license. All told, it took me about 110 hours (not the minimum 40hrs), but I did it!!! I gave up on the school at the Tacoma Narrows airport but I do feel they are good, just not right for my needs. So I decided to complete my training with two very skillful CFI pilots at, Renton Airport (KRNT), Jevon Wussler and Ruth Morlas. They helped me face my fears with growing confidence. In short, they gave me the tailored special unique care and pace of training I needed with my fears. Every student is different and every CFI is different. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance which took a lot of work, but I count my “Private Pilot license” as my greatest single accomplishment due to what had to be learned in the face of mortal fear.
There were times with Jevon and Ruth that I would get tears in my eyes but I persevered. I found the scary times gave me the most confidence once I succeeded through the fear. I was once stuck in a heavy rain storm with 25 mile an hour cross winds with a wind squall warning in a tiny Evektor Airplane and Jevon got us down safely. In addition, once while practicing alone, I actually did a “power on stall” and went into a spin. Due to my previous experience on my fateful 2nd lesson mentioned above, coupled with solid training from, Ruth regarding stalls, and with her calming voice and influence, I was able to quickly recover (and my confidence grew) . No, I don’t find a “spin” a fun thing to do. You won’t see me doing aerobatics anytime soon. But I can fly on a commercial plane now without breathing problems. Yes, I still listen for odd sounds and want to know how old the plane is, or what the chance of turbulence might be, and I wonder about my little Evektor’s elevator cable bolt holding up, but I have a nice time on airplane rides whether it be as a pilot or on commercial aircraft to a vacation destination.