Psych 101­—flying with weather fear

            While editing my draft for Pilot Weather Wisdom and paralleling (no, not plagiarizing) what famous Robert Buck states in his iconic book, Weather Flying, I should talk about pilot weather psychology

            Years ago, when looking toward the sky, I read an article in an aviation magazine about an airline pilot that developed a fear of flying. I thought, how could a pilot with thousands of hours have a fear of flying? What a wimp! But it turns out many do. The magazine explained, after having flown flawlessly for years with no violations or dinging an airplane, a pilot starts thinking, “I should quit while I am ahead.” One will see pilots go on short to long-term disability because they fear something wrong may happen. Now looking from the other end, i.e., near retirement and grey, I can see why these pilot’s confessions made print.

            Many pilots do a great job masquerading their insecurity and trepidation. Recently, on social media (Link-in), a pilot portraying themselves as “seen it all” with oodles of followers wanted to act cool and downplay turbulence. Well, this grey owl took a disliking to it. The following paragraph is Captain Cool boasting.

            Pilots aren’t scared of turbulence. After thousands of hours, you hardly even notice it. Pilots learn to eat, drink, write, read (we can still play Farkle up to about moderate turbulence), and use all the avionics while being bounced around, but it’s the primary cause of anxiety for passengers. If it weren’t for passengers, pilots would just buckle up, yell YeeHaw and ride it out, but company policy requires them to try and find you some smooth air. Sometimes in the area, smooth air just doesn’t exist. If it’s the source of your fear, just google wing stress test and look at what you have to do to get a structural failure. More than what turbulence can do, so just remember you pay to ride roller coasters. No charge for free turbulence.

            My retort, “Not sure if I agree with your opening sentence. I have over 25,000 hours (also an ex-meteorologist) and encountered severe turbulence about 8 to 10 times. As you know, severe turbulence is defined as being out of control, but the pilot regains control. Some pilots may be cool as a cucumber but not me. I have seen pilots unable to talk on the radios because of their heightened fear. But for an airline pilot, the scariest part of turbulence is making social media or the 6 o’clock news because the game of Farkle ended up all over the flight deck.”

            (Truth be told, I never heard of the game of Farkle, but I see it has to do with rolling the dice).

Here are some quotes that go along with my thinking from Robert Buck.

“Any pilot who says they’ve never been terrified in a cockpit or scrubbed a flight that “didn’t feel right” is a dirty liar.”

Everyone gets scared flying at some point. Little things start going wrong, weather starts moving in, or you get behind the aircraft for whatever reason. It happens.”

“The difference between a good pilot and a bad one is that a good pilot pushes past the fear, responds rationally and logically, and continues flying the plane. Then he grabs a drink landside when his knees stop clanking.”

“A bad pilot either stays so far away from danger that they never understand the capabilities of their aircraft, vastly overestimates their abilities, or panics when things go wrong. They don’t last long.”

“Any pilot who is not somewhat afraid of flying is not someone to be trusted in an aircraft. Having a healthy respect for everything that could possibly go wrong is essential for safe flying.

One of the biggest fears for an airline captain is making the news because of an incident. Without a doubt, it enters the equation during significant turbulence and only escalates the angst. Social media is now the new “six o’clock news,” and one doesn’t have to be reminded that almost every passenger has a smartphone, iPad, or some other recording device. And with on-board internet, one doesn’t have to be back on the ground to hear what transpired.

Published by pilotweatherwisdom

Airline Pilot/meteorologist/author

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