Control Your “Startle Response” (The DIY Lobotomy)

We humans become totally stupid – inducing a “do it yourself lobotomy”-  when we experience threat or panic.  We all have “choked” during a test or performance and perhaps even experienced “startle” in an airplane. We suddenly become a passenger and not a pilot-in-command. Here are some proven techniques to control this natural phenomenon and increase your safety in flight. You’ll do better on your flight test and be ready if you encounter stress in flight (that never happens!)

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This physiological response to threat is a 200,000-year-old evolved reaction that puts our body in a streamlined binary mode to survive a terrestrial emergency; run! When a saber tooth tiger attacks there is no need for a nuanced analysis of the color of their spots. To survive we need to trim down superfluous brain functions and flee. That ancient software runs in our brains when we experience panic in a plane; we get stupid. We “choke” and lose all useful brainpower.  For pilots, this inappropriate adaptation causes “startle” and often precedes the serious, and often fatal, loss of control accidents. The important point is that this natural response to startle or panic is controllable and to some degree reversible, with training.

And though panic in its extreme form of “startle” can cause Loss of Control, there are many lesser levels of anxiety and partial incapacitation that are disabling and hinder performance. At this lesser intensity, pilots experience diminished cognitive capability and make bad decisions. I see a nascent form of this panic as a flight instructor – or especially as a DPE. The joke is that every applicant is *already* experiencing an emergency when they come for a flight test.  Extreme nervousness causes confusion and physical symptoms like rapid breathing and loss of color. These pilots have reached the edge of their capabilities and need a coping strategy. Nervousness and panic in a plane will cause immediate performance deterioration and often pilots defer control to the CFI or DPE (if there is one). Fortunately, there are proven methods to neutralize nervousness; skill-building and “self-calming” are two useful strategies available to all pilots.

Skill-building is a way to “move the goalposts” by providing ever-increasing ability through training. This method tries to ensure that the demands of a task will never exceed the capability of the pilot. Deeper (and current) training in exotic flight configurations is an attempt to inoculate the pilot from LOC-I. This is represented by the Upset Prevention and Recovery Training courses. They take a pilot into the dark corners of the flight envelope and train appropriate responses and develop some level of familiarity. Unfortunately, there is always a limit to this solution in extreme circumstances.

Another solution is mastering physiological control methods (self-calming) to control the panic response. Have you ever noticed Olympic athletes breathing and focusing before their performances? Because our capabilities diminish rapidly with panic and nervousness, optimal performance requires overcoming the ancient physiological responses in the body to stress. I personally teach any pilot who expresses an interest some simple and effective “self-calming.” This involves controlled rhythmic breathing (“relaxation response“) and a bit of cognitive-behavioral therapy (positive self-talk). These techniques increase a pilot’s tolerance by teaching recognition and control of the stress and impending panic. Within limits this allows a pilot to maintain or re-establish control of themselves and the plane in a high-stress situation or startle occurrence.

Once a pilot is (literally) breathing again, they potentially can start “thinking through” the disabling challenges they face and resolve the threat (within reasonable limits). One thing is for sure, every pilot *will* at some point “get nervous” and approach panic in their flying career; self-calming is an important tool. At the deepest level, our physiology drives these emotional reactions. Either “choking” during an evaluation or performance or “startle” in flying can create real problems; we are not functioning optinally. “Self-calming” techniques are highly useful in public life too. Here is an interesting video to get you started on emotional control. All these strategies hinge on the “relaxation response” and are based on the polyvagal theory. (Deeper analysis here)

Employing skill-building and calming together has the synergistic effect of improving pilot confidence and capability while simultaneously reducing stress and anxiety. This is an inoculation for every pilot from LOC-I. Frequent and challenging training (SAFE Extended Envelope Training) builds more confident pilots with a greater margin from startle and panic. Fly safely (and often).


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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

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