Managing Student Fear For Effective Learning

As pilots, we all will eventually have to face the incapacitating effects of fear. This will either come during new flight experiences while training (student lock-up) or when facing a shocking and unexpected emergency while flying (e.g.  US Airways Flight 1549 or Neil Williams’ amazing inflight recovery). The startle response has received lots of recent notoriety, (and several previous blogs) but the fear new students experience during initial training, is seldom acknowledged and the “elephant in the room” we need to examine – and fix! We have had several recent dual accidents that look like student lock-up. Ultimately, our goal as educators should be to develop resilience in our learners: “a set of processes that enables good outcomes in spite of serious threats.” In aviation, like all high-performance operations, “stuff happens,” and pilots need to react with flexibility utilizing their resources not with “fear and freeze.”

Resilience is the ability to persist in the face of challenges and to bounceback from adversity. There are a number of evidence-based protective factors that contribute to resilience: optimism, effective problem solving, faith, sense of meaning, self-efficacy, flexibility, impulse control, empathy, close relationships, and spirituality, among others (Masten & Reed,2002).

Fear is most often regarded as a “weakness” or just a passing problem in flight training rather than a natural and common reaction. Consequently, though fear may be mentioned in passing during initial training, it is seldom addressed directly. The new pilot-in-training is sweating and thinking to themselves, “this is scary, I might die here…” while the CFI is busy describing the nuances of control usage. The student is often learning nothing as a result – their whole reality is fear.

Additionally, a scared student pilot feels unique and isolated in their suffering since every accomplished pilot in the room seems fine – “is it only me?” Adjustments to fear take time and incremental exposure; fear is a common and natural response to suddenly being a mile up in the air in a tiny aluminum tube. Unacknowledged fear may be a big part of our 80% drop-out rate during initial training. Every military spends months adjusting and tuning their recruits to accommodate fear; they know it disables any useful human performance.

People in the grip of true terror can feel utterly hijacked. Soldiers throw down their guns and run away. Pilots lose control and crash their planes. In such cases the grip of fear feels like possession by some implacable alien force. Indeed, the word “panic” comes from the Greek god Pan, whom the classical Greeks believed could overtake travelers in lonely spots and send them suddenly running in blind terror. To the ancient mind, possession by a malign deity seemed the only plausible explanation for such behavior.

Incapacitating fear is a natural biochemical “fact of life” built into our biology for survival over thousands of years of evolution. Fully formed, this natural reaction is called the startle response. In aviation, either during training or in emergency experiences, the results are incapacitating; fight, flight or freeze. Fear and “lock-up” (failure to process and perform correctly) are an integral part of most Loss of Control accidents and most people understand startle. But panic is an on/off reaction not analog.  We have to avoid triggering this biochemical hijack of your higher brain functions because once that sets in, the higher cortical functions shut down and we descend  into “survival mode.”

Panic and fear can trigger very rapidly during initial training from even a little bump or inappropriate demonstration; it can be a whole new (scary) world for a beginner. In the training environment, panic means no learning, no useful higher-level problem solving for complex situations – your student is processing with only their “reptilian brain” (help!) How do we stay calm in the face of scary or startling encounters and develop resilience? The human eventually adjusts to any risk with exposure over time. This can be a great thing for high-level performance and resilience but this is the same process that can generate complacency and “normalization of deviance.

The military spends lots of time and money conditioning its soldiers to adapt to scary and challenging environments (e.g. combat) attempting to “train out” the natural human reaction to chaos and danger. Despite this extensive training, >50% of soldiers in combat are incapacitated by fear and not even firing their weapons (much less achieving any accurate effect). The latest efforts involve full force “emotional mastery training” for all army recruits (and even Marines are learning to meditate). Fear research is big and DARPA is (of course) even experimenting with implanting computer chips to help with this problem (in case you thought Jason Bourne was a stretch).

the troops who went through a month long training regimen that included daily practice in mindful breathing and focus techniques were better able to discern key information under chaotic circumstances and experienced increases in working memory function. The soldiers also reported making fewer cognitive errors than service members who did not use mindfulness.

Initial mastery during flight training involves understanding and accepting the real (rather than perceived) risks, and incrementally mastering the fear (emotional/biochemical) as the environment becomes more comfortable and acceptable. This requires overwriting the initial (natural) caution with cognitive understanding and physical mastery. The CFI has to be an understanding coach and carefully monitor every student for fear to create the appropriate pace of exposure and adaptation. This comes from creating an open, honest learning environment with good communication. Soon enough, the personal satisfaction of progress (mastery) ameliorates the aversion and provides a neurological reward for the learner. This is called incremental masteryThis progress can be quickly ruined by an inappropriate fear-inducing demonstration – “watch this” or some startling random occurrence. The savvy CFI has to control the “fear level” carefully to make progress. And “time off” requires a step back and a slower pace.

During every step up the ladder your student takes, some elements “caution” and fear are conditioned out as they understand and achieve control of an initially scary situation. If you jump too quickly into a scary situation they do not understand, fear is the perfectly natural reaction. Every savvy educator must carefully scan and request continuous feedback (especially in the early lessons) to make sure the pilot in training is happy (and encourage them to “self-interrogate” to assess their own status). Once you carefully achieve 3-4 hours of solid, enjoyable learning, the initial fear will diminish and be replaced with smiles and high fives. But introducing stalls too abruptly on the third sortie, when everything is still chaotic and confusing is a sure recipe to lose a learner. Cue off your learner’s comfort level here, not a predetermined schedule.

Even if you overcome fear during early training, you might encounter it later when the engine goes quiet some dark night over the mountains. I teach “self-calming” techniques to all my pilots because if you fly long enough, you will eventually encounter the scary dark corner of a real emergency. Even Sullenberger, with 20K+ hours and 50 years flying, clearly said his first and biggest challenge in US Airways Flight 1549 was pushing back the overwhelming fear and adrenaline to calm down and “get to work.” People who can master fear can perform amazing feats. More remarkable than Sully was aerobatic pilot Neil Williams, close to exhaustion, who folded up a wing on his Zlin in competition, but managed to fly it upside down to the airfield and land unharmed.

Something extraordinary must have been going on in his brain. Some mechanism in his psychological tool kit must have somehow protected him from panic and perhaps even given him an extra dose of mental power to get him through the crisis. Whatever he possessed, it was a rare talent. Rare, but not unique. The annals of human achievement are peppered with stories of people who managed to survive lethal danger by thinking on their feet. How do they do it? What makes them different? And, most importantly, what can the rest of us learn from them?

Read more about self-calming and controlling fear in an emergency in these previous blogs – fly safe out there (and often!)

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Author: David St. George

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