Managing “Extreme Fear” (Startle/Lock-Up)

We have seen some recent accidents where “student lock-up” is a strongly suggested causal factor. This fear reaction is common in flight training; 65% of SAFE CFIs surveyed reported forcibly taking the controls from their panicked learner . “Lock-up” is a result of “extreme fear” which puts the brain directly into the “fight or flight” mode. This neurological state is identical to the “startle response” that any pilot may encounter with a surprise upset incident. “Startle” is a major cause of Loss of Control Inflight (the #1 pilot killer).

Obviously we all need to understand (and avoid) this built-in reaction to extreme fear (both dual and solo) for greater safety. Here are several SAFEblogs dealing with this topic (all hyperlinked). As a CFI it is essential to avoid frightening our learner. Not only is their a distinct danger of lock-up, but no learning is happening if your client is severely fearful. For experienced pilots, self-calming techniques are an essential safety resource. Here is a typical NTSB (non-conclusive) dual lock-up accident.


For deeper understanding of this subject, I recommend this book by Jeff Wise. BTW, many important resources for pilots are not specifically in the aviation ecosystem. Learning more about human psychology and basic educational techniques are a huge benefit for every pilot and educator. Review the books and courses (free) in our SAFE public resource center and on the SAFE Toolkit App; #flySAFE!

Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Author: David St. George

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

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