Overcoming stress and fear is one of the first and most important steps in becoming a successful pilot. If the first couple lessons are not handled very carefully, a CFI can easily frighten an already scared learner. This leads directly to a loss of motivation -“I thought this was fun!”- and quitting (80% drop out rate). Extreme fear puts the human brain into “fight or flight” mode and prevents any learning. And for the already trained pilot, extreme fear, beyond the level of training and comfort, prevents effective survival action as happens during “startle.” One of the most critical components of basic training in all branches of the military is fear inoculation (the “warrior’s edge”). 80% of soldiers in combat are not effectively firing their weapons.
As we build skills during aviation education, greater understanding and confidence overcome initial (very normal) fear and create a “comfort zone” for normal, effective flight operations. Skill and confidence are both essential to safe, successful flying. This comfort allows perception of “true risk; “the wings actually seldom fall off and there is inherent stability in normal flight.” Proficiency and confidence with all the basic flight maneuvers are then followed in training by a careful exposure to emergencies (often the “scary stuff” for learners). Pilots need to be comfortable in this wider flight envelope to be safe over time. All pilots also need to maintain their proficiency and fear inoculation over time (proficiency training). Extending the flight envelope even further than the FAA minimums (with dual instructor assistance) is highly recommended for all part 91 pilots (a greater margin of safety). This can also be additional ratings or flying more demanding maneuvers within the capacity of your aircraft. The FAA has mandated this training for airline pilots so it is greatly encouraged for non-professionals as well.
As defined by Dave Grossman in another of his books, On Combat, stress inoculation is a process by which prior success under stressful conditions acclimatizes you to similar situations and promotes future success.
“Normalization of deviance” is the further (and unsafe) development of inappropriate comfort in the face of even greater risk and/or non-standard procedures. Just watch some YouTubes of extreme sports to see “normalizing” in action; the most bizarre and risky behaviors can become familiar and comfortable despite the statistical risk factors.
Aviation has a very well established catalog of what is normal, what is emergency and what is considered dangerous. To some degree this depends on the interactions of the experience and skill variables in the P – A- V – E checklist (Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment, and External pressures). A very experienced pilot new to an airframe in a challenging environment should only accept very minimal challenges (skill in one area does not automatically transfer to another – unfortunately!) The key to all safety is knowing where to to draw that bright red limitation line, and only carefully extend your minimums further. Good dual instruction is the “water wings” that supply safety while a pilot explores new challenges.
The classic FAA depiction of skills vs the demands of the task should always be kept in mind by every safety-conscious pilot. A good question to continuously ask: “is the activity I am attempting within my pilot skill level or is this operation depending on luck?” I personally think most pilots “get away” with many more operations than their abilities would permit (luck). Murphy’s law actually offers great forgiveness (and I confess I have benefitted from this).
Practicing the “hard stuff” is a good tonic for every pilot. It’s why professional pilots head back to the schoolhouse every 6 months. Challenge restores our skills and confidence. But there are also many fun opportunities available that provide challenge and improve skills; learning gliders of seaplanes? Fly safely out there (and often)!
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