“Fear/Stress Inoculation” For Pilots

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.

“I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.” – Chuck Yeager

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)!

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.

6 thoughts on ““Fear/Stress Inoculation” For Pilots”

  1. I place a great deal of importance on the first several hours of duel given; so much so that I rank the first hour as important enough that it sets the tone for everything that follows.
    Taken on average, a new student brings a lot of baggage to the table when they arrive for dual instruction. Not everyone is gung ho and fearless. It is incumbent on every good CFI to use that first hour of dual not only for “familiarization of flight controls” but as an opportunity to “feel out” the student and determine where the student is emotionally and mentally as that relates to the flight environment.
    Instructors should be aware that students can be quite “original” when it comes to hiding fear from an instructor. This is natural and as long as instructors are aware and alert it should not be a serious problem.
    Every effort should be made during that first hour of dual to relax the student with the main objective being to find the student leaving the aircraft after the flight in a heightened state of confidence and the feeling that learning to fly is NOT beyond their capability, nor is flying an endeavor justifying an element of fear.
    I can’t begin to tell you how many students have had their progress hindered by inefficient flight instruction during the first hours of dual. CFI’s who don’t set the right emotional state-of-mind for a student at the very beginning can and most likely will find their student’s progress less than optimum. It could actually be serious enough that it causes a carryover into the post licencing period of insecurity that in turn could result in a bad decision making process.
    Bottom line…………..Take the time to get to know each student individually, and carry that on into that first all important hour of dual.
    Dudley Henriques

    1. *AND* who usually flies those very first (most important) lessons? You got it; the most inexperienced (brand new) CFIs! Our current system is totally backwards and dysfunctional!

      1. Thus the exact reason I posted my comment. One can only do what one can to get the word out to the new CFI’s. I couldn’t agree more that the system is flawed. Actually it’s been flawed for many years; I know since I became an instructor anyway. The main problem has always been the role of the CFI within the system. Both financially and as relates to responsibility, the role of the flight instructor has been misused and mishandled by both the instructors in many cases and the industry. This has translated into how flight instructors view their own position in the industry……..that being in too many cases as “second class citizens” being used simply as a tool to keep the student traffic flowing and as “necessary stepping stones” to better and higher things on up the aviation ladder.
        Things have improved somewhat since I retired but there is still a LONG way to go before the role and the importance of the flight instructor reaches anywhere near where it should be in professional aviation.
        Dudley Henriques

  2. Good article. I often practice the Commercial maneuvers. When I asked my favorite CFI to ride along and critique, he was curious as to why I wanted to do this as I had recently completed my flight review. I told him I simply like to do something to sharpen my skills on almost every flight.

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