It is often and truthfully said that a pilot’s certificate is but a license to learn. What is not as frequently said is that it is also a license to scare oneself to death, or nearly so (hopefully no worse than that).
Scaring yourself can come in almost any form, and at any time. Common areas of trouble include high (or high to you) crosswinds, VMC to IMC, short fields, obstacles on takeoff, low fuel, low visibility (which might just be haze), ice, or thunderstorms.
I have had one experience in flight that truly terrified me, and it occurred about 10 years ago. On a flight from Cincinnati to Milwaukee (at night, no less), the weather turned out to be far worse than expected. We had expected to need to deviate around some thunderstorms. What we did not expect was for more than one low-pressure system to come together at the same time (a la the book and movie The Perfect Storm). The result was a 20-minute ride through severe and extreme turbulence that was so bad that we could not maintain altitude or heading. At times, we couldn’t even tune the radios because we couldn’t see the screens. The amazing thing was that we did not experience a lightning strike. When we came out of the weather, the ride was so smooth and the skies so clear it was surreal.
That experience has defined my approach to flying in or near weather ever since, especially convective weather, and especially at night. When we landed, my shirt was soaked and my arms were sore from gripping the yoke so hard. I could very easily have let the experience prevent me from flying for a while, but as the old saying goes, I had to get back on the horse. Further, I also recognized two important factors: the weather had been changing all day, and the severity of the changes was not predicted by anyone, so this was not the fault of any one person or organization—two planes had flown the same course ahead of me just a few minutes before, with nowhere near the adventure we had. Second, this was a rare event, not one that occurs every day that I just messed up.
Pilots sometimes make mistakes that they are forced to learn from, and sometimes they learn from unique experiences, both positive and negative. Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it does not need to be a dream killer. In my case, I had a heart-to-heart with myself, as well as my crew and other pilots I trust. I remain firm in my conviction that our experience that night was unpredictable, and it was an anomaly. But I also hold on to my determination that such an event will never happen to me again. I may deviate more than necessary and burn more fuel than needed, but some experiences–no matter how worthy–simply don’t need to be repeated.