The follwing are a low-time bush pilot’s thoughts about her irrational side… and when her greatest phobia somehow found its way into the cockpit. 

I recently read an online article titled “I Hate to Admit it, but Women Pilots Make Me Nervous.”  The piece was written and published for a periodical in the United Kingdom, and penned by a woman. And no, it was not from the 1970s: The date on the article was August 16, 2017. In it, the author acknowledges that her viewpoint is inflammatory and outdated, and apologizes for “…being an antiquated old sexist.” She goes on to list her own instabilities, and attributes them to her gender, expressing concern that a female pilot would also fall prey to such emotional vagaries. For example, she writes, “…I become a terrible driver at certain times of the month.  Might my pilot be flying when she’s pre-menstrual? Arguing with our teenagers can leave me distracted and upset for days. Could she be prone to getting flustered?”

Of course, we, as pilots, know this cannot be true. And, as a fellow female, I have never experienced the symptoms she is describing. There is no place for fluster in a cockpit, regardless of age, sex, outside stressors, and pretty much everything else. Part of being a pilot means maintaining a cool, calm, collected demeanor, especially in times of crisis. It means constant mindfulness, hyper-aware vigilance, and logical, succinct decision making. Though all the pilots I know display these traits on the job, I doubt if any of them are wholly unshakable. We may keep it together in the cockpit, but perhaps we allow unfiltered emotion and irrationality into other aspects of our lives.

I for one, am not unshakable. I was born an artist, with a free, impulsive spirit and not what you’d call a linear way of thinking. Over the decades, I have engineered a different personality inside of my mind: the pilot. I have grown to respect and admire this person: the cool, calm, competent decision maker. The PIC. And the PIC is unshakable in the cockpit (as a few crises have determined). However, the irrational side still exists, and it needs an outlet.

There is a large, black beetle that inhabits the boreal forests of my Alaskan home. And I am absolutely terrified of them. They have been my bane since childhood. Attracted to heat, they make for my dark hair as it warms in the sun. To my dismay, there seems to be a large population on our ramp. I learned to bribe the rampers with tip money to swat the beetles away from my safety briefings so my phobia would not become apparent to my passengers. My co-workers find this behavior hilarious, and query me about it often. In trying to explain it, I say that it helps me be a PIC…  because I allow this irrationality an outlet. I compartmentalize myself, keeping the pilot separate from the person that runs screaming from the beetles. It’s a harmless way to be a flustered person, I tell them. And the two shall never meet.

Last year, while on short final, my passenger started swatting at his neck. And swatted a big, fat, black beetle right onto my leg. It stuck there, looking up at me with its awful pincers and its unimaginable horns. And I realized that my phobia had somehow found its way into the cockpit. The next few seconds seemed to stretch out into eternity as the two sides of my personality faced off. The PIC won, of course, flicking the beetle down by the rudders and landing the Beaver quite nicely (despite the weird wind). My passenger never knew that he’d almost changed the outcome of the flight. However, as I was putting the  cap back on after fueling, I heard a loud “brrrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzzppp.” And there a beetle was, stuck to the airplane by the filler neck. And the PIC in me just shrugged her shoulders as the flustered person ran screaming for the hangar.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.