For the longest time, I thought I had a very strange relationship with fear when it came to airplanes. Those who watch the product of my high-altitude flying in an aircraft that is of debatable suitability tend to exclaim that I must be some sort of fearless cowboy, incapable of noticing that impending doom lies around each corner. I tend to ignore those exclamations, as I am intimately aware of the neurosis that goes on in my mind before, during, and after each flight, and it tends to be the opposite of the cowboy mantra. I began to ask myself recently if my sensitivity to fear was getting worse.
As I sat down to address the concept of fear, it came to me that my view of fear is based on my perception of risk, which I can compare rather precisely. In a rather unusual chain of events, the PA-11 that I do most of my flying in was the aircraft in which I soloed and obtained my private certificate, 21 and 22 years ago respectively. As I have traveled the world with it, I can compare my approach and feelings about aviation in a rather controlled introspective study, as it’s the same exact airplane.
When I was a teenager, my grandfather had just restored the airplane, inclusive of obtaining an overhauled Continental O-200 engine, with all accessories at zero time. Those who saw the airplane exclaimed at its craftsmanship, often offering my father unsolicited purchase prices. That led me to believe that the machine was perfect, and absent something “crazy” like a connecting rod going through a piston wall, “nothing was going to happen.” And besides, what if it did? “We train for it, just land it in a field.” And if the plane gets damaged? “It’s insured.” Shrug.
One of the joys of being a teenager is the ability to not fully process the consequences of one’s decisions, so in that case, ignorance was truly bliss.
After an unwelcome break from aviation for eight years, I began flying in earnest in my late 20s, and I had to revisit fear again. I wasn’t worried about the ability to pilot the aircraft, as I had that ingrained into me since I was a kid. I was beginning to question the perfection of the airplane, as it was now fifteen years from its restoration, and was showing some signs of age, partially from sitting and partially from having some hundreds of hours on it. There is also the thought process, not of “its insured,” but “is the insurance enough for third-party damages?” Gone was the idea that I’d just “land it in a field.” Disability and health insurance, deductibles…..the teenage brain was no longer active, and now a responsible adult had to think these things through, inclusive of long-term consequences to a flight having gone wrong.
So how does one rationalize fear and risk? I developed a fetish that Cubs were basically an indestructible airplane that could scud run, short-field takeoff, short-field land, land in snow and mud, avoid busy airspace, fly around high peaks safely, land on the runway sideways in extreme wind….you name it, if a thought came into my mind that represented aeronautical danger, I could rationalize it away by noting some characteristic as to why the Cub wasn’t going to kill me, whereas a spam can would. In retrospect, I went through this mental exercise as I simply couldn’t accept that the airplane could crash with me in it.
That was a fine way to avoid thinking about death, until it almost killed me with a near swipe into a fence in Nebraska some years ago. After a long succession of events, including a blown weather forecast, extremely strong winds, sparse airports, and a furious crosswind in western Nebraska with no alternates in fuel range….well, suffice it to say that there is indeed a limit to how much crosswind the Cub can handle. After a near dance with a fence and a few other things, I landed on the airport lawn into the wind and now had a new problem: I became afraid of crosswinds.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that this generic fear was stupid. Where I could have used fear would have been a fear about the fence before nearly flying into the fence. I now did not need a fear of all crosswinds, even if moderate. I had a long and storied history of developing skill landing in strong winds, and the reality of my feelings was not rational. Fear is a fantastic tool to fuel prevention; it does nothing when someone is edgy and panicky trying to fly a plane, as the mind punishes the pilot that he or she “should not be in this situation,” when the most pressing thing is to get out of said situation. Eventually, I slapped myself out of being afraid of every puff of wind, refined my fuel alternate planning, and put vortex generators on, so I truly can land across the runway if it’s that bad. I needed to later that year….twice.
Now that brings to the next phase of life. As middle-age approaches and my hours are getting higher, I find myself wondering what I have missed as I cannot believe that I have crossed into the threshold of immunity from accidents. After reading accident reports and talking to pilots about actual or near accidents…the set of keys, pencil, and coffee mug that jammed the controls on landing….the power line impact with a Super Cub…. I can’t tell if I prefer ignorance or if I do want to know about the multitude of things that I haven’t been thinking about. Both of them are challenging subjects to entertain. How old is that copper fuel line? Wasn’t there a pilot I talked to where his cracked and he landed in a warehouse? And those shock cords…they were installed when I was in eighth grade…shouldn’t they be replaced? Yet the reality is that one mechanic says to replace them whereas the mechanic I paid to do it wondered why I am messing with them as they are “just fine.”
As hours climb in an airplane, so does experience in piloting and decision-making, which reduces risk. However, each hour flown is another hour where something could go wrong, either mechanically or in another context, and I wonder where these dueling forces will come to equilibrium. Many times coming in for a landing, after having flown around prodigiously high glaciated peaks, I have two feelings running in my mind: satisfaction that I am back near base where things should be safer and the voice in my head that says “don’t let this landing be the one.” Just because it’s a sunny day and a successful jaunt into the Alps is coming near to a close doesn’t mean I won’t join the ranks of high-time pilots doing incredibly stupid things, earning their epitaph in a fatal accident study published in a magazine.
I would like to say that risk is ever-present, being the soulless probability of an incident, whereas fear is our response to it, and the two will always continue to be present. While I could make a textbook actuarial case for that statement, I think the relationship between the two is far more dynamic. While mechanical failure can seem to be an “act of God,” it is also the result of the sum of maintenance decisions made for the life of the airplane, mixed with uncontrollable chance. Appropriate fear, which prevents stupidity, lowers risk. Excess fear, which scrambles the mind of a scared pilot, increases risk. Experience reduces risk, mostly, whereas each additional hour in an airplane is another chance for an accident.
I think the takeaway is that fear and risk are a part of flying, are at dynamic equilibrium, and inevitably change during the life of a pilot. It would be safe to say that there is no final destination with safety and aeronautical decision-making, as humans are emotional beings, and a healthy relationship with available wisdom in light of flights taken is always changing. I suppose I shall continue to look at each nut and bolt on the airplane as a potential fatal encounter, while blissfully flying above glaciated terrain, with not a care in the world due to the beauty of it all.
Here are visuals of things that make me blissfully serene, yet ironically contain a fair amount of risk depending on who is looking at it. Transatlantic ferry pilots shudder looking at these, and I shudder even thinking about leaving gliding distance to shore.
Above the clouds, in snowy mountains, is the greatest escape on planet earth. Completely disconnected from civil society. An alternate airport was over the hill without overcast, and an orographically-induced gap was behind me.
In a close second is a sea of glaciers at 12,000 feet.
A serrated knife blade of rock jutting into the sky (look and you’ll see one in the foreground) is quite satisfying.
It took a couple of years of writing and I have finally completed book #22: The 300 Hour Summer: Flying the Rockies in a Piper Cub. It is a travelogue of my experiences flying the Cub based in Wyoming a distance of the circumference of the earth in one long summer. The Nebraska incident, among other things, gets greater detail.