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Do pilots fear heights?

Up to 40 percent of Americans fear flying. It’s easily treated.

Fear of flying afflicts as much as 40 percent of the U.S. population. The nation’s armrest-grippers may be heartened to know that “aviophobia” is perfectly normal, and easily treated.

Only about 5 percent of Americans have aviophobia so severe that they cannot fly. The earthbound population rises with every new aviation horror story, like the Lufthansa Airbus A330 that went into free-fall over Tennessee on Wednesday after hitting severe turbulence. Several passengers landed in the hospital.

Many more people board airplanes with unease, suffering in silence as the craft lurches improbably into the air, swallowing curses when it hits “rough air,” digging nails into upholstery amid the controlled chaos of landing.

“Do they show it? No,” said Jonathan Bricker, a University of Washington psychologist who studies anxiety in air travel. “But they might have an extra drink. They might sleep more. They might not look out the window. And it’s not the whole flight. It’s takeoff. It’s landing. It’s turbulence.”

The full extent of aviophobia is one of psychology’s fuzzier statistics. One 2016 research paper stated its prevalence as a range “from 2.5 percent to as high as 40 percent.” The National Institute of Mental Health does not collect data on fear of flying.

A long-running poll by CBS News and YouGov found that, as of 2015, only 41 percent of Americans surveyed reported being “not at all afraid” of boarding an airplane. The share of Americans without fear of flying dipped to 38 percent after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, according to earlier Gallup polling.

Both surveys suggest that, even in the best times, nearly half of the American public harbors some fear of air travel.

Lisa Hauptner was fine on airplane flights until a moment in her late twenties, when suddenly she wasn’t.

“I reached a point where the anticipation of my next business trip resulted in an Amtrak from New York to Tampa,” she recalled. “It’s a long, horrible ride. When I got back, I realized I had to do something.”

Hauptner enrolled in a fear-of-flying program called SOAR, run by a former commercial pilot named Tom Bunn. It worked so well that Hauptner quit her finance job to help Bunn build the program.

The best aviophobia programs boast a success rate of 90 percent, said Barbara Rothbaum, a psychiatry professor at the Emory University medical school. Rothbaum has pioneered one of those programs, which uses virtual reality to replicate airplane flight — turbulence and all — to help patients conquer their fears.

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A virtual airplane “works just as well” as a real one, Rothbaum said, and it’s far more practical in an era when one does not simply walk into an airport.

Treating aviophobia starts with identifying its source. Researchers generally divide aviophobes into two camps. One group fears fiery death in a plane crash. The other fears confinement in the cabin, a form of claustrophobia. Some scholars add a third group, which doesn’t suffer claustrophobia per se but fears the onset of a panic attack while trapped in the plane.

For the small group of Americans who will not fly for love or money, aviophobia can cancel reunions, vex vacations and destroy careers.

“It gets in the way of your life,” said Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “If somebody has a phobia of flying, they may get a promotion and get offered millions of dollars, and they won’t take the promotion because they don’t want to fly.”

Fear of dying in a commercial air crash is, of course, utterly irrational. Two people, in all, have died in U.S. commercial airplane crashes since 2010, according to industry data. The nation’s last large-scale air disaster was Continental Connection Flight 3407, which stalled during landing maneuvers in 2009 and crashed into a house, killing all 49 on board.

Aviophobia feeds off of something called confirmation bias. The irrational brain scans the universe for any data that might confirm the illogical fear. Even reports of comparatively trivial harm, such as last Wednesday’s Lufthansa drama, feeds the fear.

“This news will confirm their thought that planes crash often,” Marques said. “They’re dismissing any other data.”

Successful treatment of aviophobia often involves exposure therapy. Participants face their fears, gradually and in a safe space, working their way back into the air.

Many years ago, aviophobes might have gathered in an airport and board parked airplanes over several meetings before taking a real flight, all in the confines of a class.

In the modern era of enhanced airport security, some programs have moved to virtual reality platforms, which can recreate the sensation of flight in a laboratory setting.

The SOAR program, launched in 1982, used to meet at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, N.Y. Today, the program offers coursework and counseling away from airports and aircraft.

How do pilots stay calm?

“First, you learn about the psychology of fear of flying,” Hauptner said. “The second part is about aviation,” how airplanes work and what keeps them aloft. “The third part is about learning to control the anxiety, and the end kind of puts it all together.”

Many aviophobes mistakenly think they can make their anxiety go away. The scary parts of airplane flights — takeoffs, landings and turbulence — all trigger the fight-or-flight response. The instinct is natural, and once triggered, it’s hard to turn off.

“People try to deep-breathe or to talk themselves out of it, instead of experiencing the physiology,” Marques said.

“What your body is doing on that plane is no different than what your body would be doing if you were face to face with a lion. The only difference is the plane experience, in most cases, is a false alarm, whereas the lion is a real threat.”

The better course, Marques said, is to recognize that sweaty palms and a thumping heart are normal, and then to remind yourself that you are still safer in an airplane cabin than you would be in a moving car or on a crosswalk.

Fear of flying seems to rise at moments when external forces, such as the 9/11 terror attacks or the COVID-19 pandemic, make airplane travel appear less safe.

Gallup polling in 2021 found that only 38 percent of Americans had taken a commercial flight in the past year, the lowest quotient in nearly two decades of polling. A year earlier, at the height of the pandemic, 52 percent of Americans told Gallup they were “not comfortable flying at all.”

Pandemics, plane crashes and terror attacks don’t create aviophobia, researchers say. But all of those things can activate and amplify the fear in people who already have it, “which is a lot of people,” said Bricker, the air travel psychologist.

Airlines know this. That is why the pilot comes on the intercom with a calm, reassuring voice, to explain why the seatbelt sign is on and to apologize for the “inconvenience” of bouncing around the cabin until it is turned off.

At such times, pilots use gentle words: turbulence becomes “bumps” or “rough air,” the seatbelt sign a mere “precaution.”

Bricker calls it “comfort language,” and it dates to the 1950s, when airplane flights were loud and turbulent and flight attendants “were nurses,” ministering to passengers who put the air-sickness bags to good use. Those days are gone, but the fear endures.

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“They take emotion out of the equation,” Bricker said of the nation’s pilots. “Emotion on a plane is contagious.”

It’s a Long Way Down, Isn’t It?

It’s a Long Way Down, Isn’t It?

Psst! Psst! Come here. Come a little bit closer. I’ve got something I want to ask you, and I don’t want anyone else to hear. Are you afraid of heights? It’s probably embarrassing to admit it, but if you’re like most other pilots, the answer is “Yes.”

According to Chaytor Mason, a retired professor of aviation psychology at the University of Southern California, the rate of acrophobia is upwards of 90% in some of the pilot groups he’s encountered. My own estimates indicate that the percentage of acrophobia in the general aviation pilot population is far, far higher than in the nonpilot population (where it is 6% to 10%). What’s going on here? Is it possible flying attracts only those poor souls who enjoy the torment of an altitude-anxiety love-hate relationship? Or does flying itself breed acrophobia? Let’s look a little further (not higher) for the answer.

Several theories of acrophobia exist. One theory suggests that fear of heights is a classically conditioned response. Another theory says simply hearing about the perils associated with heights is enough to spark a phobic response. A cognitive theory even suggests people are frightened by thoughts surrounding their inability to counter a perverse, irresistible urge to jump when near a precipice. All the above are interesting theories, but none adequately explains why the incidence of fear of sky is so high in those who fly. I’m not all that surprised at the lack of explanations that ring true, since most theories fail to consider a very important part of the pilot personality—our endless quest for total control of ourselves and our environment. Pilots are controllers. We like being in charge of ourselves, our environment, and preferably everything within about a thousand miles of our current location. This is the command personality. OK, that’s the polite term. The more control we have, the better we feel. So, what’s that got to do with fear of heights? Think about it for a second. Bud the Pilot flies along gripping a wheel or stick with one hand, a throttle with the other, and pushing rudder pedals (I hope) with both feet. Every available appendage is attached to a stick or pedal that makes the airplane do the pilot’s bidding. We command controllers to give us headings or weather information, extract briefings at the call of a radio from ground-bound FSS specialists, and have enough electronic toys within arm’s length to make us the envy of most teenage boys and submarine captains. Our elevation (you will pardon the expression if it makes you queasy) to king or queen of the universe can’t be too far off, and we like it that way. I am pilot, hear me roar.

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Take the same pilot, however, and stand him or her next to a 24th floor balcony and you’ve got yourself a nice little self-contained phobia fountain just gushing anxiety. It’s likely this person will have to get down on his hands and knees just to look over the precipice. Don’t laugh. You’d be surprised at the number of well known aviation personalities that nearly fall off their chair when watching a PBS special of how bridge spires are painted. At least they (and many of us) respond that way unless they are looking through a plastic windscreen while sitting strapped to an airplane seat, holding the controls of their flying machine. Take those things away and you have a helpless fish flopping on a boat deck. Here’s a possible explanation for this behavior, and you may need an explanation if you’ve done this test in a public place. According to current cognitive theory, acrophobia is related to the stimulation of a visual fantasy. When the phobic nears a precipice, he or she ceases normal thoughts of food, flying, and sex (in that order) and responds with an inner visual drama in which this normally in-command person stars. Acrophobics see themselves falling, and might even feel the physical sensations of tilting, sliding and being drawn over the edge. Called somatic imaging, it explains why some acrophobics report feeling dizzy or queasy in high places. To put it simply, pilots—being controlling types—don’t react well to thoughts of falling. It’s the ultimate loss of control for them. In support of this theory, feed a willing aviator a good stiff alcoholic drink (there will be no shortage of volunteers for this activity), wait 20 minutes and he’ll easily approach the balcony, if not taunt his audience with threats of a «railing walk.» OK, maybe not a walk on the railing but at least his acrophobia will diminish to a noticeable degree. Why? Alcohol does its best work on the neocortex, which is the part of your noodle that helps you imagine things (such as imagining how goofy you might be acting at the moment). If you can’t imagine yourself falling off the balcony you won’t feel as fearful of heights. No, silly you. I’m not suggesting you drink to solve your acrophobic issues. I’m just stating a scientific fact. So, why is the rate of acrophobia so much higher in the pilot population? Perhaps a pilot’s highly developed skill at visualization is the reason. After all, our visualization circuits are usually buzzing with comparisons between estimated and actual trajectories, the location of traffic, and other visually demanding activities. Is it any wonder aviators are so good at mentally projecting themselves into these imagined scenarios of falling? Why don’t pilots report the same queasy, sliding, falling feeling when looking out the aircraft window? Perhaps familiarity with their aircraft and the environment in which they fly minimizes their acrophobic response. According to Mason, television news helicopter pilots (who are accustomed to low altitudes) sometimes report acrophobic feelings when flying cross country at high altitudes like 7,000 or 8,000 feet. For these pilots, a temporary change in the environment manifests their acrophobia (besides, if you see a helicopter at 8,000 feet it probably means the collective got stuck). Coupling environmental familiarity with the ability to control that environment seems to minimize a pilot’s acrophobic response. Translation please? OK, if you want to become more comfortable at higher altitudes, then fly at higher altitudes, but do so incrementally. If you’ve spent six months flying circuits in the pattern with students, you might not want to jump into a Cessna P210 and head for 23,000 feet all at once. But if you do, just realize that you might come face to face with your neocortex. Psst! Psst! Come close again. Can you see how the high incidence of acrophobia in aviators might result from a combination of pilot personality and an active visual imagination? Are you a little relieved that you’re not the only pilot who experiences some degree of acrophobia? Take my word for it, you’re not. Now get down off that chair before you fall down and hurt yourself.
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