Do you get anxious in the cockpit? You aren’t alone. Even experienced pilots feel uncomfortable at times.
It’s completely normal for new pilots to get anxious in the aircraft. But what if you aren’t a student pilot? What then? We have no excuse now right? Not exactly. Anxiety can cripple experienced pilots. Luckily, there are things pilots can do to combat anxiety.
First and foremost, give yourself a break. Be nice to yourself. You are doing something humans weren’t supposed to do! Anxiety is normal at every level of your aviation career.
Therefore, quit thinking it shouldn’t exist. It does. Once you can acknowledge it, you can move on and begin to manage and anticipate the anxiety.
This article will cover the different types of anxiety and the things you can do to mitigate the effects. Not all of these suggestions will apply to every pilot, but in general most will find it useful.
Fly four days in a row.
By the end of the four days, you will feel like a million bucks. You’ll finally understand what it feels like to be comfortable in the aircraft.
Students who nickel-and-dime their aviation training will feel perpetually anxious and overwhelmed. The military understands this and so do the airlines. Granted they have the money and their student’s attention, but they also do it because it works. Consistent practice is a timeless and proven method for proficiency.
If you want to know what it’s like to feel calm in the aircraft, fly multiple days in a row. It’s the only way to capture that feeling.
However, flying four days in a row won’t solve for another cause of anxiety: currency. While flying several days in succession will help you feel in control, it won’t do you any good if you don’t fly again for another month.
Where does the anxiety come from?
Let’s debunk the myth that experienced pilots don’t get anxious. What a ridiculous notion. It’s not your hour level that creates anxiety in the aircraft, it’s lack of currency. I have over three thousand hours in both airplanes and helicopters. I’ve flown in combat, single pilot and for a major airline. But, who cares!
Take me out of the cockpit for a week I’m okay but two weeks later it takes a second to find the right switch. Three weeks and I start to fumble radio calls. A month and I have to sit in the cockpit for several seconds longer than normal and review the start procedure before I throw switches. I’m sure you can relate if you are a professional pilot. Now imagine if you only fly a couple of times a month!
It’s currency in the specific aircraft which reduces anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, experience is important. But, experience only reduces the amount of time it takes to feel comfortable after a break.
The National Transportation and Safety Board understands this phenomenon well. The NTSB lists the number of hours accident pilots have in the aircraft they crashed. Have you noticed high time pilots usually crash aircraft they haven’t flown much?
So again, your hour level doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a lot of experience and currency in that particular aircraft.
But, what’s the solution to the currency problem?
I have two recommendations takem directly from Army flight regulations: if you go more than 60 days without flying, your next flight needs to be with an instructor pilot. The airlines let you go 90 days before you have to go back to the simulator, but I prefer the Army’s regulation:
60 days no flying=proficiency check.
Yeah, I know, it’s expensive to hire an instructor, but so is crashing an airplane.
In addition to a currency standard, you should also set a six month and yearly hour requirement for yourself.
The Army mandates around 48-55 hours every 6 months for proficiency. These numbers are barely enough to make you feel comfortable, but you will at least stay proficient. You should be able to keep your anxiety levels in check flying 50 hours every six months.
Also, if you have gone more than 30 days you should consider your “risk level” to be substantially higher.
Make sure you aren’t doing anything difficult on that first flight like a night instrument flight in marginal conditions. It’s a recipe for anxiety.
Fly with a buddy.
A lot of pilots have neither the time nor the resources to fly consistently and often. Therefore, the only reasonable solution is to fly with an experienced co-pilot.
It doesn’t have to be an instructor pilot.
Even someone who isn’t a pilot but who is trained to help monitor instruments can help.
Flying with another pilot is a phenomenal way to alleviate stress and anxiety. Two is always better than one in the aircraft!
It’s incredibly helpful to have someone double-check your work and catch those radio calls you missed.
Let’s face it: even experienced aviators will get the willies flying alone when they have spent their career flying with a crew (like me). I couldn’t imagine flying alone in IFR conditions in busy airspace, but I would get used to it if I did it all the time. If you try and do single pilot IFR occasionally, no wonder you are anxious!
Aggressively shore up your weaknesses.
Sometimes even experienced pilots who fly a lot and fly the same airplane still experience anxiety.
For those situations, pilots will need to dig much deeper to find the problem. Was there one specific situation that scared you and now you can hardly climb into the aircraft? Or do you just have a general feeling of anxiety all the time? Or is it only in certain situations like at night in the clouds?
This can happen and is more common than you may think. One solution is to avoid whatever scared you in the first place. However, I only recommend this approach when what you did was extremely stupid and you shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place.
I’m guessing if you’re reading this article, you’ve passed the point of doing stupid “watch this!” type of shenanigans. So, in general, this is an inferior option.
You’ll never get better and tackle your anxiety by avoiding that which made you scared.
It’s better to analyze that particular flight and pick out the weaknesses which caused you to get into that situation. Then ask: “how am I going to avoid this in the future?” Ask yourself, “what went well and what didn’t go well?”
Then take it a step further and seek out additional training.
Speaking of training. Have you done upset recovery training yet? No? Do everything in your power to seek out this training.
Upset recovery training was the best aviation training I’ve ever done in my life.
You’ll come away knowing you can control the aircraft in any situation, but more importantly, you’ll never get yourself into a situation requiring upset recovery. Yes, it’s expensive but well worth it!
Upset recover training, spin taining and aerobatic flight is a phenomenal way to reduce anxiety.
Finally, when all else fails, seek out professional help.
Marketing guru and thought leader Seth Godin highly recommends cognitive behavioral therapy which is extremely helpful for anxiety.
Average performers scoff at the idea of seeking help. They give excuses like “it’s too expensive,” or “it isn’t worth it.”
But high-income earners and high performers always seek help. They get personal fitness trainers, they hire life coaches, they read self-improvement books and they seek help when life gets stressful.
If you think you can tackle it yourself then get used to a lifetime of anxiety and stress in the cockpit. Sometimes we can’t power through a problem.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great solution.
It may be you are susceptible to anxiety in general. Get help!
To wrap it all up:
The best way to rid yourself of anxiety in the cockpit is to fly often, takes notes on what went well and what didn’t, and keep learning! When all else fails, go get professional help or fly with a buddy.
Also, don’t forget to talk to your fellow pilots.
We’ve all felt the anxiety. Sometimes simply voicing your fear goes a long way to making you feel better.
You’ll be surprised how many of your fellow pilots feel the same way!
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