Fear is a lot like stress.
Anthropologists and other scientists will argue that human beings were designed to experience stress as a lifesaving response to an environmental factor — lions, tigers, or bears, for example.
Fear is the same thing. It’s built into us as a self-preservation agent. It helped keep us safe from predators and Mother Nature way back when we weren’t at the top of the food chain.
Now that we are, and we can protect ourselves from environmental dangers, fear is largely self-induced. What we fear drives our thinking and how we behave.
Most stress modern humans experience is based on self-imposed, generally unlikely fears. I researched the database for reports to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System related to “fear” to get a sense of what pilots are willing to admit.
A helicopter CFI and his student landed on the numbers of Runway 23 at Lawrence Municipal Airport (KLWM), per ATC instructions. The additional instructions were to taxi to Taxiway E for the taxi back to their parking spot.
Just as the pilot was about to lift the helicopter back into the air, he and his student saw a light twin airplane on Runway 5 traveling directly at them in a low pass of the runway. He queried the Tower, which informed him that the aircraft in question was in contact with Approach and not Tower.
“At this point, we opted not to lift off for fear of lifting into the path of the oncoming traffic,” wrote the instructor. The plane passed overhead within 100′ of them. Fear of a midair collision is legitimate.
A Bonanza 33 flight instructor filed a NASA report after a near midair collision at Chandler Municipal Airport (KCHD). He was on a dual cross-country flight preparing a student for an upcoming check ride. KCHD Tower gave him and his student instructions to join the left base for Runway 4L and to report at four miles out.
The student was flying. Approaching base to final for 4L, the student’s focus went from outside to inside the cockpit, and he was unaware he was about to overshoot the runway centerline. The CFI instructed the student to pay attention and fly the plane. Simultaneously, they got a TCAS alarm for traffic flying directly at them in the opposite direction. The student immediately initiated a left turn to final. The CFI kept his eye on the oncoming traffic.
“It looked like there were two people inside, hard at work flying their plane,” he wrote. The traffic banked right for Runway 4R final approach in time to avoid a collision, but in the instructor’s mind, it was an extremely close call. So he called it out to Tower. The controller’s response seemed too nonchalant for the CFI.
“I estimate that the centerlines of the two runways at CHD are approximately 1,000′ apart,” he wrote. “I assume the other aircraft had a true airspeed of 100 knots and that I had a true airspeed of 105 knots. With some basic math I calculate a closure rate of 342′ per second. Assuming then that both pilots became momentarily distracted and flew past their centerline, I fear they would have approximately 2.9 seconds to realize their mistake.”
Both aircraft ended up flying parallel approaches simultaneously and landing without incident. The CFI chose to turn his mathematically articulated fear into a teaching moment. He reminded his student if at any time his flying situation felt potentially dangerous, he needed to speak up.
“After all,” he wrote, “it would be tragic to spend so much money on radars, control towers, and radios with the idea of safety in mind, only to have a controller decide not to use those tools to help keep you safe.”
The CFI’s fear was valid. Momentary distraction isn’t the only thing that could result in a midair collision when two planes fly simultaneous traffic patterns to parallel runways. Lax airmanship could lead to a very bad day.
Some pilots fear overbanking on the turn from base to final at a low airspeed and low to the ground because it might lead to an unrecoverable stall-spin scenario. Undercompensating for the effect of wind because of that fear could lead to a pilot overshooting the runway centerline and colliding with a plane turning simultaneously from base to final on a parallel runway. That’s why it’s important for ATC to stagger the approaches.
Two pilots flying together filed separate NASA reports about the same flight. Each did so because of a specific fear manifested during the excursion. One was a fear based on an actual problem. The other was a manufactured fear.
One pilot had agreed to serve as safety pilot for his friend who wanted to fly practice approaches in his just-purchased Cessna 172. The plan was to land and switch seats afterward so the safety pilot could also get in some practice approaches. They further agreed that whoever was the safety pilot for that particular flight would act as PIC.
The safety pilot chose to file IFR for his, the second, flight. The pilot-owner decided not to file an IFR flight plan for his sortie. He felt that he could remain clear of clouds during his maneuvers.
“My first thought,” wrote the safety pilot, “was he didn’t want his first flight in his new plane to be in the clouds.”
When pressed, the pilot-owner only said that they should go up and take a look-see.
The look-see quickly turned into a deteriorating situation. The ceiling near the start of their practice approaches at Westminster VOR (EMI) was overcast at 3,000′. However, it rapidly lowered to 2,000′. At the same time, the flat, farm terrain was rising into foothills. For the flight to stay VFR legal (500′ below clouds), the duo had to drop below the minimum safe altitude (MSA).
“At this point I did not know why my companion was so hesitant to ask for an IFR clearance, but I felt that the safety of the flight was in question, in addition to violating the FARs,” wrote the safety pilot. “I was certain that I was not going to let fear of speaking up lead to inadvertent flight into IMC, which would lead to a loss of control or a CFIT crash.”
His concerns were well taken. The pilot-owner called ATC and filed IFR aloft. They then completed the practice approaches. On the ground the safety pilot confronted the pilot-owner about his quixotic behavior. That’s when the pilot-owner admitted he hadn’t filed IFR earlier on the ground because he feared it would delay their departure. Neither NASA report indicated why a delayed takeoff would have been a problem.
The pilot-owner went on to file a NASA report because he realized how irrational his fear was. More importantly, he realized giving into that fear served no good purpose. It prevented him from being prudent when prudence was most required.
Whoever said we don’t know what we don’t know may have been describing the most insidious of fears — the fear nobody ever thought of.
A Commander 114 pilot filed a NASA report after a fuel tank vent obstruction forced him to land short of his destination. He departed Pensacola (KPNS) for an overwater flight to his destination. He’d planned for 10 gph cruise fuel flow, and he filed for a cruise altitude of 7,000′ to keep his single-engine Commander within gliding distance to shore.
At 7,000′ and turning out over the Gulf, his engine started running rough.
“Fuel flow suddenly dropped to 3-4 gph and the engine choked,” he wrote. “At this point I looked at possible emergency landing options. There were no good options where I could be comfortable that I would not be injured, and I welled with fear.”
He contacted ATC and asked for an immediate diversion. The engine RPM dropped so much he could no longer maintain altitude, so he initiated a dive toward the nearest airport. The dive seemed to fix the problem. His engine smoothed out, and fuel flow increased to 14 gph. He climbed back to 7,000′, apprised ATC of his improved engine condition and of his intention to continue to the original destination.
A few minutes later, fuel flow dropped to 8 gph, and engine roughness ensued. Even with the throttle quadrant full forward, he couldn’t maintain altitude. He again turned to the nearest airport while he updated ATC on his worsening condition. The pilot landed without further incident.
A mechanic on the field helped him assess his fuel lines, parts of which were visible. He used a tool to snake the parts not readily visible. In one fuel line, the mechanic pulled out a piece of plastic that had broken off the vent. From the second fuel line, he pulled some type of insect’s nest. Subsequent run-up and test flights in the pattern proved the obstructions had been cleared. The pilot continued to his destination.
Recognizing the difference between a real and an imagined fear is one key to good aeronautical decision-making.