Saturday, January 03, 2009

The cure for flying anxiety: practice and diligence

The Weather-out-the-Window(tm) forecast this morning was a rare January treat: clear blue skies and winds below 9 knots. Still a little chilly in the high 20's, though. But still... it turns out that I wasted two weeks of vacation hoping to get a chance to fly when all I had to do was wait until today. Not that I didn't find other ways to occupy my time, mind you. I have a Nintendo Wii, after all.

Co-pilot Rick was out of town today and I've found that I enjoy traveling to places a lot more when I don't go alone, so I was at a bit of an impasse with regards to where to fly. When weather like this crops up, though, you have to fly, if for no other reason than to amortize the hourly cost down to something at least remotely reasonable. You almost feel obligated to fly on a day like today. So, in lieu of a sightseeing or visiting trip, I decided that I might just spend a little time practicing takeoffs and landings. As we get deeper into the winter, these opportunities will become increasingly rare. Knowing the dreadful weather that we will suffer through for the next 90 days, even the birds got into a little formation flying:

(Better in HighDef, so click the HD button and follow the link)

With the decision of a practice flight made, a gap opened in my morning schedule. While I prefer an early departure on a day trip, I can comfortably wait until later in the day for a local flight. With time in hand and a healthy appetite, the morning would instead be filled with a visit to the Golden Corral buffet where I periodically partake in what I call the Meat Medley. Sausage patties, sausage links, polish sausage, bacon, corned beef hash, and ham, all on one stuffed-to-the-edges plate. My doctor's wallet tingles in anticipation of my inevitable coronary treatments every time I do this. To appease him, I bypass (get it?) the sausage gravy.

That's a lot of extra weight to be carrying around in the airplane, so a visit to the reading room is a prerequisite before leaving for the airport. As I was perusing the pages of the January 2009 AOPA Pilot magazine, part of my mind was focused on the upcoming flight. As I've grown older, I've noticed that I do a lot more of a cost/risk vs. benefit analysis than I used to. For example, today I was balancing the risk (slight as it may be) of flying against the benefit that would accrue from the flight. Although the net result would be identical, there's just something surpassingly tragic about dying on an 18 mile flight over to MadCo for some practice landings as opposed to, say, a cross-country trip from Ohio to New Mexico. I find that I have quite a bit more anxiety about flying than I did when I was younger, sometimes leading to thoughts of quitting it entirely.

At just the moment I was having these disturbing and uncomfortable thoughts, I turned the page of the magazine and found Rod Machado's article "The Middle-aged Aviator." It wasn't so much the title that caught my eye, it was the first sentence:

"Over the years, I've heard many stories about middle-aged pilots (45 to 60 years) who gave up flying because of a sudden onset of anxiety."

The timing was eerie! Rod goes on to suggest that

"the most likely cause has something to do with the emotional baggage a pilot accumulates with age. I'm speaking of baggage caused by the unhealthy focus on a pilot's own mortality, which may result from obsessing over aviation accident data."

He notes that there can be, and are, many other causes for this increasing trepidation before expanding on the issue of emotional baggage. Basically his point is that by the time you reach middle age, you've been around long enough to have read about, heard about, or seen enough fatal accidents that it begins to wear on your self confidence.

This is true, of course, as can be seen in a pilot's normal reaction to news of an accident, which is to try to figure out how the poor guy screwed up. After all, we know that we would never make the same mistakes ourselves. But eventually the number of his-number-was-up cases begins to abrade away that mental comfort blanket and we begin to realize that yes, it could happen to us. We consider what that would mean to those that depend on us, and we begin to question whether or not we have the right to take the risk, no matter how small. We ask ourselves whether it is selfish of us to fly purely for recreation. It's not like our flying is paying the bills, after all. Actually, the opposite is true: that's an in-ground pool and a nice boat we're flying around in, and the additional cost of a nice car payment going to the necessities of hangar and insurance.

I was able to work the risk/benefit equation in my favor, though, by reminding myself that this was to be a practice flight. That definition did nothing to reduce the risk side of the equation in the short term, but the increased benefit was obvious. Rod makes a point in his article that the cure for this anxiety is for the pilot to have faith in himself. He stresses that the middle-aged pilot has advantages in wisdom and self-awareness over his younger self, and he managed to survive those years, right? The ability to introspectively assess our capabilities and balance them appropriately with what we know to be our weak spots should be used as a strengthening agent for our confidence rather than to erode our faith and will to fly. Reflecting back on my performance the last time I flew, I knew that I needed more practice and that having a good practice session would increase my confidence and knock back some of the tension and anxiety that was bothering me.

So, my personal weight & balance suitably adjusted and a good plan in mind, I headed to the aerodrome. As I was pulling Papa out of the hangar, I had an opportunity to think about what had happened the last time I flew that caused me to forget to raise the flaps before takeoff. I remember coaching myself to be diligent and methodical with the preflight because it had been a month since I'd flown and a layoff like that makes a bug difference in my competence. Even so, I ended up getting distracted by another plane waiting on the taxiway as I diligently and methodically blocked his way to his hangar. At the point when I usually raise the flaps prior to taxiing, I was busy scooting out of his way and got knocked out of my normal rhythm.

Today was a little different: there was no one around but me and Papa. It was still right around freezing, so not a whole lot of folks were keen on hanging around the airport. It was the kind of cold that isn't prohibitive for being outside, but it does cause you to consider skipping certain aspects of the preflight, most notably the part where I get down on the pavement to inspect the metal hinge pins that hold the lower cowl in place. There are two pins, each holding a side of the cowl separated by the exhaust pipes. The wires have a habit of vibrating out of position, thus leaving the cowl not fully attached to the rest of the airplane. I use a couple of twists of safety wire wrapped around the ends of the hinges to hold them together where they meet. That keeps either of them from backing out.

Rod Machado may be a humorous writer, but he's also a very wise aviator. As I asked myself WWRMD (What Would Rod Machado Do), the answer was obvious: no matter how cold and uncomfortable it may be, he would get down there and look at those hinge wires. So I did. Only to find that the safety wire had apparently broken on Tuesday when I flew up to Lima. One of the hinges was fully backed out and the side of the cowl that it was responsible for retaining was hanging loose. I crawled out from under the plane, went back into the hangar for a tie wrap (which I think will work better than safety wire), and replaced and secured the hinge. Thanks, Rod!

Everything else went fine. The tower cleared me to runway 4, where I would be facing a 9 knot wind from the east. That equated to a bit of a right crosswind component, probably just enough to counteract the normal left turning tendency on takeoff. The flaps were confirmed to be fully retracted (although I did find that I had taxied all the way out there without the nav and strobe lights on - D'oh!) and everything else checked out OK. The takeoff was much better than the last couple I've made, mostly because my feet are back in tune with the timing and were ready to adjust their movements when the tailwheel lifted off the runway and the rudder took over as the directional control. That's always a little bit of an adjustment, but when my feet are rusty, it typically results in a bit of a swerve.

The proof is in the landings, though. I made two at MadCo, and both were very good. It's no accident that MadCo has a runway that faces directly into the eastern wind we had today; I selected it as a practice location for today for that reason exactly. Still, even a 9 knot direct headwind can cause problems for me if it is gusty, but it was pretty steady today. Both landings were gentle greasers. I'm sure Rod would emphatically agree with me when I say that nothing, nothing will increase an anxious middle-aged pilot's self confidence than a back-to-back pair of excellent landings.

By the time I got back to Bolton, any vestiges of anxiety had been purged from my system. I made another fine landing, as if to do so was the norm rather than the exception. The only wrinkle came when the tower cleared be off of the runway with

"Turn left Alpha-4, taxi to park, monitor ground."

What's missing here? Well, this is the way they used to always do it, but for the last year or so they've been far more specific. We don't just get "taxi to park," we get "Cross Alpha to Alpha-3 to the ramp" or "Taxi to park via Alpha to Bravo." Having become accustomed to the more detailed directions and assuming that they're doing things this way now for a reason, I found myself mildly irked that the directions hadn't been given. This has happened before in another way: sometimes they won't tell me whether I should "monitor ground" or "remain this frequency." It causes me anxiety because I'm not sure what's expected, and a controller in a bad mood has the power to ruin my day if I leave him an opportunity that he chooses to use. So what did I do? I asked. He sounded a bit surprised that I had done so and kind of stammered out a "at pilot's discretion," but I felt better about it.

In fact, much as I suspected, I feel a lot better about everything. I think Rod is right: the best cure for flying anxiety is more flying, with a dose of diligence thrown in. It sure worked for me! Oh, and the tie wrap held fine. I think that might be my new method from now on.

1 comment:

  1. great to hear from a fellow aviator!! Hope you don't mind me following your blog :) And thanks a bunch for the camera advice!

    By the way, how did you get the twitters to show up on your blog? I've been trying to figure that out for a while but I'm an idiot.. haha