A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

 July 2011   

Afraid of FEAR  


I’ve just finished reading a book about life in a small town in Alaska.  The author is a newspaper reporter in the town, and she paints a colorful, real and sometimes humorous picture of the people and events there.  Having lived in Alaska for many years, the writer has come to know many of the intimate details of its people, and is probably accurate in her descriptions when she discusses the rather odd lifestyles of some of them. 

Inevitably the stories involve transportation around the largest of the U.S. states, and that means discussions about airplanes.  Bush planes in particular.  I was a bit surprised to hear that someone who has lived up there for so many years, still has the big fear of flying.  She describes several trips into and out of “the bush” and her home.  Each time it’s a story of being terrified half to death of the tiny planes, the crazy pilots, lost aircraft, and the retelling of crashes that killed old friends.   

Everyone knows people who fold up and lose their logical thinking when confronted with boarding a “tiny plane”, one with just four (or six) seats.  To them, it’s like stuffing themselves into a coffin.  We as pilots, never experience what these folks go through, and thus don’t totally understand the nature of their fears.  I suppose it’s not our job to know what’s going on in their minds, but it ought to be to calm and reassure them about any danger they anticipate.  And to be effective in doing that, words may not be enough.  It takes a strong, calm and decisive attitude on the pilot’s part.  Basically the pilots needs an outwardly physical appearance of being in control. 

Good pilots always use checklists.  In my opinion, anyone who doesn’t is an accident just waiting to happen.  We also go through the passenger briefings completely and clearly prior to startup.  But when you think about it, these two procedures can be enough to scare the life out of the already nervous passenger.  They go away with stories of the pilot who doesn’t know what he’s doing. “He needed to check notes before he took off”!  And they don’t feel comfortable being reminded that “In the unlikely event of finding ourselves upside down in the water, here’s where the lifejackets are”.   I actually had an employer once who suggested I skip the checklist when passengers were on board!    

To the pilot, it’s all good fun.  But I will speak only for myself on this one.  If  I am  flying in the back of a jet airliner, it’s me who is the nervous flyer.  Even with the little knowledge I have about the dynamics of an airplane crash, I know that there’s a chance of surviving in a Cessna 180, particularly if I’m the one flying it.  At least that’s how I reassure myself.  But if this Airbus goes down, there’s no way I’m getting out of it alive.  Over and over I hear how ridiculous this fear is.  Airbuses just don’t go down!  Or it’s very rare that they do. That may be true, but just the same, I always know I’m on the one that is going to explode in flight.  

 Just as it’s the bush pilot’s job to calm and reassure his passengers, the airline captain can work that magic on his passengers too.  I recall flying from Calgary to Vancouver one dark and stormy night in the winter.  Glancing out to the tarmac from my window seat, I was surprised to see the captain doing the walk-around was a fellow I knew well.  It was prior to 9-11 when airline regulations still allowed passengers to visit the cockpit.  Maybe I could make a request to the flight attendant to go up and talk to him after departure.  But just then, another pilot I knew sat down beside me.  He flew as a captain for the same airline.  He had finished his rotation and caught this flight to deadhead home to Vancouver.  A coincidence for sure, but here I was aboard a flight with two fellow pilots I respected and trusted.  For the entire flight, we were buffeted around in a raging snowstorm, but my seatmate never once even glanced out the window or showed the slightest concern.   We never discussed the turbulence, the weather, or anything that was initially going through my mind about the perceived danger I was facing.  In spite of the seatbelt sign staying lit, it wasn’t long before I felt pretty calm about it all.   

The author of the book I’ve just finished describes some of the bravado actions and comments that came from a few pilots she had encountered.   These pilots were what I would call “unprofessional”. They have a responsibility, whether they know it or not, to their passengers as well as to their employers.  At the end of the day, the pilot may return on time with an airplane that’s not been bent, but his company may find that all the advertising they can do won’t bring back the paying passengers he has scared off. 

 The stories of lost, crashed or broken airplanes, of people dying and of people surviving, will always be with us.  But the statistics point to a safety record in aviation that’s enviable among other forms of travel.  I know it logically.  I know that my chances of dying in a car crash are greater than of dying in an airliner going down.  Sitting next to a pilot who actually flies the airliner, observing his demeanor, his outwardly calm appearance, did more than reading all the statistics.  I’m hopeful that anyone with me when I’m at the controls will feel the same.



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