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Fear and (Self-)Loathing at 3500 Feet

I was pretty pumped after my first flight lesson. I took the time to set the camera up on the way home to talk about the experience while it was fresh on my mind, and I don’t remember having any negative thoughts at the time. It was nearly a week until the next lesson, though, and by the morning of the next lesson I had almost talked myself into calling it off, to give myself some more time to “process” the experience. This is, of course, the exact opposite of my original plan, and I knew it’d be a bad move on several levels. I couldn’t quite understand why I had grown so apprehensive. It seemed irrational: I had been so excited to get started, and nothing bad at all had happened on my first two flights. Though the stall training had been dramatic, it hadn’t been particularly frightening. I finally decided that it was performance anxiety. The second lesson is the first time that you’re repeating something that you’ve already done once, so it’s the first chance to start failing expectations: my own, my instructor’s, everybody’s.

That’s all irrational and, I’m sure, natural. A flight instructor isn’t going to expect you to perfectly perform every operation you’ve ever done every time when you’re first getting started. Nor will anyone else, including your wife or your mom. Your kids might, but then you can just tell them to go to their room. Repeated practice is why it takes so many hours of instruction to learn to fly. That’s easy to write here in my office, several days later, but it’s hard to remember when the pit of your stomach starts talking to you. It’s a consequence, I’m sure, of being the kind of person who cares what others think. That quality gets a bad rap in popular culture (remember, “you do you”), and there are certainly situations where I’d rather that I didn’t give a flip what anyone else thinks, but after 3 decades of experience being myself, I’m pretty sure that it would take some kind of super-villain-origin-story tragedy to change that aspect of myself. I don’t really want to be the asshat version of myself, regardless of how many things that might make easier.


As wise men have said, “Knowing is half the battle.” I think if you can’t change yourself, you should strive to know yourself well enough to hack yourself. That’s what my public commitment to start flight training was about: use my fear of letting others down by committing to a personal goal as a public goal. Now, I’m using my irrational fear of not doing everything perfectly from the second attempt as motivation to study and prepare for flight lessons. If I’m at least as well prepared as I possibly could be, I can give myself a pass for not being perfect. Since flight lessons are expensive, all that preparation might save me some money in the long run too. And it might save my life some day.

The first “official” lesson ended with an experience that went by too quickly for me to process at the time: a touch-and-go landing, then a full-stop landing. A touch-and-go means that you take back off again as soon as you land, without stopping. You just “touch” the runway, then “go” right back up again. We had of course landed the plane on that first discovery flight, and I had been the one to make the turns then, but John took care of altitude and coordination as well as the actual touchdown, and he didn’t talk much about what we were doing. Now that I was an official student, he was talking through the landing as we did it, and I had the stick all the way to the ground. Though I knew what we were doing in theory, it still moved pretty fast, and I didn’t know we were doing a touch-and-go until he started telling me to take the flaps back out and open the throttle. (He probably told me and I was too hyper-focused on not crashing the plane to process the information). I feel pretty good about it now, but at the time that whole last 5 minutes was hectic and had me nervous about my next lesson, because I knew that no matter what else happened, at some point we would have to land.

Even more than the landing, though, the part that I was most nervous about while driving to the field for that next lesson was the runup and taxi. It’s hard to get the runup wrong: the instructor is right there to catch any problems, it all happens at whatever speed you’re comfortable with (if you don’t have an impatient instructor), and there’s a checklist, so it’s literally like taking an open book test where the book consists of nothing but the answers. And taxiing, while it can be done incredibly badly, still happens on the ground at (relatively) slow speeds. I knew all of this, and I had no idea why it was making me so nervous, but there it was. All this epiphany stuff about being more nervous the second time came later. All I knew on the day was this: “I know, in my head, that the runup is the easy part. If I’m nervous about that part, then this has to all just be butterflies. I’d better get my behind to the airport.”

I did mention to John that I had been a little intimidated by landing, and we’ve worked on it a little more since then, mostly since every takeoff must be paired with a landing of some kind or another. In another lesson or two, we’re planning on spending most of a lesson just flying the pattern, practicing landings. Even with just the few additional landings I’ve done, though, I’ve started to build some confidence. I don’t think I’m particularly good at landing yet, but that panic hasn’t returned. I wouldn’t be comfortable landing a plane without help tomorrow, but I can imagine what that confidence might feel like now. And speaking of confidence, just a few more lessons in, that fear of the engine runup is almost completely gone. I’m actually looking forward to that part of the next lesson, and I’ve started to internalize the checklist enough to start thinking about the most efficient flow to accomplish it.

So after all of that drama in my head before I even arrived at the airport, the lesson itself went smoothly. I left (most of) the apprehension I’d arrived with up at 3500 feet, and departed the airport at peace with the knowledge that I’d be back again the next day for another lesson. I did have one more experience that got a little more “real” than I was expecting, though. We practiced an emergency descent into an simulated engine-out landing in a field. The emergency descent was interesting: you’re in a real airplane, banked at 45 degrees, rushing toward the ground as if you didn’t have a perfectly good airplane to hold you up. I think this is another of those things that’ll be fun by about the fifth time I do it. Once we got to 2000 feet, we picked out a field where we would “land” if the engine really were out. I guess in my head I had only taken a simulated emergency landing that far, so I wasn’t quite mentally prepared for the next part: we S-turned a few times to get lined up for that field and came right down to the tops of the trees before putting power in and getting back up to altitude. If the engine really had been out, we’d have been in that field in another 10 seconds. I wasn’t expecting us to go so low, so while I wasn’t at all frightened, I stayed behind the airplane the entire time, and I realized later that that had really been what bothered me about that first touch-and-go landing as well. I was behind the airplane, and I knew it. I’m not sure I’d have put the plane down safely without the instructor’s guidance when we practiced the emergency landing a second time the next lesson, but I felt a lot more confident because at least I knew what to expect.

I do need to work on committing to turns though. To me, 20 deg of bank feels just about right. A “normal” 30 deg turn just feels a little too steep, and across my first few lessons the instructor has continually had to tell me to keep bank in and get it on over to 30. The same when we practiced steep turns: it’s going to take some practice for me to get used to a 45 degree turn. I did sense some progress though: the first time we practiced 45 degree turns, I lost a few hundred feet because I didn’t have a good feel for just how much the required back pressure starts to scale up as you put in more bank. By my latest practice session, I was keeping the plane fairly level in a 45 degree, and holding the bank in fairly well too.

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