Fear of Flying

by Mark Kolber
Reprinted from CPA Flight Lines*, September, 1999
with the permission of the Author

One of the things we pilots always want to do is share our joy of flying. The aviation magazines are filled with articles on how to gently introduce your spouse or friends to take a ride or even convince acquaintances and co-workers that you’re not some kind of a lunatic. We’re told it’s not an easy task. After all, even if they fly commercially on a regular basis, some people are not exactly overjoyed with the prospect of going in the air in a craft the size of a mid-size car whose control surfaces are repositioned by bungee chords!

I have friend. Let’s call him Brett. (it is his name, after all). Brett is terrified of flying. Even large jets give him the willies. A couple of years ago, Brett and I flew United to Chicago to join our wives who were attending a business conference. I had to talk him though the 757’s takeoff and almost literally hold his hand. Nor, as a techno-geek, did he find my description of liftoff as “magic” particularly comforting.

Brett and I had been talking on and off about him going up with me one day, but only in general terms. The most specific he’d ever gotten was that he’d go flying with me after I got my CFI. This was a pretty good strategy on his part. I had been working on my instructor’s license on and off for about 3 years. It was a joke at the flight school. No one really though I’d ever get around to finishing it off.Preflight

The joke was on Brett. I received my instructor’s certificate in January, 1999. We talked about flying a few times after that, but nothing ever came of it. Until June. Brett and I had just seen “Star Wars: Phantom Menace.” Maybe it was the rush of the movie. Maybe it was the bravery of young Anakin Skywalker. Maybe it was just too much popcorn. After the movie, Brett turned to me and said, “It’s time. This is something I’ve just got to do.” We set the date: the morning of the fourth of July. We’d meet at my house at 8:00 AM.

On the evening of the third, my wife Janet and I were taking bets on what time Brett would call to cancel. The phone rang. Janet picked it up. It was Katherine, Brett’s wife. When Janet got off the phone, I looked up expectantly. “Well?” I asked. “Oh, Katherine just called to talk about what time were meeting for fireworks tomorrow night.” Janet paused. “Brett said to say he’ll be here at eight tomorrow morning.”

Sure enough, 8 AM and there he was. Nervous, but definitely ready to go. We headed out for breakfast where I explained the plan: once around the pattern at Centennial. “How long will we be in the air?” Brett asked. “Only about six minutes,” I promised. “After that, we’ll taxi to the ramp and stop. If you feel like doing something else after that, we can.”

During our preflight, Brett asked question after question about how everything worked. I had to explain ailerons, flaps, elevators and all the instruments – even why the rudder trim tab on the Cessna 172 is bent the way it is. We taxied to the run-up area at the end of 17L and did a long run-up with explanations about dual ignition and leaning for best power. We told Ground our plan and that we were ready to go. Switching to the tower frequency, we were cleared for takeoff.In the cockpit

About 50 feet in the air I found the courage to glance at Brett. He was quiet, not moving at all, but definitely in control. (I figured I wasn’t going to need those self-defense techniques I learned from other instructors who had told me their horror stories of taking people up for their first ride). Around the pattern we went. Explaining as I flew, we turned crosswind and downwind. Reduced power abeam the numbers and turned base. Set up for final, (thankfully) made a nice smooth landing, and taxied off the runway.

The first words out of Brett’s mouth? “Can we go back up?” Almost an hour later, we landed the second time after flying over downtown Denver, Brett and Katherine’s house (she saw us go by), and Chatfield Reservoir. Brett handled the controls (did a fine job, too) and asked question after question – all good ones. Like, “What are you doing with your feet?” which resulted in an explanation and demonstration of adverse aileron yaw. After the second landing, Brett’s first words were, “That was great! When can we go again?”

When I got home, Janet asked how it went. “He loved it!” I explained. Janet was skeptical. “He’s just being nice,” she replied. But when we got together in the evening for the planned picnic and fireworks, Katherine confirmed that Brett didn’t stop talking all day about how much he enjoyed the ride. My incredulous wife stood there with a dropped jaw as this guy who was terrified of flying kept talking about how he wanted to take lessons!

When Brett and I set this up, my fervent wish was that I could just make my friend’s fear of flying a little more tolerable. I wasn’t quite prepared for the result. Brett was hooked! Fell in love with flying like so many of us.

I’ve long had a theory that some people who are afraid of flying will respond to a small aircraft – that much of the fear involves a lack of knowledge and a feeling that there is no real control over events. In the light plane cockpit it soon become pretty obvious what is actually going on. It was certainly true in Brett’s case. As Brett remarked at the 4th of July picnic, his worst fears now behind him, “I was able to see that this thing was built to fly.”


*Flight Lines is the monthly newsletter of the Colorado Pilots AssociationReturn to story