Budd Davisson, Flight Training, September, 1999


Fighting the Panic

Panic has an interesting effect on people. One of our friends, the author Bob Gandt, has a great line that describes the effect perfectly: "Panic causes your brain to shrink to the size of a pea which then rolls out your nose."

In other words, just when you need it most, don't count on your brain being there and fully functioning.

The most common manifestation of In-Flight Brain Death is an overwhelming desire to get on the ground. Getdownitis. We want to fling ourselves at the ground like a child leaping into mom's lap where we know warmth and safety awaits. Unfortunately, in the case of airplanes, when the "stuff" hits the fan, leaping back into mother Earth's protecting grasp is sometimes more complicated than it seems and requires every brain cell we've got. At that point, however, most of our brain cells have deserted ship and irrationality is usually close to taking over.

The actual fact is that we don't get hurt until the exact moment we hit the ground. We are in perfect health while still even one inch above terra firma. Until that exact instant, so long as we can just keep our brain functioning and orchestrate the reunion with the ground so as to keep it graceful and as gentle as possible, we can almost always minimize damage to our tender young bodies. If, however, we let panic rule the roost, chances are our reunion with Mother Earth is going to be anything but gentle.

In other words, just when you need it most, don't count on your brain being there and fully functioning.

Aviation is loaded with homilies, but certain the most accurate and important is, "Fly the Airplane." No matter what else is happening, never forget to fly the airplane. In an emergency, maintaining complete control of the airplane takes precedence over everything else in your life. Even if your kids have set fire to the right seat while cooking a chicken over a barbecue in the back seat, you fly the airplane first, put the fire out second.

Of course that's easier said than done.

The exact cause of panic is hidden deep within the sweating crevasses of a freaking-out mind, but one major component is fear of what's about to happen. If the engine quits, for instance, you're not scared because you're gliding. You've done that before. You're scared because of what's waiting for you at the end of that glide.

Fear is natural and unavoidable in a situation like that. Panic, however, is entirely different and close to being preventable. Panic is fear raised to the level that it shuts down your mind.

A major component of panic is not knowing what to do in a terrifying situation. If you know what you need to do to minimize the danger of a situation, then you concentrate on the procedures required to save you butt. If you don't know what to do, your mind immediately focuses on the disaster staring you in the face.

There's not much we can do about the fear part of a bad situation, but we can prevent, or at least control, panic with training.

Training for a given situation takes a lot of the unknown out of that situation. It lowers the fear-level because the situation has been practiced and, while it still has terrifying consequences, it's not totally unknown to you. You've been there before, so you know what to do. Your mind stands a much better chance of staying on-line.

One of the most important fall-outs of training, especially for the engine-out scenario, is that it builds references. It gives you datums to work to which eliminate the guess work and tell you what to do with the airplane. More on that later.

Another important gift of training is that it builds instincts: If you practice something enough, you won't have to think about it when it comes time to do it. You react instinctively and, in a fast moving, bad situation instincts will almost totally compensate for a pea-sized brain.

So, what we're saying here is: Bad things can happen in an airplane and your best defense is training, practice and more practice.

So, what do you train for? You train for those situations which are most likely to happen and do your best to understand and train for the rest. The most likely emergency situations are pretty obvious: Engine out and weather. The wide gaggle of other possible emergencies are open to your imagination and include everything from control system failure to knocking over the chemical toilet your spouse (of either gender) made you install.

Taking weather emergencies first, we'll start with a general statement: In almost every situation, weather emergencies are preventable, period. They are avoidable. A pilot who gets caught in bad weather situations (assuming a VFR pilot, not an IFR pilot with equipment failure) put himself there through one of three things...lack of planning, lack of understanding and awareness, or lack of commonsense.

Panic is fear raised to the level that it shuts down your mind.

A major problem that occurs when the pilot gets forced close to the ground is that they can see the ground and getdownitis can get almost out of control. In the worse sort of way, they want to be standing down there on that rain-slicked road looking up at some idiot in an airplane who is trapped by the weather. The urge to land becomes overwhelming. Oddly enough, the urge may not be as dumb as it sounds. When the situation is obviously getting out of control, an off-field landing is preferable to slamming into unseen objects. An off-field landing is grist for an entire conversation of its own, but the bottom line is that keeping the panic under control is much easier while doing an off field landing than it is during that last few minutes when twisting and turning between obstacles at zero altitude and 120 mph in fog and rain.

The subject of weather is much talked about. There are books and books on it. Videos, courses, symposiums galore are aimed at teaching pilots about weather and how to deal with it. The bottom line, however is, if you don't want a weather related emergency, either get your instrument ticket, keep it current and fly the best equipment available, or resolve to avoid potentially bad weather situations altogether. It's just that simple. Weather doesn't creep up and suddenly leap on you. You know its out there. You know it's a potential problem. You are solely responsible by raising the probability factor of that problem developing by pushing into situations where you're trying to "beat weather" and cut the margins too thin. Or, you just ignored the problem and your plans didn't involve either weather alternate routes or destinations. Or, lastly, you just didn't check it and blundered blindly ahead.

Everything we've mentioned is preventable by a combination of planning and commonsense. Prevention is always better than a cure. Don't push into lowering ceilings unless you know for a fact the weather has stabilized at points along the way, then resolve to turn around or grab an alternative the instant things go past your limits. Don't put yourself VFR on top unless there is absolutely no doubt that not only your destination is clear, but points along the way are at least broken. An on-top flight puts you in risk of not only getting screwed by weather but makes every other form of emergency, including losing an engine, a thousand times worse.

In questionable weather, fly from airport to airport, and, when passing over the last one with lowering ceilings ahead, land. If nothing else, give yourself a few minutes on the ground to give your brain a rest and call ahead from the safety and comfort of a pilots lounge where your brain is much more likely to function properly. The tighter the situation becomes, the more your judgment is likely to be faulty. Work alternatives out on the ground.

But, what about those times when you do find yourself down there scud running (one of aviation's less commonsense endeavors)? How do you train for that?

In questionable weather, fly from airport to airport, and, when passing over the last one with lowering ceilings ahead, land.

First, much of the panic involved in screwing around under 500 foot ceilings has nothing to do with the weather, but has everything to do with not being able to see squat and not knowing exactly where you are. The good news is that GPS has solved much of that dilemma. The bad news is that GPS has solved much of that dilemma. It's good because it lets you know exactly where you are and where you want to go. It's bad because, since you have that information, you're going to be tempted to push weather just that much harder. This is a very tough mental quandary we're facing in aviation, in general, and one which each pilot must face on a personal basis. It's super important that you set visibility and ceiling limits for yourself based on skill, topography, etc. that you absolutely won't violate. That's going to be hard to do when the GPS says your destination is just 12 miles ahead in the muck.

This all assumes your GPS doesn't pack up on you in the worse possible time.

The best training you can do for this type of situation is to set up a phony low-level cross country with a friend. He picks a small, hard to find destination (tiny town, road intersection, etc.) that's about an hour out, marks it on a map, but doesn't give you the map until you've taken off and are in the pattern still climbing out. You're going to fly the entire trip at 500-1000 feet depending on local conditions and common sense. By not knowing where you're going and not getting high, you're simulating getting caught under the klag. Oh, yes, one other thing: The only nav aid you can use is the compass.

There are a lot of little tricks to be used here, like, in lieu of having a plotter, forming your course line on the sectional by pinching the chart at your present position and your destination and folding the map between the two pinches, then rubbing the folded edge with your pencil (you do always fly with a pencil in the cockpit, don't you?). Roll the pencil parallel to the crease until it hits a VOR rose: that's your magnetic heading. Time the time it takes to fly from one check point to another, put the point of your pencil on one check point and mark the other on your pencil with your thumb. Then see how many of those lengths of pencil lay between you and your destination (example: six minutes per pencil length, seven lengths to destination, ETE 42 minutes).

Teaching engine out emergencies used to be an integral part of flight training, but that was pushed to the side as modern engines became more reliable. In very recent times, however, it seems as if engine failures are becoming more common. Even so they happen very, very seldom. However, how many times does it have to happen to make it serious? Just once, right?

There are four aspects to dealing with an engine failure, the first three being fly the airplane, fly the airplane, fly the airplane. Once you have the airplane firmly under control, you can exercise the fourth option of trying to figure out what caused the engine to stop in the first place (change tanks, fuel pump, carb heat, etc.).

The key to fighting panic and keeping getdownitis under control when the fan stops turning is first, having practiced it a lot, and second, having practiced it a lot. The two primary factors which come out of that practice include a good set of references for what the airplane does power-off. You know exactly how the airplane reacts, where it is going to go and what you have to do to get it to a safe piece of ground. Possibly more important, practice puts you in the power-off situation enough that it becomes a known situation, and, being in a known situation, you're much less likely to let panic take over.

When doing your practice, single out those flight situations in which the engine is likely to quit. Those include during takeoff, enroute and during the approach.

Here too, planning is a major part of the training which is actually pre-emptive preparation to prevent panic and getdownitis. In this case, the planning consists of constantly being aware of where you'd put the airplane should something go wrong. During takeoff, identify how high and how far down the runway you'd be and still be able to land on it, even if it meant rolling off the end. Then have sites selected around the airport within 30°-45° of your takeoff heading that look good. Enroute, entertain yourself by selecting safe havens, and continually updating them as you fly past them. "...Okay, that field over there looks good, now that road is reachable, etc."

The primary part of this kind of training is doing enough normal power-off approaches that you develop an innate feel for where the airplane is going to go with the power-off. Most important, this includes establishing an initial point from which such an approach would be flown on downwind. Once you have that major reference point set in your mind (probably 800-1000 feet, a given distance off the intended touchdown point), when the engine quits all you have to do is head for that point planning to arrive at the right altitude and speed. That will include another kind of training exercise in which you cut the power at altitude and practice making 90° turns and noting how much altitude is lost in each. Then you just have to keep in mind how many 90 ° turns it will take to get you down from altitude AND at the initial point for the field you've picked out.

Above all, don't forget to include the forward slip in your training. You can keep the slip in your back pocket as the ace you'll use to get rid of excess altitude. That way you can plan on being just a little high to ensure making the field, then slip off the excess.

There's an old axiom that says "If you ain't never been there before, how you gonna know where you are, once you find yourself there." That's what this training is all about. It's about putting yourself in as many emergency situations as possible, on purpose, then when it's the real thing, your brain may still try to shrink to pea-size, but enough of it will remain behind to keep you on top of the situation. BD