Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot

Fear of Heights

There's a fine line between heroism and peeing your pants

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m scared spitless of heights. Not just a little apprehensive. Not wide-eyed concerned. We’re talking finger-prints-in-the-nearest-solid-object scared of heights. And right now I can hear heads nodding all across America as pilots check in with their me-too vote. As courageous as pilots are reputed to be, when it comes to having your knees turn to guacamole at the top of a stepladder, it seems as if many of us stand on the yellow side of brave.

I’ve done a few informal surveys (standing in a crowd of non-pilots, and yelling, “Hey, how many of you wet your pants on the third step of a ladder?”) and it appears as if a much higher percentage of pilots have acrophobia (no, not fear of acrobatics) than the general population does. You mention this to non-pilots and they all find it strange that pilots have a fear of heights. Mention it to pilots and they think it’s strange too, but since they are probably phobic themselves, they usually change the subject.

I can see where civilians think it odd that people who fly have a strong fear of falling. Personally, I think it’s odd that they’d think it odd—having a fear of falling is only common sense, right? Every one has it, but it seems as if those of us who opt to leave the ground on a regular basis have more of that kind of fear. Or more of that brand of common sense.

Just to put things in perspective, the extent of my fear of heights can be shown in two facts: first, I once walked two miles around, rather than climb a ten foot ladder that bridged a 20 foot deep gap in an Indian ruin and two, there was a window under the eaves of my first house that went unwashed for the twenty-two years I lived in that house.

Those of us who truly know the fear that comes from looking down from high places fully realize that there’s an illogical aspect to our fear: none of us feel those weak kneed, sweaty-palm sensations when looking down from an airplane, so why are we affected by high places?

In my own case, I never felt that fear while skydiving (back when lumbar three and four were still intact), yet standing on the edge of the Glory Hole in Central City, Colorado I nearly collapsed. I routinely sit on the doorsill of doorless Cessnas, one foot on the gear leg, the other jammed against the doorframe while shooting air-to-air and not once have I felt a twinge of any kind. Compare that to me driving right down the middle of Rainbow Bridge in Colorado, straddling the white strip and refusing to look either way, while ignoring the honks of on-coming traffic. We’re talking white-knuckle fear here, folks. So, what gives? Why do we turn to quivering lumps of humanity when on solid objects looking down but we don’t when in airplanes?

I’d love to say I have some theories, but I don’t have a clue. None of us do. That’s one reason acrophobics enjoy it when we run into another kindred, panicked soul. It’s as if we’re some sort of strange species and we’re delighted to find someone who speaks our language and understands this peculiar mental quirk. While we’re perfectly happy to joke and laugh about it with those not afflicted, the truth is, we recognize it as a weakness but can’t do a damn thing about it. If we could, we would.

I will admit that there have been a few situations in airplanes (I use the term loosely and you’ll see why) where I have felt my this-is-too-damn-high meter starting to come up off the peg. For instance, when my late friend Ken Brock let me fly his gyrocopter, I had no problems zipping around the dry lakebed (what a kick that machine was!), so I started gingerly working my way up. At fifty feet, I was fine. Seventy-five feet, everything was hunky-dory. At about a hundred feet, I started to notice there was nothing in front of me but my boots. At one hundred twenty-five feet, I couldn’t take my eyes off my boots. At 127 feet, my knees went weak and my throttle hand came back. That was it. Time to rejoin sanity.

This kind of mental weakness irritates the living hell out of most of us and I, for one, have tried to fight it. A few years back, for the first time in about twenty visits I finally made it to the rim of the Grand Canyon, rather than sitting in the car in the parking lot. The AZ Redhead , stood next to the rail and coaxed me out while I shuffled along with my eyes on my toes, looking like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. Pitiful! But at least I did it.

I suppose we a-phobics should put together some sort of support group. How about AAA, Aviation Acrophobic Anonymous, or Altitude Aversion Activists, or Actually Afraid of Altitude.

I guess some things in life are not meant to be understood, but I don’t have time to worry about that right now. I have to go talk Marlene into changing the security light on the top of the garage for me.