A Contribution of General Aviation to America: How we as Pilots can
Help Passengers Overcome their Fear of Flying.
General Aviation (GA) is under assault by the public and media and it is vital that we show contributions to our communities. Certainly, there are already wonderful examples of how the GA community serves the public (Angel Flight, Pilots N Paws). But we need more examples of non-self-serving activities to effectively counter a constant anti-GA media barrage. Here is another way we can step up to the plate.
Without a doubt, we all know someone who won't fly or do so with great distress. Fear of flying (reported on by the Wall Street Journal -June 2011) is nothing new cutting across all socio-demographics. Indeed, articles in the Travel Medicine and Infectious Diseases and Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine journals indicate that 10-40% of the adult population experience anxiety when flying and 2% of the population avoid this mode of transportation altogether. That means that over 6 million folks in the US who won’t fly! This is all despite the fact that airline safety has improved in every decade over the past half century based on NTSB fatality rates.
So what can we do, as pilots, to reach out to these jittery passengers? Anxiety feeds on ignorance and demystifying the flight environment will go a long way to helping these folks overcome their phobia. When you next encounter an aviophobe, enquire as to their concern(s) and then explain why there should be little cause for concern. Here are some of the more common fears of phobic fliers. A biggie, especially in areas prone to high convective activity, is thunderstorms. A soothing response is the requirement for all transport-category flights, as per Part 121 regulations, to have operative weather radar allowing the pilot to circumnavigate the worst of the weather although, of course, this does not guarantee turbulence avoidance. Often discussion of thunderstorms segues into the topic of turbulence or vice versa. Discuss how wing dihedral increases stability, the concept of "rough air" penetration speeds and perhaps most importantly how wing flex testing has to be undertaken as part of the certification of all aircraft. Another white knuckler is engine failure. A good comeback here is that transport category aircraft are required to fly with a single engine inoperative and this includes departure climbs to meet obstacle clearance. Even with total engine failure transport category aircraft make excellent glider ratios and the 75 nautical mile glide of a mid-Atlantic, powerless Airbus A300 (Air Transat 236) carrying 306 passengers plus crew to a safe landing in the Azores is worth citing. System redundancy, again required for the airlines, is also worth mentioning: dual, independent hydraulic systems for moving flight control surfaces (not to mention manual reversion in the event of the failure of the hydraulics); dual navigation systems; triple pitot-static systems to cite a few.
What else can we do to get these folks flying? Psychologists know well that phobics have to be exposed to the fear often incrementally. If you are a proficient GA pilot who flies regularly, consider offering a nail-biting passenger a short flight. Review what goes into preflight planning-weather, NOTAMS, the aircraft. Follow this with one or two circuits around the traffic pattern in VFR, non-turbulent conditions. On a subsequent flight, graduate to a short hop to a nearby airport say around 10 minutes distance. Finally, consider referring these folks to a fear of flying program near them (http://www.flyingphobiahelp.org/flying_phobia_help_009.htm).
Chances are you’ll find that helping these folks a highly rewarding experience and even more importantly showing the community a positive image of general aviation. Who knows-we might even convert a few of these individuals into pilots a bonus considering the ever shrinking pool of pilot starts.
Douglas Boyd Ph.D., an active general aviation pilot holding Commercial/IFR ratings, directs the Houston fear of flying program. The “Clinic” (http://www.flyingphobiahelp.org) includes presentations by an airline and GA pilot, TSA, counseling by psychologists as well as visits to ATC and an aircraft maintenance facility.