Student pilot nerves and the fear of flying

Most flying instructors will be familiar with the sight of student pilot nerves and most pilots can remember experiencing them. Learning to fly presents the student with all kinds of challenges. How each person reacts to these depends upon their individual strengths and weaknesses. For some, they must overcome a fear of flying itself.

There are those seemingly gifted novice pilots who seem to sail through all the practical lessons and pass each exam first time as if they were born to the task. They qualify for their licences in minimal time and head off to hour build before moving on to the next round of training that will lead them further along the path to either a career in aviation or perhaps a future in which they are truly pilot in command.

CFI with student in Cessna
It’s OK if you’re a little nervous in the left seat.

However, I suspect such people are the exception rather than the rule. Most students will take more than the minimal number of hours to learn the practical lessons, and they will not be as confident at every stage. Besides, some of those calm and collected student pilots may have all the appearance of an ice cool fighter jock but underneath they are in as much turmoil as anyone else.

No one likes to admit to being nervous or unsure. It is as if by doing so one utters a social faux pas and this may be because nerves can be contagious. By drawing attention to nerves, one reminds others of their own feelings of anxiety.

The Guilty Relief of a Cancelled Flying Lesson

It is the night before your next lesson. You have been circuit bashing and you know that your first solo is looming. Or perhaps you have been set the task of going on your first cross country solo, your first land away, or the skills test is booked for the following morning. Whatever your next challenge is, there may be some moments in which you feel less like Tom Cruise in Top Gun and more like a quivering plate of jelly.

There may be moments when you look out of the window to check the weather and secretly wish the cloud base were a bit lower and that the weather would close in and postpone the imminent lesson. You might call the flying school and wait with hope in your heart while they check the weather, and you might feel a guilty sense of relief when they tell your lesson is cancelled.

You did not really want to learn to fly, did you? You would much rather put your feet up and watch a film. What fools learn to fly anyway? It will all end in disaster or divorce! Put away those silly, self-indulgent thoughts and keep your feet where they belong—firmly on the ground.

Then you remember other things. You recall the inspiration of books, films, and family members, or people you have met who sowed the seed and started you on this journey. You remember that you look up at just about every opportunity when any type of aircraft passes overhead. You remember that sense of freedom when you first took to the air and looked down at the towns and countryside below, and the beauty of the skies when your instructor took you through a gap in the clouds and you flew above in the bright sunshine, watching the shadow of the aeroplane on the white cloud beneath.

Overcoming Nerves with Distraction

Nerves are normal. They are part of the process of anticipation and they are to be expected when you are about to do something you have never done before or at least not often. The trick is not to focus on them and turn your attention to other things. In other words, distract that fearful part of yourself by thinking about something else. Use the power of your imagination to portray the outcome you desire. There you are, confidently flying the plane, in full control and command. That is, you, in the left-hand seat, flying neat circuits, and flying from A to B in full and certain knowledge of where you are at any given time.

172 landing
Visualizing success is a powerful distraction.

Have you ever been on your way to an interview, dental appointment, or presentation (substitute your own fear-inducing event if need be) and seen something that quite literally “took your mind off it?” That is all distraction is—turning your attention away from your thoughts of disaster and towards either mental images of success or something completely different from the imminent experience.

Worried about getting lost? If worst comes to worst call on 121.5. They are there to help. They want to help. It is their job and that is what they are waiting for—anyone to make that call so that they can give the help they have been trained to provide. There is no shame in admitting that you need some help. The idiot is the pilot who stubbornly refuses to admit to him/herself that help is needed and flies on into some unhappy outcome.

Breathe, and become calm

Butterflies in the stomach? Sweaty palms? Wobbly legs? As well as the mental trick of distraction there is another simple method for calming your body down—breathing. No, not that shallow breathing we all do on autopilot, but deep abdominal breathing. It is a conscious way of filling your lungs with more air and consequently more oxygen. By adding more oxygen to your lungs and consequently your blood stream your brain receives more, and therefore your mind feels clearer.

As the name suggests, abdominal breathing is simply the process of extending your abdomen outwards as you breathe in, and inwards and you breathe out. By doing pushing your abdomen out you draw your diaphragm (the wall between your lungs and your stomach) down, and that motion in turn creates a partial vacuum in your lungs so that air rushes in. The reverse helps to push the breath out once you have absorbed all that lovely oxygen. The motion should be gentle, fluid, and rhythmic. Try setting up a sequence where you breath in for four counts, hold for two counts, and out for four counts.

Three deep abdominal breaths can have a calming effect in all kinds of situations, not just before your next flying lesson.

Confidence increases in proportion to logbook entries

Another thing you can think about is that feeling of elation after successfully completing a flight.  Remember when you walked across the apron feeling ten feet tall and ready to fly around the world? That is one of the reasons we fly. To feel that buzz again you have got one little task to do first—fly the aeroplane again.

20 Comments

  • As a student pilot who took 34 hours to get to solo, I can definitely relate to this article. Having the instructor beside me seems to make me nervous, trying to do everything perfectly (and having my mistakes pointed out). The solo time I have had has been relaxing and very enjoyable, however. Looking forward to getting the license “to learn” (on my own), as has been said.

    • Some say that people who learn more slowly learn more thoroughly. Even those who go solo in a short time may find some other part of the syllabus difficult and yet that might be something you find easy. Everyone is different. The main thing is, just keep going!

    • John, you’re not the only one. I feel the same way with the instructor beside me–it seems far easier to solo. Some of my problems can be traced to the instructor, and I finally wised up and decided to change to another instructor with whom I feel far more confident in the aircraft.

    • John — I’ve had the same experience as well.

      I far prefer solo flights and loved that my first instructor would let me fly the pattern solo whenever I wanted (weather permitting). Also had signoff to go to a nearby airport. Those flights where I wasn’t as worried about doing every tiny thing at the exact specified time and exact same fashion as my instructor led to much more relaxation (and frankly better flying). Those flights helped me to develop my own rhythm and confidence. I’d say I learned just as much in solo flight as with an instructor.

      I’m in the same boat now too, looking forward to getting the license to learn (on my own)!

  • Ben, thank you. I’ve long had a fear of heights, and for the first 30 or so hours, it was always present at rotation and climb. Finally it seems to not be an issue, and truth be told, it’s the “standing on the edge of a roof looking down” type of vertigo that gets me.

  • My 17 year old daughter And I went through 5 instructors before we found 2 that got us to the finish line. Mostly due to circumstances (one went off to atp training etc.) but 2 were a toxic combination for either of us. They both expected us to see and react exactly as they did with little tolerance or patients. there’s a million ways to fly a plane and get the same results. Finding a couple people who thought similar and could relate to us with patients was huge. We both wanted to give up several times each. Now were over 200hrs apiece and working on instrument and commercial. It’s good to fly with different instructors. Sooner or later you’ll find the one who says the right things to get that doubt to go away. Never Give Up!!!

  • Thanks for writing this. Exactly what I needed and what I suspect many students need to hear!

    I don’t know about everyone else, but my motivation for training was sort of “U” shaped throughout PPL. When I first started (discovery flight) I loved every second of it, same for the second flight with me at the controls almost whole time. Enthusiasm declined from about hour 10 to hour 35 and it was a total grind. I absolutely suffered from the “guilty pleasure of a cancelled lesson” (I thought I was only one, glad this article shows that’s not the case). I found myself checking the weather days/hours in advance hoping winds would pick up too much so I’d be forced to reschedule. Despite the fact I was paying money for lessons I secretly hoped I’d just stay home that day.

    With some self introspection I realized it wasn’t only the apprehension of flight — but the nervousness of letting my instructor down by having them have to re-teach me stuff if I didn’t absorb it the first time. Or my most dreaded situation of not knowing how to communicate with my class D ATC* and embarrassing myself and/or my instructor. That was even more of a daunting feeling than hitting turbulence on a solo flight! I guess embarrassment is a powerful emotion. But with time/experience (even just a little more experience) so much of those fears just evaporate.

    Now with 45 hours and my written exam done — it’s check ride time and I couldn’t be more excited! So glad I kept going. Hope no one else gives up either!

    *A side-bar comment, but something I was really hung up on and sapped my motivation for a while with other people might experience:
    During my lessons, both solo and dual, I messed up with ATC numerous times. The anticipation of screwing up was my worst nightmare because I felt it would show other people I’m def not a pro, and I might even have only a tenuous grasp of communication fundamentals, and might even just be a plain old idiot. And at this point I’ve had multiple occurrences of each of these: read back wrong instructions/information, omitted critical information during readbacks, stuttered terribly when making requests, pressed the PTT button and then words just didn’t come out, forgot to include tail number with my messages, didn’t get information on the first 2 read backs, accidentally refer to ground as tower, etc… But those errors have been BY FAR the best communication learning experience for me and I wouldn’t trade them, because I learned three important things:

    1) Don’t focus on having the absolute most perfect communication. That’s a tall order for a student pilot and can paralyze you from making any radio calls! You will make errors and probably 80% of the time ATC will still know what you mean and you’ll get what information you need. You’ll catch your errors and over time you’ll improve.
    2) The worst thing you can do is not ask for clarification or help if you don’t understand. This can lead to a terrible situation. Whatever apprehension you have about clarifying an instruction/request with ATC will be dwarfed by the terrifying prospect of making a REAL error that has REAL consequences (e.g., landing when you’re not supposed to — or crossing a runway when you don’t have permission). If they’re using lingo you don’t understand or instructions that don’t make sense — ask for help! Because….
    3) The absolute worst case scenario when you DO ask ATC for help/repeat is that they might sound a little annoyed — particularly if it’s a busy day. But that’s *literally* the worst case scenario. And hell, I’m annoyed on a daily basis with customers at my job — their job is no different! They’ll forget 5 minutes later anyways — it’s just part of their job.

    Anyways, being forced into the situation to deal with that communication fear and realizing that the fear was overblown was a fantastic learning experience. Like most things in life the imagined downside is usually 10x worse than the real downside. Hope this helps!

    • Regarding communication…
      First of all ATC is there to serve you, not the other way around. Which is not to say you shouldn’t do your best to make semi-intelligent calls. And it always boils down to the same basic format: who you’re calling, who you are and what you would like. If you are reading back an instruction or clearance that comes with experience. There is only a limited number of things they will say over and over again.

  • Thank you to much, Ben. I thought I was the only one. And Tom: exactly my story, and I absolutely agree!

    Passed my checkride just before the world went crazy with 66 hours. At around 40 hours I thought I stuck, even going backwards. Then I bought an action cam and recorded every lesson, including coms. With the ability to review every lesson (and every explanation of the CFI, every mistake made with ATC etc.), the learning curve went up again. It was like a restart. Later on, I discovered the GARMIN aviation trainer for download (free). With exercising with the Coms without pressure and at no cost at home, things went even better. Still do it today, with having 52 hours as PIC. Should have done it from the very first lesson!

    That´s my advise. But first of all: Do not give up, keep going! Once you got it, it is so rewarding. And, what a surprise, on your own you definitely can handle things better, including communicating with ATC (and English is not my mother tongue!).

    Don´t let anybody tell you not to do it (Kurt Russell).

    CU in the skies!

  • Hi Ben,

    I wanted to add to the chorus of ‘Thank You’s for publishing this article. I’m still a new pilot so my training is very fresh in my memory. I recall so many nervous mornings prior to my lesson, the most distressing being prior to the lesson where we were covering spins and stalls for the first time (I brought a plastic bag in my pocket just in case!). It turns out the fear of the unknown was worse than the reality, as almost always seems to be the case. I found what helped reduce the nerves for me was making sure I had time before my lesson to sit calmly at a coffee shop or in a quiet parking lot to review my notes and, as you suggest, breathe!

    Your point about the guilty relief of a cancelled lesson made me chuckle because that was so often me, but I’m eternally grateful that I was able to stick it out with the support of my family.

    Thanks again,
    Chris

  • Thank you Chris! Yes, spins and stalls can be a bit uncomfortable but I guess knowing the aircraft is doing and why it’s doing it can help. Maybe later you would like to try some aerobatics. It’s another way of learning about the capabilities of the aircraft and why wings stall etc but usually with a bit more power up front.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful article. I was a very nervous student. I was also guilty of wishing for weather cancellations. Sometimes my nerves caused so much distress that I cancelled lessons because of physical illness. Like the other respondents, I loved being in the air, despite the performance anxiety of lessons. I was definitely caught in a conflict between a love of flight and anxiety about being responsible.

    One dread was getting lost in the air while solo. My instructor signed me off to fly to another airport 30 miles away and let me use my solo practice time to navigate there and back. It boosted my confidence, increased my comfort of just being in control in the cockpit, tightened up my ability to navigate by pilotage, and developed my skills in recognizing airports from a distance. This was a huge confidence boost for me.

    Yeah, I still had anxiety. I didn’t sleep at all the night before my check ride. But I passed. My instructor did not think I would go very far with flying because of how anxious a student I was and he was stunned (and proud, I think) when I bought an airplane.

    That was 19 years ago. Today, I’m a 2200 hour instrument-rated pilot and aircraft owner. My message to any student affected by nerves during lessons is that it’s not unusual, it doesn’t mean you’re unfit to be a pilot, and when you come out the other side of that anxiety, the reward is absolutely worth it.

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