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.
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.
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.