Panicking From The Present

As the once proud owner of a private pilot license, I know a little bit about operating in a complex environment where a simple mistake can kill you.

I learned to fly in Miami out over the swamps of the Everglades. It was a great place to do that because it was flat as a pancake at sea level and you didn’t have to worry about such things as subtracting the ground’s published elevation from your altimeter’s reading to figure out how high you were above the ground.

During the period of time before you solo, your instructor teaches you, among other things, how to recover the plane when the wing stalls. The wing stalls when the airflow over it becomes degraded due to flying the plane too slowly at too steep an angle and the wing loses its ability to lift.

There are two places where that is most likely to happen, on takeoff and landing. It generally happens when the pilot becomes distracted and stops paying attention to the airspeed. So when you take off, you have a speed at which you pull the yoke back to get the nose pointed slightly up, the plane flies off the ground, it accelerates to the appropriate climbing speed and then you relax the back pressure on the yoke to maintain that speed. And off you go into the wild blue yonder.

Should the pilot get distracted by something like tuning the radios to new frequencies or following the controller’s directives and lose track of the airspeed, the wing will stall and the nose will fall in an aerodynamic attempt to get the lifting flow across the wing again.

As a student pilot you learn how to deal with just that situation; it’s called a power-on stall. You go to altitude, say 3,000 feet, add power as if taking off and then hold the nose up as if in the climb. Just before the wing stalls, you hear an audible stall warning and all you have to do is push the yoke forward to lower the nose to regain saving airspeed.

But on my very first solo practice flight, I didn’t do that. I was so enthralled that I was actually flying this airplane all by myself and so eager to ratify the pre-solo skills I had demonstrated to earn that right, that I lost sight of the basic requirement of the drill. Instead of holding the yoke back so that the wing would gently mush into a controllable stall, I continued to increase the back pressure on the yolk until the plane snapped into an uncontrollable spin. I didn’t even know what happened. The next thing I knew, the nose was pointed straight down at the Everglades and the airspeed was rushing into the yellow towards the don’t-go-there red.

I still maintain my subscription to Flying magazine and one of the most popular columns is “Aftermath.” It is very instructive but slightly macabre; it reconstructs fatal accidents almost always by detailing pilots’ communications with air traffic controllers as they dig themselves into deeper and deeper holes.

It almost always involves flying into instrument flight conditions, particularly at night, losing spatial orientation—which way is up?—stalling the airplane and crashing. It happens because, without being able to see the horizon, the inner ear loses its ability to keep things straight, you get vertigo and you’re done…except for one thing. If your intellectual mind is strong enough to ignore the physiological messages so that you can just focus on the truth of the instruments, it’s as easy as driving your car in the rain. You trust it. You believe.

But if you don’t get to practice it all that often, you haven’t built that skill and trust. And as it begins to dawn on the pilot where things could be going, you can hear in their voices, first, confusion, then fear and then panic. Panicking from the present. And then silence.

Panicking from the present because all that is required is to stop thinking about crashing and start accepting what your instruments are telling you. But when your mind is flashing back and forth between the hard lessons you’ve learned from the past and a future projecting your worst fears, the present is crowded out. You can’t pay attention to it because your mind is not there, it’s looking back or looking forward. The airspeed degrades well below the stall speed, the airplane may even be upside down and you don’t even know it, so debilitating is your fear. And you thought staying in the present in golf was important.

A reader sent me a link to a New York Times article by Joe Drape, “Panic of Final Stretch Stills Voice of Triple Crown.” Drape writes of the heartbreaking end of the career of the voice of horse racing’s Triple Crown, Tom Durkin. He will still call lesser races, but the high-stakes pressure of not making a mistake in the biggest races of them all finally got to him. He was immobilized by fear.

Last year in Louisville, in fact, Durkin was stretched out on a psychiatrist’s couch days before the race undergoing hypnosis in the hope of conquering his performance anxiety.

He has taken medication, tried prayer and breathing exercises, and has read everything and anything about what, for him, has been a paralyzing dread — including how Sir Laurence Olivier developed stage fright in his fifties and often was shoved onto the stage.

“I’ve even, heaven forbid, tried diet and exercise,” said Durkin.

I always wondered how he called those races. Think about it. You’ve got as many as twenty horses thundering around the track much faster than it appears on television. It is an amorphous collage of horses and riders subtlety and abruptly interacting with each other, moving in relation to each other. There is the lean and stride of the horses, the posture and body language of the jockeys, all in the course of a hell-bent stampede headed for the finish line you can’t see in the limited field of your binoculars. And you’ve got to watch the whole of the collage with a relaxed gaze to comprehend the nuance occurring inside of it. And you’ve got to announce what’s occurring in a literal stream of consciousness going out to a worldwide television audience…and not make a mistake.

But finally, the pressure of the inevitable rush down the home stretch got to Durkin. He wasn’t able—or more likely, didn’t know—that all of his anxiety would disappear if only he kept his gaze relaxed and his stream-of-consciousness description going. As soon as he started thinking about the future—his fear that he would fumble the finish somehow—he panicked out of the present and he was done.

It is a fascinating, if not sad, read and because of its universal lesson in mastery, very instructive for us golfers. As I said, your heart breaks for him.

As for me, with the hair standing up on the back of my arms and neck, I managed to gently pull back on the yoke of my diving airplane without collapsing the wings around me, the airspeed stayed just short of the redline and I flew back to the safety of my instructor and his explanation of what I’d done wrong. All because, in spite of my fear, I was able to stay riveted in the present.

Hopefully, Tom Durkin will have the opportunity to re-learn that same lesson in the lesser races he’s reconciled himself to and he’ll be able to call the great ones again.

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