It’s a Long Way Down, Isn’t It?

Psst! Psst! Come here. Come a little bit closer. I’ve got something I want to ask you, and I don’t want anyone else to hear. Are you afraid of heights? It’s probably embarrassing to admit it, but if you’re like most other pilots, the answer is “Yes.”

According to Chaytor Mason, a retired professor of aviation psychology at the University of Southern California, the rate of acrophobia is upwards of 90% in some of the pilot groups he’s encountered. My own estimates indicate that the percentage of acrophobia in the general aviation pilot population is far, far higher than in the nonpilot population (where it is 6% to 10%). What’s going on here? Is it possible flying attracts only those poor souls who enjoy the torment of an altitude-anxiety love-hate relationship? Or does flying itself breed acrophobia? Let’s look a little further (not higher) for the answer.

Several theories of acrophobia exist. One theory suggests that fear of heights is a classically conditioned response. Another theory says simply hearing about the perils associated with heights is enough to spark a phobic response. A cognitive theory even suggests people are frightened by thoughts surrounding their inability to counter a perverse, irresistible urge to jump when near a precipice.

All the above are interesting theories, but none adequately explains why the incidence of fear of sky is so high in those who fly. I’m not all that surprised at the lack of explanations that ring true, since most theories fail to consider a very important part of the pilot personality—our endless quest for total control of ourselves and our environment.

Pilots are controllers. We like being in charge of ourselves, our environment, and preferably everything within about a thousand miles of our current location. This is the command personality. OK, that’s the polite term. The more control we have, the better we feel. So, what’s that got to do with fear of heights? Think about it for a second. Bud the Pilot flies along gripping a wheel or stick with one hand, a throttle with the other, and pushing rudder pedals (I hope) with both feet. Every available appendage is attached to a stick or pedal that makes the airplane do the pilot’s bidding. We command controllers to give us headings or weather information, extract briefings at the call of a radio from ground-bound FSS specialists, and have enough electronic toys within arm’s length to make us the envy of most teenage boys and submarine captains. Our elevation (you will pardon the expression if it makes you queasy) to king or queen of the universe can’t be too far off, and we like it that way. I am pilot, hear me roar.

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Take the same pilot, however, and stand him or her next to a 24th floor balcony and you’ve got yourself a nice little self-contained phobia fountain just gushing anxiety. It’s likely this person will have to get down on his hands and knees just to look over the precipice. Don't laugh. You'd be surprised at the number of well known aviation personalities that nearly fall off their chair when watching a PBS special of how bridge spires are painted. At least they (and many of us) respond that way unless they are looking through a plastic windscreen while sitting strapped to an airplane seat, holding the controls of their flying machine. Take those things away and you have a helpless fish flopping on a boat deck.

Here’s a possible explanation for this behavior, and you may need an explanation if you’ve done this test in a public place. According to current cognitive theory, acrophobia is related to the stimulation of a visual fantasy. When the phobic nears a precipice, he or she ceases normal thoughts of food, flying, and sex (in that order) and responds with an inner visual drama in which this normally in-command person stars. Acrophobics see themselves falling, and might even feel the physical sensations of tilting, sliding and being drawn over the edge. Called somatic imaging, it explains why some acrophobics report feeling dizzy or queasy in high places. To put it simply, pilots—being controlling types—don’t react well to thoughts of falling. It’s the ultimate loss of control for them.

In support of this theory, feed a willing aviator a good stiff alcoholic drink (there will be no shortage of volunteers for this activity), wait 20 minutes and he'll easily approach the balcony, if not taunt his audience with threats of a "railing walk." OK, maybe not a walk on the railing but at least his acrophobia will diminish to a noticeable degree. Why? Alcohol does its best work on the neocortex, which is the part of your noodle that helps you imagine things (such as imagining how goofy you might be acting at the moment). If you can't imagine yourself falling off the balcony you won't feel as fearful of heights. No, silly you. I'm not suggesting you drink to solve your acrophobic issues. I'm just stating a scientific fact. 

So, why is the rate of acrophobia so much higher in the pilot population? Perhaps a pilot’s highly developed skill at visualization is the reason. After all, our visualization circuits are usually buzzing with comparisons between estimated and actual trajectories, the location of traffic, and other visually demanding activities. Is it any wonder aviators are so good at mentally projecting themselves into these imagined scenarios of falling?

Why don’t pilots report the same queasy, sliding, falling feeling when looking out the aircraft window? Perhaps familiarity with their aircraft and the environment in which they fly minimizes their acrophobic response.

According to Mason, television news helicopter pilots (who are accustomed to low altitudes) sometimes report acrophobic feelings when flying cross country at high altitudes like 7,000 or 8,000 feet. For these pilots, a temporary change in the environment manifests their acrophobia (besides, if you see a helicopter at 8,000 feet it probably means the collective got stuck). Coupling environmental familiarity with the ability to control that environment seems to minimize a pilot’s acrophobic response.

Translation please? OK, if you want to become more comfortable at higher altitudes, then fly at higher altitudes, but do so incrementally. If you've spent six months flying circuits in the pattern with students, you might not want to jump into a Cessna P210 and head for 23,000 feet all at once. But if you do, just realize that you might come face to face with your neocortex.

Psst! Psst! Come close again. Can you see how the high incidence of acrophobia in aviators might result from a combination of pilot personality and an active visual imagination? Are you a little relieved that you’re not the only pilot who experiences some degree of acrophobia? Take my word for it, you’re not. Now get down off that chair before you fall down and hurt yourself.


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Comments

  • Mike Coligny - May 16, 2019

    Tbanks Rod, for me it is the control issue. My kids use to rag on me because I would not ride with them on the roller coaster at Magic Mountain. My solution was to tame them for a ride in a Super Decatholon. One snap roll, one loop and kne 4 point roll and was never called a chicken again. That was 40 years ago!

  • Gerard Amzallag - March 25, 2019

    I have been reading your material for years. I truly appreciate your wealth of knowledge & convey what I learned from you to my fellow pilots & students without hesiation.
    Your acrophobia article is spot on. For a long time I told my peers that I am afraid of hights except when flying. Mostly because I have control the of the aircraft. So I manage rate of climb level flight & rate of decent.
    So the space needle in Seattle is ok mostly because of the chainlink fencing protruding 8 feet from the handrails. Otherwise I’ll watch the view from my recliner at home.
    Again, thank you for your great articles.

    Gerard.

  • Jerry - March 25, 2019

    It is actually a fear of edges, not heights,,not edges in planes.

  • Erin Tomerlin - March 25, 2019

    Hi Rod,

    Thanks for this piece of validation! Everyone in my sphere knows I’ve been a professional aviator for nearly 4 decades, so whenever the subject of climbing comes up I am guaranteed to get a laugh when I use my stock line: “Not me – I’m afraid of heights”!

    Interestingly, some years back I decided to take an excursion in the jungle that consisted of 11 zip-lines and 2 free-rappels. To my surprise, I found the zip-lines fun! The free-rappels were another story. 90’ up in a tree (which I had reached by sliding down a zip-line), and with no other means of escape, I finally decided that it would be better to step off the platform and trust the rope, than to have the excursion leader push me off. (No kidding – he actually threatened to push me).

    The second rappel was easier, but still not my cup of tea. All in all, it turns out the scariest part of my experience in the jungle was neither the zip-lines nor the rappels, but the volkswagen-sized red ants! I think I’ll stick to flying my Swift…

  • Mike Jorgensen - March 25, 2019

    Sounds probable. Some of my earliest fears as a child include being thrown in the air by my father. I was terrified, but my little brother just laughed. Flying has been no issue, and neither was abseiling from helicopters (but abseiling from cliffs was unsettling). I definitely prefer being at the controls, than completely trusting the other pilot.

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