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.

 Click Here to View Course Details

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.

Click Here to View Course Details

next post → ← previous post


  • George Hutchinson - May 13, 2020

    This is a subject that has intrigued me as I fit into this group. My fear of heights in a tall building is brought on particularly when I go up in an enclosed lift then suddenly step out onto a viewing platform, I am terrified.
    On the other hand I do a lot of hill walking and the difference is that the climb is much more gradual and I seem to get acclimatized as I go up, the same with flying a typical light aircraft. When I was working I interviewed a welder who had just finished working on a massif new suspension bridge, when I asked him how he could do that his explanation was that you got used to it as most high rise building jobs started at ground level and went up slowly so you gradually got used to it.

  • Linda Pendleton - August 08, 2019

    I’ve always thought that my fear of heights didn’t affect me in aircraft because there was no visible connection to the ground to tell me how high I am when I look out the window.

  • 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.

Leave a comment

Stay in Touch

Physical Product Ordering Only (800) 437-7080

If you'd like to order a PHYSICAL product by phone, please call the number above. Digital (downloadable) products can't be ordered by phone.

Latest Posts

  • It's Time to Speak Up

       “Hey Rod, tomorrow I’m taking my little airplane out to see what it can do. I’ll see ya later.”   Those were the last words I ever heard my best friend speak. I never saw him again. The next day,... read more

  • The Forgotten Mechanic

    The Forgotten Mechanic Here’s today’s riddle: Name something that all pilots need and use all the time, often don’t know by name, and depend on completely for the safety of every flight. The answer isn’t obvious, and neither is this... read more

  • Weber's Law

    By Rod Machado If you closed your eyes, held out a cup, and asked someone to gently pour water in it, how much liquid would need to be added before you noticed a change in weight? One drop? Probably not.... read more

  • 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... read more

  • A Foot in the Mind

    By Rod Machado Psychologist Robert Ornstein, in his book Evolution of Consciousness: Origins of the Way We Think, talks about a person he knew as Jim. Jim’s reputation was based on his ability to get others to do things for... read more

  • Dive and Drive: Fact or Fiction? Maybe Both?

    By Rod Machado I am a "dive and drive" denier. There, I said it and I'm not taking it back. The term "Dive and Drive" is used by some instructors in the pejorative sense. It's a pointy phrase that's released like a... read more

  • Pilots, Poets & Psychologists

    By Rod Machado Mention the word poetry to a pilot and he'll act like he's in a hotel fire. He'll think: get low, get down, get out. Admittedly, even I get the heebie-jeebies at the mere mention of haiku (that's... read more

  • The Power of Flight Simulators

    Flight Training on a Budget By Rod Machado Over a period of two semesters, a young college student with two intro flights in his logbook acquired approximately 60 hours of supervised training using a desktop flight simulator. Curious to test... read more

  • The Prevalence Error - Why We Look but Do Not See

    Looking Good, but Seeing Little By Rod Machado Recently, I was having a difficult time seeing things that were in plain view. I was even thinking about visiting the Our Lady of Fatima Optometry Center, where their motto is, “If... read more

  • The Middle-aged Aviator

     By Rod Machado Over the years, I’ve heard many stories about middle-aged pilots (45-65 years) who gave up flying due to a sudden onset of anxiety. Apparently this wasn’t induced by any specific aviation trauma nor inspired by the relatively... read more

  • Cargo Cult Thinking

    By Rod Machado  Early in the 20th Century, pilots visited remote islands by air, dropping off goodies for Tarzan and Jane. On subsequent visits, these pilots noticed that the natives had built flimsy stick-and-twig replicas of their airplanes. Anthropologists named... read more

  • Recent Changes to Part-61 and Why They Are FANTASTIC!

    By Rod Machado Am I happy about the recent changes to FAR Part 61? You bet I’m happy. These changes will be helpful to general aviation in much the same way a corkscrew is to a Frenchman on Bastille Day.... read more