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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  • Jeremy - September 08, 2021

    I use to work offshore oil rigs and was good to about 90’ in the air, going to the top of the derrick @ 225’ was a whole different experience, white knuckle gripping the handrails up there. I had gotten use to the 90’ height but rarely went above it. And almost everyone I worked with weren’t nervous no matter the height. I would say the difference is in an airplane we have our best glide speed and normally are at an elevation where if there is an engine issue we still have the time to get a best glide and find a suitable place to attempt to land. And when we land if it is fatal It would be the same experience as a vehicle crash. You either live through it or don’t but none of us are terrified to get into a car and drive somewhere. Falling from 200’ however, it is completely out of your control and there is nothing you can do to save yourself, while having a couple seconds to think on how you’re about to die.

  • Bill Faust - September 08, 2021

    U hit the nail on the head!…i’m an old chopper pilot….TERRIFIED of heights PARTICULARLY when NOT IN CONTROL..can’t STAND NEAR a ceiling to floor window or look over edge of tall building, tram rides=NOT FUN!…ZERO AIRSPEED helicopter power checks often to 10K or more AGL!….like sitting in a chair waiting for it to tumble!…YEP…long as I’m FLYING (moving?), I’M GOOD!..THANKS for the fun article!!!

  • Mark Phelps - March 24, 2021

    I remember flying over the George Washington Bridge, looking DOWN at the workers on the tops of the bridge and thinking, “How can they possibly do that?”

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