Nervous Pilots

Nervous Pilots

By Greg Brown

The Colorado River courses beneath our wheels through the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado River courses beneath our wheels through the Grand Canyon.

“How was your flight from Phoenix?” asked Tony as we sat down to lunch. My wife, Jean, had meetings to attend in Salt Lake City, so we’d flown up together for a five-day visit.

“Uneventful–if you can call over-flying the Grand Canyon and threading your way between snow-covered mountains uneventful,” I replied.

At the time, Tony hosted my website, and though we’d often communicated electronically, it was our first meeting in person.

“Did you make any of those flights we talked about?” I asked. Newly rated as a private pilot, Tony had recently planned cross-country trips from northern Utah to Denver, Los Angeles, and Edmonton, Alberta. Those are daring adventures for a new pilot flying a Cherokee 140–long distances over inhospitable terrain through the central Rockies.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” replied Tony. “I flew with my boss to Denver last week. Going there was great, but unfortunately the weather was bad when time came to leave. My boss had business obligations, so he returned by airline. I flew the plane home myself, the next day.”

“Was your boss upset?” I asked.

“No,” was the answer. “In fact, he enjoyed it so much that he plans to take flying lessons himself. I told him ahead of time that we wouldn’t take any weather risks, so he was already prepared for possible delays.”

Knowing how badly Tony wanted to make this flight, I congratulated him on his wisdom and courage in delaying the trip home, especially with the pressure of carrying his boss as a passenger.

“The toughest pilot decisions are often made on the ground,” I observed. “Well done.”

“Thanks, Greg, but frankly, that wasn’t the hardest part,” he said. “To tell the truth, I was so nervous preceding this trip that I didn’t sleep for two nights beforehand. Should I be concerned about that? Once we got into the air, the flying itself was fantastic.”

“Oh, you never get entirely over that–especially when you haven’t flown for awhile or when you’re faced with challenging weather or unfamiliar terrain,” I replied.

“Seriously? So even you still get nervous?” he asked in amazement.

I admitted that I did, and to being pretty stressed before flying there from Phoenix.

“You’re kidding. Why?” he asked.

“Flying from Phoenix to Salt Lake City takes three and a half hours by Flying Carpet, all over remote terrain,” I explained. “The Grand Canyon is a kick, but anyone sane has to be at least a little nervous about crossing in a single-engine plane. Then there are those two tall mountain ranges that run from the Utah border to Salt Lake City. I’d never flown here before, and had to choose which route to take–west of both ranges, east of them, or following Highway 89 up the middle. It’s irrational, I suppose, but that decision stressed me even after takeoff.”

He asked how I made the decision. I told him that before coming, I sought out a pilot who’d often made the trip before. He told me that the middle route over Richfield is most beautiful, but that west over Cedar City is safest and smoothest when winds aloft are strong. In the event of cloud cover, terrain is lowest on the east side, providing you can clear one high pass at the north end.

“As it turned out, the weather was good, so we flew the central route over Bryce Canyon and then north between rows of snow-covered mountains,” I said. “It was breathtaking. Funny, how once aloft with good weather and the engine running smoothly, those ahead-of-time concerns are forgotten.”

“I know what you mean,” said Tony. “I was nervous before making night landings last week for the first time since earning my private. Once in the air, however, everything went great.”

He asked how I dealt with nervousness before flying.

“Did I tell you that my wife is a clinical pharmacist?” I asked. “She explained to me long ago that nervousness heightens alertness and improves reaction time. Being a little nervous is not only natural, but it actually has some benefits. The difficulty is separating nervousness from real safety risks. Therefore I try to set aside emotions, and as much as possible make flight decisions based on rational thinking. If logic says the trip can be completed safely, I try not to let nervousness stop me. Of course, if the nervousness comes from real threats to flight safety, then I stay put.”

The Pahvant Mountain Range towers over the Sevier Valley near Richfield, Utah. Out of sight on the other side of the plane is the equally imposing Wasatch Range.

The Pahvant Mountain Range towers over the Sevier Valley near Richfield, Utah. Out of sight on the other side of the plane is the equally imposing Wasatch Range.

To my surprise, those words would become guidelines for the flight home just a few days later. I’d planned to treat Tony and his young son to a Flying Carpet excursion before departing, but learned that morning of thunderstorms clobbering Phoenix. That made me nervous.

“Sorry to postpone our sightseeing flight, but we need to get going,” I told Tony.

“Believe me,” he said. “I understand.”

As usual in such situations, I chose to proceed as far toward our destination as safely possible–tomorrow’s weather might obscure what was clear today. Flight through Utah appeared without risk, plus there were plenty of airports along the way in case of surprises.

Central Arizona was still inundated by thunderstorms when we reached the state border, so Jean and I landed at Grand Canyon Airport to regroup. From there the flight service briefer recommended we detour west and south along the Colorado River, then approach Phoenix from the southwest. Again I was nervous before takeoff; I suspect what did it was the word “thunderstorms.” Rationally, however, I saw that this was a well-defined weather area–we’d travel blue skies around it and there was no reason not to proceed.

This flight leg proved to be both safe and spectacular–for miles we watched distant swords of sunlight sever dark shafts of rain falling to the desert floor. The thunderstorms gradually diminished as we flew, and with weather improving we were able to fly a more direct route than expected. Upon rejoining clear skies, I remembered my discussion with Tony. Despite prior nervousness, no risks had been taken and this flight had been a special one.

The stressful decisions weren’t over, however. Nearing Phoenix, we learned that our home airport featured a 90° crosswind at 15 knots gusting to 24. That exceeded my limits, so I selected an alternate airport. The final landing decision would be postponed until reaching our destination, however, because sometimes these things change.

Sure enough, when we arrived at Falcon Field the wind was still perpendicular to the runway, but it was now steady at 12 knots. Although challenging, that’s within limits for the Flying Carpet and me. In fact, another Cessna was doing touch-and-goes in the pattern. Steeling myself for a possible go-around in case of unexpected wind gusts, I landed successfully.

Exhilarated at the day’s adventures while taxiing in, I thought again of Tony–he must have felt similar elation upon returning to Salt Lake City from Denver. We pilots often face difficult decisions. Sometimes that means flying and other times waiting–either way nerves must often be combated as firmly as the weather. But once safely in the air, who among us would say it’s not worth it? After all, nervousness is the body’s mechanism for facing upcoming challenges, and overcoming those challenges is what makes flying so rewarding.

Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a columnist for “AOPA Flight Training” magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, or online catalog, and visit [].