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Doubt

With a knot in my gut, I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. About eight hours earlier I had scared myself badly by hamfisting a glider onto the ground repeatedly as I attempted to land with way too much speed (see my welcome post). What's more, I'd embarrassed myself by doing it very publicly in front of a large group of pilots gathered on the porch outside the FBO. I was a student pilot returning from a mid-afternoon solo flight on a particularly turbulent day, and in my terror of stalling the glider in the traffic pattern, I let the speed increase far beyond what was needed. The resulting porpoised landing was virtually inevitable. Fortunately, the glider wasn't damaged. The old adage would say that nothing was hurt but my pride, but that's not quite right. It was my confidence that took a hit. As I lay in bed, I seriously doubted whether I had the capacity to fly an aircraft safely and well.

Just about every pilot I know has a story like this. Maybe it involved a nasty, gusty crosswind, a close call in the traffic pattern, or a brush with unexpected bad weather. These experiences are most common among students and low-time pilots, but even experienced pilots aren't immune. Especially if we've become complacent in our flying (see last week's post), a bad experience can jolt us out of our sense of security and leave us questioning our abilities. Such experiences can even call into question our identity, since being a pilot is such an important aspect of who we are.

Often, we can dispel mild cases of doubt by just taking the airplane up and "knocking the rust off." At its worst, though, doubt can be paralyzing. I know a number of pilots who quit flying altogether when their doubts grew too large to ignore.

How can doubt exert such power over us? I think it's because we tend to interpret it as both personal and absolute. We doubt our innate capacity, not just our particular abilities. In other words, we take doubt personally and it becomes a blanket judgment of our piloting. What's more, this interpretation masks the specifics that triggered the doubt in the first place. For example, when I porpoised that landing, I was afraid it meant I was a lousy pilot and always would be. Had I observed the situation more objectively, I could have seen that I simply misunderstood turbulence, flew too fast, and tried to force the glider onto the ground using the elevator.

In my experience, these are the keys to dealing with doubt: specificity and objectivity. By shifting my focus from what an experience means about me to what it's telling me about my flying, I can transform doubt from an obstacle into a valuable tool. When doubt enters my awareness, maybe because of a lump in my throat, a tightness in my chest, or a knot in my gut, I can turn my attention to the specifics of the situation. Is my doubt telling me about risks I'm neglecting or minimizing? Is it telling me about deficiencies in my skills, knowledge, or judgment? Is it revealing a personal insecurity that has nothing to do with flying? Developing this kind of a constructive relationship with doubt is one of the main themes I'm exploring as I write my book The Confident Pilot.

What if I don't understand the specifics? What if I have no idea how a particular event happened? Then it's time to ask for help: take some dual with a favorite instructor; do some research on the Internet; seek out experts in the kind of flying I do; ask a trustworthy friend for a frank assessment; keep a notebook by the bedside to capture those flashes of insight that strike at 3 AM—whatever specific actions I can think of to identify the root causes of my doubts and address them. This active, inquisitive response to doubt is the best way I know to accelerate the repeated positive experiences that build true confidence in the cockpit.

Ultimately, those repeated positive experiences were what restored my confidence after that porpoised landing. At the time, it was a rather painful, haphazard process, but I loved flying enough—and had enough support from my instructors—that I persisted and made flying an essential part of my life.

I'm so glad I did.

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