Learning to fly: fear and personality

GoFly3 Jul, 2019

I have been wanting to write this blog about fear for a long time. Part of the reason I have put it off is due to being incredibly busy over the last six months, and also, ironically, due to my own fear: fear of offending someone!  I’m writing it not to name and shame, but to highlight the difficulties humans have when dealing with our internal fears and personality quirks, and in writing this, I’m hoping to help readers identify when others are displaying fear-based behaviour or personality issues/disorders.

As a small business owner I am fascinated in what motivates individuals to learn and grow. As a Flight Instructor, I believe that my main mission is to keep students motivated through their flight training, as I know that mastering a new skill can sometimes be frustrating (fortunately, learning to fly is also very rewarding).

I also have a deep fascination with human psychology and over the last 20 years have read over thirty books on psychology and motivation. Fortunately for me, 99% of the students I teach are motivated and do not have any of what I would call ‘adverse psychological baggage’ which is going to have a negative effect on their flight training. During my last eight years of owning a flight school I can only think of around five students whom I believe have had negative psychological issues which impacted on their ability to pilot a plane safely.  If you are a flight instructor or student pilot, or you own a business, reading this blog may be beneficial to you.

As a business owner it is important to spot the warnings signs early, because these customers could cause your business (not to mention your peace of mind) damage and stop you from focusing on the customers who do in fact value your services.  The warning signs are also important if you’re hiring staff. For instance hiring an instructor with narcissistic tendencies would be a huge mistake for my business. No one wants to fly with an instructor who has little empathy and constantly talks about themselves and how good they are.

As Recreational Aviation and Private Pilot Licence authorities do not impose psychological testing on students, it is important to notice these warning signs as early as possible. I am not a trained psychologist and these anecdotes are only my experiences, however I still feel that sharing my experiences and what I have learnt from them, is worth the possibility of offending some individuals. To protect the identity of the individual and their families, I have left some detail out of some of the anecdotes. My intention is not to harm or embarrass but to highlight the difficulties that some personality types share and help others identify them in oneself and in others.

Learning to fly

By the time most of us start learning to drive we have been sitting in a car observing others driving, for at least fifteen years. With learning to drive, nothing is really that unfamiliar to us. But when it comes to flying a plane, unless your parents are pilots, the chances are your first lesson is going to be completely foreign to you (and exciting). Flying will require all of your senses and it will require all of your focus if you are to succeed. As humans we are not used to directing ourselves through space and thinking in three dimensions. This takes time for our brains to become accustomed to.

Being humble

When we are learning something new for the first time we have to be humble. In a way it’s like being a small child again: we have to accept help and acknowledge that we don’t know what we are doing. This can be challenging to the mature student who has been successful in their given profession and is used to being competent at most of the things they do.

When a student first starts learning to fly, if they act like a know-it-all and don’t take direction or accept feedback well, I know in advance that I am going to have issues with their training. These issues are exacerbated with an emotion that we all occasionally suffer from, and that is fear. I’m not talking about the fear of flying; it’s the other fear which starts early on in our lives and remains with most of us until we depart this earth – fear of failure!

Fear of failure

When it comes to hobbies and interests that we love and are passionate about, we tend to fear failure the most. I don’t enjoy cricket so if I failed at learning how to fast bowl it would not affect me in the slightest. I’d be relieved that I could now go and do something more interesting. However I love flying, and if an instructor had said to me early on in my training, ‘You’re no good at this kid, why not try learning to sail instead.’ I would have been devastated.

Since most individuals would not attempt flying lessons unless they were passionate about flying, the idea of failing at flight training creates a lot of fear in most students. How a student handles that fear is what separates the successful students from the not-so-successful ones.

Some common signs of a student not handling their fear well, include:

  1. The student blaming the instructor for them not making progress
  2. The student cancelling lessons at the last moment with no logical reason.
  3. The student blaming the weather or other aircraft for their substandard performance
  4. The student getting angry at themselves if they make a mistake and not being able to get over it in a timely manner
  5. The student sabotaging their flight training by quitting or inventing an excuse so that they never undergo their flight test

Believe it or not, the last one is quite common. A student may be doing well and either be getting close to solo or to his/her flight test and then suddenly they quit, with no reason given. While personal issues may be the cause on some occasions, I believe that mostly the student is choosing to not lose face with themselves and in front of other family members and friends. The fear of failure is so strong that it is easier to just quit and tell others (and yourself) that you just didn’t enjoy it, or you ran out of money, rather than fail at something you love.

I spend a considerable amount of my time helping students overcome their fear of failure. It’s is very simple life lesson: you will never get to enjoy the work, hobbies or relationships that you are passionate about if you cannot accept that failure might be an option, and that if you do fail that it is completely ok and is just a part of the learning process. You only truly fail if you don’t learn from your failure and if you refuse to give it another try.  As a child, we were not embarrassed to fall off a bike and get back on and try again, time and time again. But as adults, we tend not to bounce back so well after initial failure.

A warning sign as an instructor is if a student becomes overly emotional or does not handle stress in a positive way (gets angry or blames everyone else.) While all of us vary in how we deal with stress and regulating our emotions there comes a point if a person cannot control their stress or emotional state then there may be something more serious going on.

Personality disorders

This is a topic that fascinates me. While mental illness encompasses a wide range of mental disorders the ones that can greatly affect a student are what psychologists call the ‘cluster B’ types of personality disorders. The reasons why these disorders are fascinating is because they can at first be very hard to detect. I have read many books on these subjects and have known many students, family and friends over the years who have displayed these traits.

It is important to note that cluster B personality disorders range on a spectrum from displaying only minor traits right thought to displaying major traits which may affect the individual’s day-to-day relationships, goals and ambitions. Most of us at some point in our lives will also display some of the symptoms, however that does not mean we actually have the disorder. These disorders can affect the ability to learn something new because many of the negative characteristics are amplified when the individual is placed under stress or is fearful. Flight training can bring these traits to a head.

The two main disorders that I will discuss, are Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

While BPD and NPD have much in common, there are differences. I will generalise a bit to keep this blog succinct. A person with narcissistic personality disorder lacks the ability to empathise (they cannot put themselves in your shoes) and they believe the world revolves around them and that everyone is there to support them and give them the love they so much crave and deserve. Narcissists are usually pretty easy to identify.

Narcissists are not good listeners and they love to talk about themselves and their accomplishments. They find it hard to show true empathy when someone is in pain. If you look at someone’s social media sites and more than 80% of the photos and posts they upload are about how clever they are, how good their life is, where they have been and what they are up to, there is a very good chance that the individual has some narcissistic tendencies.

Narcissists are very hard to teach because they find it almost impossible to be humble and admit a mistake. It is always someone else’s fault. They often learn to fly for the wrong reasons (e.g. ‘If i get my pilot licence, I can feel superior and everyone will be impressed that I am a pilot’). If they fail a test they will often rage and blame the instructor.

I once failed a student midway during a navigation test and he refused to accept my decision – even though at the time I had around 3,000 hours of flying experience and he only had 40 hours. He started yelling and screaming at me in the plane.  I had to take control and at the same time, carefully calm him down. When we landed he ran from the plane screaming, and took off in his car. To his credit, he rang me three days later to apologise and pay for his flight.

Some narcissism is ok, and possibly healthy, if we are to get what we want in life, however it becomes negative or malignant when an individual cannot have empathy with, or an interest in, other individuals.

BPD or Borderline Personality disorder (the emotionally-driven individual)

This one can be harder to spot than narcissistic personality disorder but can be just as damaging. While there are many characteristics of BPD, the main ones are: an inability to regulate one’s emotions; fear of abandonment; and ‘black and white’ thinking.

Most of us have the ability to control our emotions; if someone upsets us or shows disapproval, or if we are fearful, we can generally hide these emotions and carry on. Someone with borderline personality disorder finds it very hard to regulate their emotions on a daily basis. They are in many ways ruled by their emotions and not by logic. Common signs are manic highs and depressing lows (happy and excited then sad) and this can happen multiple times throughout a day. If you say something that offends them, they will either rage at you or burst out crying.

Another common trait is black and white thinking. To put it another way:something is either all good or all bad. People with this disorder find it hard to integrate shades of grey into their thinking. For instance, as an instructor, if I offer some constructive feedback on what they need to do to improve, a student with BPD characteristics might take offence and within a second they will turn on me and I will go from being their hero to their enemy within seconds. Fear of abandonment also concerns these people, as the thought of someone leaving them or not liking them, sparks in them the fear of rejection and can trigger emotional dysregulation.

Another telltale sign of BPD tendencies, is that during one lesson they might be in a fantastic mood and in the next lesson they are depressed and indifferent to the instructor.

The main difference between narcissist and borderline personalities is that a borderline person can be empathetic and they can be very likeable, and this is the reason it can be so hard to identify in students upon first meeting them. More often than not, these characteristics are only displayed towards the end of the student’s flight training when facing the final flight test or if they believe the instructor is disapproving of or abandoning them.

Lack of logic or empathy

While there may be other external reasons affecting the performance of these students mentioned below, here are a few examples of people who let their emotions sabotage their flight training:

  1. A student cried every second lesson and would swear at other aircraft during flights and kept blaming the other aircraft in the sky for distracting her from flying.
  2. A student who was just two lessons away from being flight tested and was flying very well, refused to do another 20 minute dual check before he was sent solo (recommended by me due to the challenging conditions on that day). During his previous lessons he was always upbeat and confident but as the day of the test neared, he became very hostile and refused this recommendation (accusing me of trying to get more money out of him) and then refused to complete his training. I later discovered that he had done the same thing at another flight school after also spending a lot of money on lessons there just prior to being sent for his first solo..
  3. A student was asked to wait an extra thirty minutes before starting his lesson, as the previous flight had been delayed with a minor maintenance issue. The student said ‘No worries, I don’t mind waiting at all’, only to run out of the hangar and drive off after twenty minutes. Later that night he rang and screamed at me for half an hour, saying he was so upset with having to wait, and at being made to feel unimportant, that he vomited all afternoon .
  4. A student who failed the flight test for his Instructor Rating refused to take the test again and instead waited a year, then out of the blue, sued me for $130,000 for ‘lost wages as a flight instructor’ (even though no instructing job was ever promised to him by a flight school and despite him still owing me $5000 in training fees!)  While defending this claim, I endured two years of stress and wasted hundreds of hours and more than $28,000 on legal fees, both of which would have been better spent on improving the flight school or taking my kids and partner on a much deserved holiday. I was fortunate to meet a great lawyer halfway through the case and he got the claim thrown out.

The IMSAFE Checklist

As part of becoming a competent safe pilot we teach students the acronym ‘IMSAFE’ to be used every time before they fly. The checklist is very simple and self explanatory, and, just like an aircraft checklist, this checklist is to ensure your are physically and mentally fit to fly:

  • Illness
  • Medication
  • Stress
  • Alcohol
  • Fatigue
  • Emotion

Stress and emotion are a part of the the checklist. I believe that individuals who are heavily weighted towards NPD or BPD are a potential risk to themselves and potential future passengers. The main reason is the inability to regulate their emotions, in particular when placed under stress. A competent pilot needs to be able to keep calm and keep their emotions under control under pressure. This is one of the many criteria I look for when I am testing someone for a flight test.

As stated before, the majority of my students are wonderful and willingly receive feedback for self improvement. We all go through hard times and we all act emotionally at times, without logic or reason.  The main difference though, is our level of self-awareness and if we are able to ‘self-soothe’. If you can’t soothe yourself, and if you get angry or upset and you can’t control your emotions by yourself within a reasonable time-frame, you may have an issue and need to see a psychologist. As for self-awareness, are you aware when your emotions are controlling you? Are you aware when you have upset someone? Are you aware when you might be wrong?

Having some knowledge of the different personality disorders that exist and having a basic understanding of human nature and psychology has I believe helped me to become a better flight instructor and business owner. There are plenty of days where I myself could have been more self-aware and empathetic to both my staff and students, and like everyone, I have my own fair share of negative traits which I work on reducing while trying to also increase my positive ones.

The reason I keep growing my business and teaching individuals how to fly is because I enjoy developing meaningful relationships with the 99% of customers and staff who have nothing but goodwill towards themselves and others.

Thanks for taking the time to read this blog today, and, if this post made you really upset or angry, then maybe flight training is not for you…



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