Risky Business

It always amuses my students when I tell them I was scared of heights. Why is it when you’re standing on the edge of a tall building or a bridge you feel weak-kneed and woozy with fear – but not when you’re streaking along at 83 percent of the speed of sound at 41000 feet?
Glen Dell thought I was crazy when I told him I’d bungie jumped off a bridge, had multiple static line parachute jumps, and even had a full minute of free-fall during a tandem plummet. The conversation was about managing risk.
“Why would you want to take such chances?” he frowned. (This from the world aerobatic champ who spends most of his free time inverted at low level!) “Because like most people, I’m afraid of heights and have a need to overcome my fear,” I explained.

In truth, most fear is totally irrational and is based solely on the mind’s ‘perception’ of danger – not necessarily on the ‘reality’ of danger.

The only fear a human baby is born with, is the fear of falling. All other fears are learned. Either culturally, socially or by experience. And people often grow more fearful with age. Fear of spiders. Fear of snakes. Fear of water. Fear of commitment. The dictionary is full of fancy words describing all kinds of phobias. But eventually you realize that if the fearful object or activity is analyzed rationally, and its inherent risks accurately assessed – most of the time it’s not nearly as fearful as you first perceived it! (I hope my adrenaline junky son doesn’t read this – I’m trying to convince him to show a little more respect for fear! For years I’ve taught him to “fear nothing – but respect everything.” Of all my boring lectures, I wish he hadn’t taken that one quite so literally! Truly, the angels look after kids!)

But take Paragliding. Provided your equipment is serviceable and you don’t fly in conditions or locations beyond your level of expertise, it has to be one of the safest and most pleasant aviation activities possible.

Same with Hang Gliding. Only here, there is a significantly higher level of training required to become competent, and therefore a corresponding increase in risk. It’s all about assessing the consequences of the activity accurately, and then managing it down to the safest level of acceptability. This is done by limiting the truly dangerous aspects, then training for the factors you can’t eliminate completely. This is what makes low level aerobatics one mans insanity, and yet another mans carefully practiced routine. It’s all relative to what you’ve been trained for.

How often have you seen the high-wire circus performer put his head in the lion’s mouth? To both men, the others act is unacceptably dangerous. But being experts in their own fields diminishes the danger to an acceptable level.

Of all the ‘risky’ activities I’ve partaken in (that’s my insurance company’s definition – not mine) it always surprises people that I consider bungie jumping the safest of them all. That’s not to say it wasn’t the most mentally challenging to surmount! It most certainly was, but it also had the most predictable threats. Throwing yourself off a bridge does not come naturally to most people, though I did notice that some gung-hos have the ability to ‘just do it’ – without thinking first. However, I considered that to be cheating!

The real challenge wasn’t the jump – it was in overcoming your inborn primal fear of falling, in a rational thoughtful manner. Otherwise, what was the point? I needed to stand on the Gouritz River Bridge for a full hour, assessing the risks coherently, before I jumped. For those who aren’t familiar with this bridge, it has a drop of some 94 meters, apparently making it the third highest commercial jump in the world at that time. I certainly had no intention of endangering my life – or the welfare of my family – but I knew I had to conquer this fear. Or face the certainty of future regrets one day as a geriatric in a rocking chair. I really needed to tick this one off the list.

After watching at least a dozen screaming plunges, I realized that the real danger lay in my mind. I assessed each factor of the operation critically. How much redundancy was built into the system? Where was the weakness? If a failure occurred – where was it likely to take place? The variable factors were surprisingly few. The bridge was strong. If it could support all the cars speeding across it – it was unlikely my excess body weight would strain it to the point of collapse. Likewise, the bungie itself was made up of hundreds of individual strands of rubber, tested to 900 percent of the expected load – what were the chances of them all failing at the same time? Provided the bungie was securely fastened to the bridge, and suitably fastened to me – there was very little that could go wrong. The possibilities for human error were minimal.

The most critical variable I identified was the weighing of the jumper. This determines how much slack needs to be adjusted to make sure the bungie doesn’t stretch you into the river. As the jumper is tethered by the ankles and also by a double harness around the body, I found very little else to rationally frighten my irrationally terrified mind. Only the launch technique remained a concern. I’d watched as a few previous jumpers’ plummeted feet first, only to be whip-lashed at the bottom when the bungie reached the end of its travel. This risked spinal or neck injuries and apparently even retinal detachment. Clearly the safest technique was to launch your body off the bridge horizontally with as much of a push-off as possible. Some activities are only necessary to be performed once in a lifetime, so I had the whole event video taped for some distant future flirting with the biddies in the old age home. Was I a screamer? Let’s just say that my kids are only allowed to watch it with the volume turned down! (Don’t want them to discover what a sissy their father really is!) Did jumping cure my fear? Well, not entirely. Naturally many jumps are required to desensitize oneself from the sensation. But at least I’m one up on it now. Fear and stress do funny things to a person. A famous Springbok rugby player is absolutely terrified of flying and is reputed to have been reduced to tears in turbulence. Clearly even the macho amongst us have their limit.

So much so that SAA runs a “flying with confidence” course to help nervous passengers address their anxieties in a rational manner. One of our pilots, accompanied by a psychologist conduct lectures on the weekend covering basic aerodynamics, followed by a visit to the hangar and the simulator. The course was incredibly successful and was always well attended. Unfortunately since 911 the simulator and cockpit visit had to be dispensed with.

Many years ago I did a charter for an engineering firm on a six seater Piper Seneca. The aircraft had club seating in the back and after loading the first four passengers through the rear door, I boarded the aircraft through the over-wing door, followed closely by my last passenger who was to take his place in the right seat beside me. In spite of me briefing him, he climbed in, and to my disbelief proceeded to try wedge himself through the tiny gap between the two front seats; in an effort to get into the back with his colleagues – who he’d just witnessed, fill up the rear cabin! I was astonished! Why would a highly educated man attempt a maneuver that was so obviously impossible? Had I missed a point on my briefing? Years later I would learn that the first of the senses to fail under stress, was hearing. The stress of fear had pushed him over the edge and even his engineering background couldn’t help him rationalize his thoughts properly.

Everyone experiences stress. A certain amount is actually good for you. In the right doses it’s a great motivator and a catalyst to enhanced performance. But push it a little too far and watch the wheels fall off. SAA instructors see it all the time with their students in the simulator. Sitting in my ‘genius seat’ behind the crew I often watch in amazement as decisions are sometimes made that defy comprehension. Being unstressed, any instructor can accurately study the effect stress has on his crew. From my vantage point it becomes fascinatingly evident at what point the stress of an exercise becomes overwhelming. Sometimes it’s a fine line between a flawless performance to an absolute bugger-up. And yet, when it’s my turn for the bi-annual flight test, I make the same seemingly incomprehensible errors. That’s stress for you. (This is the reason emergencies are handled in the manner detailed in my previous article – where the captain deliberately reverts to the less stressful management role.)

The simulator isn’t called the ‘sweat box’ for nothing. In fact under certain circumstances it’s been known to make grown men cry!

Everyone – no matter how good an aviator they are, has a stress threshold beyond which their performance will radically deteriorate. Stretching that stress threshold to the optimum is one of the reasons simulator training at an airline level is so intense. A fighter pilot friend once told me of an experience he’d had during the border war in the 1980’s when he pulled up to the vertical in his Mirage F1 over enemy territory. He glanced over his shoulder to see the smoke plume of a SAM (surface to air missile) following him up.

Initially he was rather excited, thinking that there was no way it could catch him. In fact he was almost euphoric with exhilaration – until he realized the missile was staying in the same relative position!

The missile was clearly about to hit him! That realization pushed him over his stress threshold and he told me he was reduced to an uncoordinated gibbering wreck in a split second. Fortunately the missile ran out of propellant before it could reach him. During another charter in a Cessna Citation for a mining company we flew six passengers up to Orapa for a night stop. That night we all dined together, and during the course of the conversation the captain I was flying with related an accident he’d been involved in at Rand airport in a DC3 many years previously. They’d lost an engine after takeoff and couldn’t make it around the circuit back to the runway. The crash claimed several lives.

I noticed one of our passengers became very quiet. Much later, feeling like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, that was to become my most vital clue. The next day we flew them down to Jwaneng in very blustery windy conditions. Consequently we overshot the centre-line onto our final approach requiring a fairly sharp turn to line up for the landing. By the time we’d shut down, this particular passenger had literally wet himself!

That was the end of the charter! As he also happened to be the boss, they resolved to drive home the next day. What had happened? It had all started the night before at the dinner table! My captain’s story had so unnerved the poor passenger, it had figuratively pushed his already innate fear of flying to the edge. All that was required was a little turbulence and a steep turn to push it right over.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why pilots will always have a job. A century after the first aeroplane lifted off the ground, and you still find humans with the same basic inherent fear of flight. Technology has ended the careers of radio operators, navigators and now flight engineers, but he same basic human fear of flying will always ensure that even though the technology exists to replace pilots – no human passenger (myself included) will ever feel safe flying around the world with only ‘Intel Inside’ the cockpit.

Postscript: What do I consider the riskiest activity? Without doubt, deepwater cave diving. There are simply too many uncontrolled variables and too many possibilities for human error in that pursuit. That’s why I only dive in open ocean in a group, and never deeper than 20 meters. And Heaven help the shark that comes near me!

On a daily basis though, there’s nothing riskier than being in your car in Johannesburg traffic. Think of the propensity for danger in that exercise. Now that’s REALLY scary!

The author is an A340 Training Captain with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College George.

Seraphinite AcceleratorBannerText_Seraphinite Accelerator
Turns on site high speed to be attractive for people and search engines.