People do not normally associate the fear of heights with pilots and their flight crews, but what do those who find themselves in the cockpit suffering from a fear of heights do?
Many people across the globe find themselves dealing with acrophobia, the fear of heights. For Eighteen year-old Israelis who are drafted into the IAF, they are forced to deal with this problem long before stepping into an IAF aircraft and must decide whether the pilot’s course is the right decision.
Amid their service, some IAF pilots and members of flight crews ironically find themselves grounded by fear after having flown fighter jets or navigating transport planes for years.
In response, the Israeli Air Force has developed tools for coping and caring for those suffering from a fear of heights.
The main goal of members of the Air Force’s medical unit is to ensure the operational competence of IAF aircrews.
“When a pilot is exposed to a fear of heights at high altitude, function and discretion are impaired, especially in tasks that demand concentration like operating aircraft,” says Major Doctor Rinat Yedidya, the lead psychologist of the medical unit for the Air Force.
“In a situation where a member of an air-crew comes to us due to fear, we check the combination of three elements: how much the fear harms the person, how much the fear harms the plane and how much it might harm the mission. Given these factors, we decide whether to ground the pilot or to begin treatment.”
Overall, the Air Force rarely sees quitters. If there is an opportunity for a crew member to take the initiative and begin treatment, they rarely say no.
Dr. Yedidya emphasizes that grounding a pilot is done according to the approval of the corps medical officer and is only approved after much consideration.
“Grounding is a complicated action that requires great delicacy”, she explains. “Sometimes, when we are talking about depression, grounding can even worsen the problems. There are pilots who can’t live without flying and prolonged detention to the ground depresses them even more”.
The biggest problem, however, begins when members of air-crews are not ready to admit they have a problem and refuse treatment.
“We do not initiate psychological testing in an air-crew”, explains Dr. Yedidya. “On the other hand, not many of them admit that they have problems. This is a special population with exceptional qualities. Most of them will continue to fly and grind their teeth even if it is difficult for them to cope with the flight and the height”.
After everything, the main goal of members of the Air Force’s medical unit is to enable the operational competence of members of air-crews.
Flying with a Fear of Heights
Once a week, Major Oded, a reservist navigator for the IAF, goes down to the Nevatim Air Force Base. He serves on a Hercules Airplane as a navigator for the transport plane in the “Elephant” Squadron.
Oded has a fear of heights, but it does not manifest itself during flight. He overcame the fear of flying when he was a teenager. His father got a private pilots license and took Oded flying. “When I saw that from the air the height is not so intimidating,” he admits, “the fear simply wasn’t there. I felt much safer.”
Even when he got the invitation to the pilot’s course, Oded was still unsure of himself. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go…I had a feeling that it wasn’t for me mainly because of my fear of heights.”
Eventually, Oded realized he was not the only one who felt this way. “I remember that when I was sitting in a circle with the guys from the squadron I realized to my surprise that quite a few pilots had a fear of heights,” he recalls. “It was pretty similar in all of us and it seems that it is mainly due to situations in which you don’t have full control.”
Despite their fear of heights, they simply are not afraid of flying. Oded understood the beauty of flight during his first flight in a Hercules C-130 when he looked out the window. The windows are big, from floor to ceiling, and he had a full view of the sky and ground below.
“The biggest fear I had in the course was from parachuting,” claims Oded. “We had a parachuting instructor, a reservist. I connected with him a lot and he chose me to jump first. From the moment he told me this, I thought about cowardly backing out and telling him ‘no’.”
Eventually, Oded took the jump and this helped him pass the last hurdle to conquer his fear. He says, “In the end, these seconds were very nice. Looking down was like spreading a map of the country out on a table. I didn’t feel a lack of control. I don’t know why, but if I stand on this tall building I would definitely tremble.”
Using skydiving to defeat acrophobia
There is a place where skydiving is combined with psychological help in order to overcome the fear of heights. A private company offers such workshops for people hoping to overcome their fear.
“Skydiving always sounds like something dangerous and scary”, says Ziv Kochba, Vice President for the company that operates the workshop. Ziv himself has thousands of jumps under his belt.
“In actuality, the fear disappears the moment you leave the plane. Skydiving is a great experience that is impossible to describe in words, an experience that can change your life. A person who comes here with a phobia, leaves with the feeling that he can do anything.”
Ziv explains, just like the conclusion arrived at by Major Oded and the fellow members of his squadron, that fear of heights stems from a lack of control. “People who have a fear of heights cannot promise themselves that they will safely return from the jump. This fear, like other fears, is due to the difficulty in coping with uncertainty”.
“The workshop is based on a known psychological model, during which the group meets with a psychologist and together they learn tools for coping with fear. At the end of the workshop, the participants jump with a personal guide and attempt to overcome the fear. After the jump, they understand that there is a lack of rationality in fear.”