Fear…or Trust? Where Was I This Day…?

Logbook: July 30, 1976.  Danbury, CT Municipal/Harrisburg, PA International Aircraft: Piper PA-24-260, N8743P; Time 2 hours, 30 minutes. Comment: Departure into 800′ overcast, with New York ATC; solid IFR to Harrisburg.

Who do we trust? Ourselves…or our fears

Fear…or trust? How often we are confronted with that choice, and how difficult it is to answer, so many times.

In the late 1950s, and early into the 1960s, that question served as the basis for the rather popular television show, “Who Do You Trust.” Married couples were asked to answer questions, oft-times embarrassing ones. The husband was then faced with deciding how his wife would answer.

All too often, unfortunately, the question becomes more personal, no longer a TV comedy show plot, when we are confronted with the question, “Do I trust myself?” And all too often, the question is all too difficult to answer, as we permit fear, self-doubt and anxieties rise up to challenge our trust in ourselves.

And on that July morning, in 1976, that question was placed firmly in my lap when weather reports made it inescapable that our flight that day could not be made unless I was willing to do so in total instrument conditions.

 Once Colleen and I began making cross-country trips after I got my pilot license, it became increasingly apparent that being restricted to VFR—visual flight rules, meaning flying only in good weather, clear of any clouds—was going to create problems. All too often, we had to cancel planned trips, or were delayed making return flights, because weather conditions did not permit safe—or legal—VFR flight. We soon recognized that unless, and until, I got my instrument rating that using our plane for trips was going to be problematic.

IFR—instrument flight rules—was the FAA designation for flights made with no visual reference to the horizon, to control the plane, or the ground to aid navigation and terrain avoidance. It is illegal for a pilot without an IFR rating issued by the FAA to pilot a plane in such conditions.

But obtaining an IFR rating required time, and money—quite a lot of both, in fact. Although I was determined to get the rating, at that time in our life both of those two commodities were in rather short supply. Consequently, nearly eight years elapsed from the day I got my Private Pilot license to the day I got my cherished IFR rating, on July 8, 1976.

Soon thereafter, we cranked up our Comanche for a flight to visit friends who had recently moved from Dallas to Connecticut. The flight legs to Connecticut had been in pleasant, summer weather, with only an occasional cloud to contend with. The challenge came the day we were to start our return to Dallas.

As was my usual practice, I had been watching weather forecasts for a couple of days prior to our planned departure. The prognosis was for very low ceilings, with solid IFR conditions extending into Ohio. I kept silently hoping that the forecast would improve somewhat, but that was not to be. The morning we were to leave, we awoke to a grey, foggy world. It was decision time.

IFR flight means looking at a lot of the insides of clouds

There were but two choices open to me that morning. Either I was willing to take off into a low overcast, fly in clouds with no outside visibility for over two hours, then attempt to land at an unfamiliar airport where the runway would not come into view until only a few hundred feet above the ground, or…delay the flight and wait for two or three days for good weather.

On the one hand, there should have been no reason for uncertainty. I was a legally-certified, instrument-rated pilot. I had flown many hours practicing just such flights, all to the satisfaction of both my instructor and the FAA check-pilot who had certified me. The hesitation on my part, that morning, was the awareness that on all those practice flights that seat next to me was always occupied by an instrument instructor, there to bail me out of any mess-ups I may have gotten myself into.

That day, there would be no instructor sitting there to keep me out of trouble. But the seat would not be vacant. My entire family, including our three kids, would be in the plane. Colleen would be sitting there, next to me. But in my mind, that seat would seem very, very empty. At that time, after getting my IFR rating, I had, at most, one hour of occasionally flying on my own in “sorta” instrument conditions.

But this was “game day,” with my family in the game, on the “field.” From take-off to touchdown, there would be no view out the windshield other than the grey interior of clouds, and no one to come to my aid if I screwed up.

So it was that morning, as I sat next to the telephone trying to decide whether to call the FAA and initiate my IFR flight plan, that I had to confront that choice. Who was I going to trust? Would it be my training, my self-confidence as a pilot?  Or would I succumb to my fears, my inner uncertainties and doubts about my abilities?

Approach lights to a runway can be a beautiful sight after hours in the clouds

The temptation was strong to delay our departure, wait for good weather, but we needed to be getting back home and I needed to get back to work. As I thought about various alternatives, the risks of each, and various trade-offs, a thought began to form in the back recesses of my consciousness.

This is why you got your IFR rating. Why have it, if you are hesitant to use it when it is most needed?

So, I swallowed my fears, picked up the phone and placed the call. Not long afterward, we lifted off into the murk. After flying for over two hours in the clouds, and making a very satisfying instrument approach into Harrisburg International airport, as I taxied to parking and shut it down, I was a far more confident IFR pilot than the one that made that phone call earlier in the morning.

There were moments, en route, when I would glance over at Colleen sitting there, reading a magazine, as unconcerned as if we were in our car. Her confidence in me as a pilot was a gift to me, the importance of which I doubt she ever fully comprehended. But once or twice, it did cross my mind that in one sense, I was very much alone. Fortunately, there was another moment when it occurred to me, You’ve just taken off into an 800-foot overcast, worked with New York air traffic control, and are now en route, hand-flying a plane with no better instrumentation than was on B-17 bombers…and doing okay.

As I sat beside the telephone that morning, in truth I had nothing to fear but my fears. Obviously, there was a legitimate cause for concern. All too often, private planes were lost when pilots yielded to the temptation of flying in conditions beyond their abilities. Logically, I knew I was well-qualified to make that flight. How hard it all-too-often is, though, for logic to win the battle over our fears.

But overcoming those fears can be a daunting challenge

Without doubt, that was the most difficult “go/no go” decision I ever had to confront in my forty-plus years of flying. But isn’t that always the way of it, then, those times when we are challenged by that inner question, “Who do I trust—myself, or my fears?”

Eighty years ago, this nation was faced with a fearful choice, of either committing itself to global war, knowing that decision would result in horrendous losses of the lives of those we loved, or to submit to the evil forces that were attempting to destroy freedom and democracy across the globe. President Roosevelt told us, when America was facing that frightful “go/no go” decision, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

Now, these many decades later, we as a nation again face difficult, and in many ways just as frightful, choices. It is difficult to accept what we were once told, that “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” Yet as America learned then, and as I was to prove to myself time and again, the only way those fears can be conquered is to confront them. We must prove to ourselves that, daunting as they sometimes seem, they can be overcome. Fear…or  trust? It’s up to us.

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