Truman ‘Slim’ Cummings, who started the first fear of flying course at Pan Am, observed that most airline pilots have fear of heights. This fear, he said, does not arise when a pilot is enclosed in the cockpit, regardless of how high up the plane may be. The fear does, however, develop when the pilot is up high in a place that is open.
Since pilots spend so much time in the air that they frequently dream that they are flying. Some of these flying dreams are in an airplane. But, in some flying dreams, the pilot flies like Mary Poppins, floating effortlessly over a city, or across the countryside.
Dreams are rather fragile; most are not remembered. Those that are remembered when waking tend to fade. Thus, the pilot’s dream of flying bodily – without an airplane – fade out of awareness.
But, they come back. When looking over the Grand Canyon, or when standing on the top of a building, a dream of floating over such a vista can begin coming back to mind. The dream is a delightful fantasy. As the forgotten dream returns, the pilot may think, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful just to leap out there and fly across that area now.”
It was Captain Cummings’ theory that as the pilot becomes aware of the urge to jump, it causes fear or anxiety. What if the urge had been acted on before the result of doing so had been recognized?
Any possibility at all that the fantasy might have been acted upon is shocking. As the fantasy developed, it was enjoyed for a moment before it was squelched. What if it had not been squelched quickly enough?
The thought that it is possible that the urge might have been acted upon may lead the person to not trust himself to maintain sufficient continuous vigilance.
When Slim told me his theory, I thought he was “off the wall.” I didn’t believe it. A few months later, I took my kids to Disney World. When on the open cable car that takes visitors from one end of the park to the other, I noticed what Captain Cummings had talked about. I became aware of a vague desire to leap out and fly across Disney World. Now that Captain Cummins’ interpretation of fear of heights had broken through my psychological defenses, the impulse to leap was strong enough to make me uncomfortable. By grasping the side rails with both hands, I reassured myself that the urge would not be impulsively acted on.
That experience led me to believe Captain Cummings was right. We do have these dreams. We do enjoy the fantasy of flying like Mary Poppins or Superman, at least until we become mindful that we might not be trustworthy enough, not in control enough, or not vigilant enough. These questions cause anxiety, and possibly fear.
Fear of high places also has to do with something called proprioception. Proprioception refers to the brain’s unconscious sense of body-in-space. Essentially we use five systems to determine where our bodies are in relation to their environment and where various parts of our bodies are in relation to one another.
Our eyes are spaced slightly apart. To see things that are close, the eyes slightly cross. To see things farther away, they cross less. The amount of crossing of the eyes is sensed unconsciously. When we focus – and cross – to look at some object, if we are standing up, if we start to go off balance and to lean toward it, we cross a bit more, sense that and automatically correct. If we start to go off balance and to lean away from it, we cross a bit less, sense that and automatically correct our balance.
When we are up high, such as on the top of a building, when we look out, there is nothing within thirty feet (the eyes don’t cross or uncross enough past thirty feet for us to sense it). But you still need to balance, and up high, balance may seem more urgent. So your eyes try to find something to use to help you keep your balance, and your sense of orientation in space. They search out, find nothing, and then search back closer, find nothing, search out, find nothing, search in, find nothing. This causes you to have vertigo.
Just at the time when you need your balance most, up high where you might fall, your primary sense of balance – the eyes – run into difficulty. Since he eyes are searching in and out, vision may be throwing your balance off.
So if you have fear of heights, I think you ought to cut yourself some slack about it. It may be nothing more than the result of dreams of flying like Mary Poppins. Or, it may be completely normal proprioceptive awareness when up high and more than 30 feet from anything your eyes can lock on to. Or, it may be that you are far away from where you can use your own two feet to escape. That can be important if concerned about panic.
So what’s the bottom line. As Captain Cummings noticed, in the cockpit, pilots have no fear of falling. When enclosed, they don’t have the fantasy – or the urge – to fly like Mary Poppins. They, unlike anxious fliers, know the plane cannot fall. That knowledge comes from how the plane feels when controlling it by hand. Just as you have to apply force to your car’s steering wheel to make it turn, pilots have to apply force to the planes controls to make it turn, or to climb, or to descend.
But, lacking the physical experience of controlling a plane, an anxious flier is unconvinced that the plane is solidly held by the air. Seeing is believing, and if nothing can be seen holding the plane up, how is one to believe it will stay up?
We relieve “seeing is believing” anxiety with the Jell-O-Exercise. If being up high in a plane leads to anxiety, see this video on the SOAR website. Open the “Resources” menu and select “Free Video.” Scroll down to find The Jello-O-Exercise.
Fear of heights can also develop when there is concern about having a panic attack. Our most basic way of controlling our feelings is being able to approach things that interest us and to back away from things that frighten us. When the plane lifts us off the ground, we lose that basic means of control. And the higher the plane is from the earth, the farther the person is removed from control. If a panic attack should develop, the person has no way to escape the confines of the plane. Panic sufferers know that they are much more comfortable on the ground floor of a department store than on a higher floor. If they start to panic, if they are on the second or third floor, they have to work their way down to the ground floor before they can exit the store to gain relief. This means, of course, that some fear of heights is due to thoughts of how much distress must be endured before being able to escape. The higher up the plane is from the ground, the father the person is from relief.
Fortunately, the SOAR program has ways to address all these issues, and thus to make being in an airplane, at any altitude, a comfortable experience.