The pathological dread of high places known as acrophobia is surprisingly common among pilots.
When my best friend from Perth told me she was coming to Sydney this month, I asked her what she’d like to do during her stay. She responded that she simply wanted to “hang out” with me and do absolutely nothing but chill. I suggested that I couldn’t have her come 3000km just to “hang out” and insisted that we “had” to do “something” to make her trip a memorable one. She maintained that we didn’t need to do anything, she just wanted to relax. My stubborn nature kicked in and for a second time I insisted that we needed to do something: go to Taronga Zoo, visit Darling Harbour, the Opera House, Bondi Beach, the Blue Mountains. Anything.
“OK, if you insist … let’s climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge,” she suggested. Her words dropped me stone cold. As I stuttered and stammered, she simply announced that as she’d done the bridge climb before and had absolutely loved the experience, “You, my best friend, will love it too.”
I paused for what must have seemed like an eternity and she asked me what was wrong. She even had the temerity to ask if I was scared of heights. She teased me and questioned my manhood. Backed into a corner I reminded her that I was a pilot – indeed, a pilot endorsed to fly aerobatics – and it was silly of her to think that I’d be scared of a mere bridge climb.
When I hung up the phone, I thought, uh, oh … what have I got myself into? Oh my gosh, what have I done? Fact is, I’m scared wittless by heights. Not just a little apprehensive. Not wide-eyed concerned. We’re talking finger-prints-in-the-nearest-solid-object scared of heights. And right now I can hear heads nodding all across Australia as pilots check in with their me-too vote. As courageous as pilots are reputed to be, when it comes to having your knees turn to mush at the top of a ladder, it seems as if many of us stand on the yellow side of brave.
It appears as if a much higher percentage of pilots have acrophobia (no, not fear of acrobatics) than the general population. You mention this to non-pilots and they all find it strange that pilots have a fear of heights. Mention it to pilots and they think it’s strange too, but since they are probably phobic themselves, they usually change the subject.
I can see where non-pilots think it odd that people who fly have a strong fear of falling. Personally, I think it’s odd that they’d think it odd—having a fear of falling is only common sense, right? Everyone has it, but it seems as if those of us who opt to leave the ground on a regular basis have more of that kind of fear. Or more of that brand of common sense.
Those of us who truly know the fear that comes from looking down from high places fully realise that there’s an illogical aspect to our fear: none of us feel those weak kneed, sweaty-palm sensations when looking down from an aeroplane. So why are we affected by high places?
In my own case, I never felt any fear while skydiving and I routinely sit on the doorsill of doorless Cessnas, one foot on the gear leg, the other jammed against the doorframe while shooting air-to-air photography. Not once have I felt a twinge of any kind. Yet, standing at the top of the Bulli Pass admiring the view of the NSW south coast, can make me nauseous. Strange, but true. We’re talking white-knuckle fear here, folks. So, what gives? Why do we turn to quivering lumps of humanity when on solid objects looking down but we don’t when in aeroplanes?
I’d love to say I have some theories, but I don’t have a clue. None of us do. That’s one reason acrophobics enjoy it when we run into another kindred, panicked soul. It’s as if we’re some sort of strange species and we’re delighted to find someone who speaks our language and understands this peculiar mental quirk. While we’re perfectly happy to joke and laugh about it with those not afflicted, the truth is, we recognise it as a weakness but can’t do a damn thing about it. If we could, we would.
This kind of mental weakness irritates the living hell out of most of us and I, for one, have tried to fight it. I suppose we a-phobics should put together some sort of support group. How about AAA – Aviation Acrophobic Anonymous, or Altitude Aversion Activists, or Actually Afraid of Altitude.
I guess some things in life are not meant to be understood, but I don’t have time to worry about that right now. I need to somehow grit my teeth and successfully climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Just “hanging out” with my best friend now seems like a perfect idea. Why did I open my big mouth?