My Ph.D. in Fear
By JJ Sinclair
by Peter Kelly, Editor
In every city in America, there are incidents on our highways every day that are “nearly accidents”, but you don’t hear about them. The same is true in aviation. There are lots of incidents that are “almost accidents”, but you don’t hear about them either. JJ is a skilled aviator, as he has amply demonstrated, however, unlike many other skilled aviators, JJ is also a gifted story teller, and he shares that gift with us. This is a story with a message. As with all other stories on these related web pages, feel free to copy and even republish this story, with the understanding that you will acknowledge in the reprint, the source of this material.
And now, without further introduction, is that experienced aviator, who is willing to talk about it……..
Honorary, Doctor JJ Sinclair.
At 68 years old, I’m all through being macho, let’s talk about something most of us have experienced to one degree or another — Fear in the Cockpit.
I know fear like few others. I know what it smells like (sweat), I know what it tastes like (dry mouth), I know what it feels like (peach seed in the pit of my stomach). Most of us are equipped with a built in fear warning device we call *the little voice* and when it goes off, it says, “You’re going to die.” After flying 200 combat missions and ejecting twice, I hold the equivalent of a Ph.D. in fear.
I know how it feels to fly again when your body says; “Don’t do it.” I threw up on my first flight after ejecting from the RF-4. After ejecting from the F-111, every fiber in my body screamed, “don’t do it, don’t be a fool, they offered you a ground job, take it.” I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. Truth is, I would have dropped that F-111 without a second thought, but I was building a sailplane and I knew if I chickened out on mlitary flying, I would probably never fly the Duster.
So, I’m an admitted coward, right. Not so, the coward runs from his fears. I think it takes courage to face your fear and learn ways to deal with it. Fear is a natural emotion, fear is what kept us from playing in traffic when we were young, that and the fear of what our mother would do, if you survived the traffic. When Kenny Bregleb was attempting to break the world land speed record, he was haunted by a reoccurring dream where he saw himself dying in a flaming ball of twisted wreckage. It got so bad that he finally went to see a shrink about it. After listening patiently to Kenny’s dream, the shrink told him, “there’s nothing wrong with you and if you keep driving that race car you ARE going to die in a flaming ball of twisted wreckage.”
I remember one day in Laos, we were doing a road reconnaissance on a little dirt road that was part of the Ho Chi Min trail. We were at 500 feet, 420 knots, cameras on, things going OK. Our road followed a little river and up ahead I could see the road and river went into a canyon (fear factor 1). To make things more interesting, I started to see tracer rounds coming by the cockpit (fear factor 2). My pilot shoved in the power as we entered the canyon doing 600 knots (fear factor 3). The canyon walls rose sharply and, in a heart beat, they towered over us a good 500 feet (fear factor 4). My pucker factor was getting out of control as I started biting button holes in my seat cushion and the little voice started in with the only phrase it knew, “you’re going to die.” Up ahead I could see that our little road and river made a sharp turn to the left, and so did the canyon (fear factor 5). My pilot stood her on the left wing and pulled about 5 G’s (fear factor 6). We made the turn and didn’t hit the far wall of the canyon. Then I saw that our little road and river was making a hard right turn (fear factor 7). We rolled from a 90 degree left bank, immediately into a 90 degree right bank, pulling 5 G’s in both turns, with nothing but canyon walls on both sides (fear factor 10). OK, boss, that’s the end of our assigned task, GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE.
Some of us (most, I think) experience fear in our soaring. It usually is associated with slope soaring. We call it, getting on the rocks, rock polishing, talking to the squirrels, counting pine cones, and other catchy phrases. I do know a few soaring pilots who are afraid of the rocks, and with good reason. We just buried a damn good pilot that hit the rocks.
I don’t think you should be doing anything in a sailplane that you aren’t comfortable with, but you can’t be a successful cross country pilot without using the rocks. I don’t think you should ever be completely comfortable on the rocks, but you shouldnot fear them. When on the rocks, we are in fact, very close to instant death. So how do we handle our fear, what do we do when the little voice says, You’re going to die? It took years, but I have taught my little voice a new phrase, it now says; “If you don’t follow the rules, you’re going to die.”
When on the rocks, we must be thinking about the wind, sunny side of the hill, hot rocks, sharp pinnacles, and deep canyons that will funnel the lift upward. We must follow the rules. Keep the speed up. Don’t circle until you fly by once and check the air. Always have an escape route.
There’s nothing wrong with being concerned when flying near the rocks. You need to have a healthy respect for them. If you play on the rocks and don’t follow the rules, the little voice is right, You ARE going to die.
If you are new to soaring or just haven’t felt comfortable chatting with the squirrels, I recommend you fly with an experienced mountain man and then ease into it, at whatever level you are comfortable with. You must push the edge of your comfort zone though, or you will never progress to the highest level, that of “Rock Polisher Extrordinaire.”
In the western part of the United States, I do not believe you can be a successful cross country pilot without excellent rock polishing credentials.
See you on the sunny side of the rocks,