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Don’t Panic!

by Dave Hernandez, Sweet Aviation Helicopter Flight Instructor

My fellow sci-fi fans will instantly recognize this as the advice given in large, bold letters on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But it actually is rather good advice for aviation. Human beings are prone to what is called the startle reflex. Startle reflex is the brain’s reaction to a startling stimuli.That stimuli can be a low rotor RPM warning horn, a stall warning horn, a loud bang from the engine, or any number of things. It takes the conscious mind roughly 500 milliseconds or more to process this new information, during which time the thalamus is funneling all that sensory information to the amygdala, which can process it in as little as 14 milliseconds.

Here’s the problem. When our amygdala reacts, it tends to do so in an emotional manner and can trigger our “flight or fight response.” In emergency situations, our brain tends to look to confirm suspicions rather than look for alternatives. By the time our conscious mind is aware of the problem, a number of autonomous things are happening that we can’t control. Circulation increases to the brain and muscles, the heartbeat increases rapidly, muscles tense for action, and adrenal glands start pumping adrenaline into our body.

These reactions are super useful for combat, fighting a bear, or surviving an overflowing river, but they can have a negative impact on our ability to think through problems. Studies show that after an initial startle, the brain may have trouble analyzing the situation for 30 seconds or more. In addition, automation and increasingly reliable aircraft have led to an expectation that things will go right, all the time, making it even more of a surprise when they don’t.

Fear not, friends! There are ways we can prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed. First and foremost is training. Practice emergency procedures regularly. It helps diminish the sensory overload in a real emergency. In a number of studies, pilots who regularly practiced emergency procedures (even if only in a simulator), reacted far more precisely and accurately when overwhelmed than their counterparts who did not. Second, hand fly the aircraft occasionally, so you don’t let yourself get rusty. Finally, if the worst should happen, remember that great advice from the beginning: DON’T PANIC! Taking a second to evaluate the situation and take proper action will serve much better than initiating an incorrect recovery.

Clear skies and happy flying!

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