Fear to Take Flight
When I was a kid, I was fearless. I ran with scissors and other sharp objects. I’d climb as high as I could, and then jump right off.
When I was in the eighth grade, my family and I went on a cruise to the Bahamas. We weren’t wealthy by any measure, but I think my dad had won some money on a Super Bowl pool . . . so there we were.
It was the first time I had been out of the country, and the ship was docked at a port in Nassau. I don’t remember much about the buffet or onboard entertainment because I was busy jumping off the back of the ship at the challenge of another young guest. Today, that kind of thing goes viral, and not in a positive way. Back then, there was a much smaller audience for my risky behavior. I was lucky to surface in one piece. But I was a slow learner.
It wouldn’t be the last time I jumped--or, more accurately, fell--from the back of a ship.
When I was on a port call in Spain aboard a training ship in college, some of my classmates and I hatched a plan to sneak ashore for a night of excitement. We devised a scheme to use a ladder to climb down to the dock. I was the first to go. But the ladder wasn’t secured, so I fell about fifty feet directly into the water with a heavy rope-and-wood ladder wrapped around me. Disappearing into the dark waters didn’t even faze me at the time. It was just another college prank.
This is the kind of story that you laugh about later, but my casual attitude about falling off large boats was not the quality that showed I had “the right stuff” to be an astronaut. I didn’t know it at the time, but that kind of fearlessness was exactly what I would need to overcome if I was going to survive.
My experience of fear started to change when I was in flight school learning to fly the TA-4J Skyhawk, the US Navy’s advanced jet trainer. I remember one particular day at Goliad Field, a little airstrip in the middle of the grasslands of southeast Texas, where I was practicing the skills I’d need to qualify to land on an aircraft carrier. It was uneventful--I did my ten landings and turned around to come home. When I got out of the plane and came up into the ready room, it was clear that something had happened. The other pilots in my class were all looking somber. And quiet.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Someone told me: “Bryce crashed. He’s dead.”
Bryce Gearhart was my friend. He had been on the next practice landing session directly after mine. He’d come into his landing pattern a little too fast, yanked back on the stick too hard, pulled too many g’s, and lost consciousness. He flew right into the ground.
It had been a pretty routine flight, during the day, in good weather. All of a sudden, my friend--a guy nearly the same age as me--was dead.
I remember thinking, Life is more fragile than I’d believed.
In the course of my career in the military and at NASA, I’ve lost many friends and colleagues--more than forty people--in aviation and space mishaps. Seeing skilled pilots and astronauts lose their lives has a way of resetting your fear factor. So has nearly killing myself with the smallest mistakes.
One of my near misses happened when I was flying the F-14 Tomcat. It’s an impressive machine but challenging to fly, and especially difficult to land on an aircraft carrier.
That night, I was flying combat air patrol in the Persian Gulf with my back seater, Chuck “Gunny” Woodard. We were a couple hundred miles from the ship. It was a perfectly clear night with a bright Moon. The ship signaled that we were allowed to come back early, and we were happy because it was late and we were tired. We had a lot of fuel left, which meant we could get back fast.
I moved the throttles into full afterburner and pretty soon we were supersonic, faster than the speed of sound and heading for the ship. At about thirty miles out, we started our descent. We were supposed to hit that point at 250 knots, but as we approached it, it was clear we were going way too fast. I tried to slow down, pulling too many g’s--just like Bryce on the day he crashed.
Then, as we descended, we were suddenly surrounded by a thick fog. Pretty soon the aircraft carrier started turning, which further disoriented me. Suddenly, the radar altimeter started going off, signaling that we were getting close to the water. But with so much going on, the sound was too distracting, so I shut it off.
The next thing I heard was Gunny yelling, “Pull up!”
Instinct kicked in. I pulled back on the stick. When I looked at my instruments, I saw we were passing through 800 feet descending at 4,000 feet per minute. We were only twelve seconds away from hitting the water.
We barely made it. We bottomed out at about 300 feet and then climbed back to our normal altitude. Somehow I was able to put the thoughts of almost being dead behind me and focus on the task at hand: landing on the ship. We managed to regain our composure and flew back to the ship in silence. It wasn’t a great landing but good enough considering the circumstances.
That night, I was scared straight. Never again did I ignore what that radar altimeter was trying to tell me. I depended on that instrument for my life and I always remembered that.
Winston Churchill once said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
I have to respectfully disagree. While I’ve never had to dodge a literal bullet, I do have some experience with nearly killing myself. It’s not “exhilarating”; it just scares the crap out of you.
It does, however, have a way of focusing your attention on what matters.
As I advanced in my career and got closer to flying missions in space, I became better acquainted with fear. Feeling it. Respecting it. And knowing exactly how to work through it. But these are skills no one trains you for. To master fear, you have to learn it the hard way.
When the space shuttle was still flying, we used to have a meeting called the “pilot symposium.” The space shuttle commanders and pilots--NASA’s terms for “pilots” and “copilots”--would gather to go over the most recent landings. We’d review what went right and what went wrong. Every detail was scrutinized . . . and so was our performance.
At one of these meetings, a commander who’d landed the shuttle recently explained how his leg shook uncontrollably while he was applying the brakes to bring the space shuttle to a stop. As he described this phenomenon, he said he was confused as to why this had happened to his leg.
But all of us who’d spent time on aircraft carriers looked at each other. We realized that the commander was an air force colonel--he’d never had to do the terrifying aircraft carrier landings we had. He hadn’t learned this lesson yet. . . . But we knew exactly what had happened.
What he was describing was completely normal in a high-pressure situation. About half the time I landed on the ship, one of my legs would shake uncontrollably, just as he described. That’s what happens when you’ve got to land a 64-foot-wide fighter jet on a 250-foot-wide landing strip that’s often pitching, rolling, heaving, and always moving away from you at an angle. We’d learned the hard way how adrenaline floods your system in high-pressure moments, causing uncontrollable muscle shakes--no matter how well trained you are.
I disagree with FDR’s famous line that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In my experience, fear focuses our attention and energy toward the biggest threat and teaches some of life’s most valuable lessons.
Fear is in you. It’s a part of you. It puts you on high alert. We are biologically wired to experience its effects. And usually, there’s a good reason for it. But there’s a balance you have to find: you can’t let fear overwhelm and incapacitate you, either. If you can master the fear, it will sharply focus your senses and attention and allow you to perform at a higher level of ability.
Prior to my first spaceflight, I was strapped into my seat on the space shuttle several hours before launch, and I had a chance to feel deep, concentrated fear. Lying on my back, atop 4 million pounds of liquid and solid propellants about to be burned by a machine with 2,000 switches and circuit breakers, 230 miles of wiring, and 30,000 fragile tiles that have to withstand temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees, I had time to think about how it would only take one malfunctioning part to cause a catastrophe--not the most reassuring thought in the world.
Especially knowing that the space shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after launch, I knew I was taking a risk. The space shuttle had a failure rate of 1.5 percent, a nearly 1 in 70 chance of dying on each mission. Almost the same odds of dying on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day during World War II.
Knowing all this, I thought a lot about my own mortality leading up to each launch. I’d write letters to each of my family members to be opened only in the event of my demise. I gave them to my brother to hold on to. I held on to letters for him on each of his flights, and luckily neither of us ever had the grim job of handing them out.
Every launch I learned to channel my fear into being supremely focused on what I needed to do. I focused on the things I could control and ignored the things I couldn’t. By now I had learned that fear wasn’t something to brush aside but instead was one of life’s greatest teachers and tools.
Often, what’s on the other side of fear is what’s most rewarding. Change is scary, failure is scary, life can be scary! But if we don’t push ourselves and challenge ourselves despite the uncertainty, we will never know what we can achieve. This may be the first time in your life when you have real control over your circumstances and the consequences of your actions. Be thoughtful and consider the repercussions, but take risks and challenge your fears. Apply to that reach school or the job you think you might not get. Have outrageous goals and dreams. Embrace fear as your guide. Let it be your call to action. Inaction guarantees a disappointing result. So don’t let panic paralyze you. Without testing our boundaries and doing the things that most unnerve us, we will never know all that we’re capable of and how high we can fly.
Move to achieve big dreams or stand still and stay small.
My failure to land the F-14 on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier almost killed my dream of being an astronaut--and came close to killing me. But mastering that fear and that skill enabled me to move from fighter pilot to test pilot to astronaut.
Failure Is an Option
I’d love to be less predictable, but there’s a decent chance that as you read this, I am watching Apollo 13.
I love Apollo 13. It’s one of those films that I always stop to rewatch if I’m flipping through the channels.
Everybody remembers that moment in the movie when legendary flight director Gene Kranz addresses his Mission Control crew and says, “Failure is not an option.”
It’s a great scene. Don’t get me wrong. But here’s some NASA truth for you: Gene didn’t actually say that line during the mission. It was later, when a production team was interviewing him for the film and he was asked if people in Mission Control ever panicked. He said, “No. When bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”
While it’s a great line, I’ve never gravitated to it as much as other fans seem to. For me, failure has always been an option. I experienced it my whole childhood and sometimes even professionally, and I’ve never wanted to let go of its lessons.
In fact, when I was a kid, failure was kind of my thing. I couldn’t pay attention in class, couldn’t do homework, couldn’t focus enough to do anything my teachers expected of me. I was the epitome of the late bloomer when it came to learning. My talents lay in other areas, like plummeting from great heights.
When I was in second grade, I still couldn’t read well, so my mother took me to see her mother, my grandmother, a special education teacher who specialized in reading. She sat with me patiently, going over letters and sounds, for two or three sessions, until one afternoon when my mother came to pick me up.
As I was leaving, my grandmother finally looked my mother in the eyes and told her, “This kid is just dumb. . . . He will never learn how to read. I’m not doing this anymore.”
It takes a special kind of failure to make your own grandmother resign.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to succeed--I always started a new school year with the best of intentions. On the first day I would give myself a stern talking-to: “This is the year I’m going to turn this thing around. This year, I’ll pay attention, keep up, do my homework every day, and not be a failure.”
And sure enough, by the third day, I’d be three days behind on homework and have no idea what was going on in class. It was hopeless. I would spend the rest of the year staring out the window wondering what was going on outside . . . or staring at the clock to see if it would move any faster. It never did.
Mercifully, I managed to graduate in the bottom half of my high school class and squeaked my way into college. I might not have gone to college at all if I’d been able to think of anything better to do. But once I got there, I vowed to make a fresh start.
By day three, I found myself in a familiar place--three days behind on homework and having no idea what was going on in class. One more time, my sincere intention had turned into a total failure to engage with the work, which resulted in me just giving up. I couldn’t pay attention and had no idea how to study. Eventually I stopped even going to class. Failure seemed like the only option. Success seemed impossible.