Control Your “Startle Response” (The DYI Lobotomy)

We humans can become totally stupid – inducing a “do it yourself lobotomy”-  when we experience threat or panic.  We have all “choked” during a test or performance and perhaps even experienced “startle” in an airplane. We suddenly are a passenger and not a pilot-in-command. Here are some techniques to cope with this natural phenomenon and increase our safety in flight.

This physiological response to a threat is a 200,000-year-old evolved reaction that puts our body in streamlined binary mode to survive a terrestrial emergency; run! When a saber tooth tiger attacks there is no need for a nuanced analysis of what color their spots are –  we need to trim down superfluous brain functions and flee. Unfortunately, our brains still run this ancient software so when we experience panic during a performance or public speaking it can be totally disabling; we “choke” and lose all brainpower.  As pilots, we call this experience a “startle” and suddenly the demands of a task exceed our capability to respond;  we function only at a primitive level – run or play dead (this “tonic mobility” is found in all animals). The important point is that this natural response to startle or panic is to some degree controllable and reversible with training.

The most extreme result of startle can be a Loss of Control, but there are many levels on the way to this event. At a lesser level of intensity, we can experience diminished cognitive capability from nervousness and anxiety and make bad decisions. I see a nascent form of this LOC continually as a flight instructor (or DPE) when my pilots reach the limit of their capability. They experience extreme nervousness and demonstrate confusion and even start to pant and get pale when challenged too much. They have reached the edge of their capabilities as a pilot and need a coping strategy. Nervousness and panic in a plane causes immediate performance deterioration and deferral of control to the CFI or DPE (if there is one). Is there a better way to cope with nervousness to the point of incapacitation in a startle?

There are two methods to fix this problem. One is to “move the goalposts” by ever-increasing skill through training and increased pilot capability. This method tries to ensure that the demands of a task never exceed the capability of the pilot; deeper (and current) training in exotic flight configurations. This is represented by Upset Recovery Prevention and Training courses. They take a pilot into the dark corners of the flight envelope and train appropriate responses and develop some level of familiarity. Unfortunately, there is always a limit to this solution as circumstances evolve.

Another solution is learning physiological control methods (self-calming) to minimize the panic response. Have you ever noticed Olympic athletes breathing and focusing before their performances? Our capabilities diminish rapidly with panic and nervousness. I personally taught any pilot who expressed an interest in “self-calming” with controlled rhythmic breathing and a bit of cognitive-behavioral therapy (positive self-talk). This moved the pilot level of tolerance by allowing some control of the emotions and the panic response. Within limits this allowed a pilot to re-establish control of themselves and the plane. Once they were breathing again they could start “thinking through” stressful situations and resolve the threat (within reasonable limits of course). Every pilot *will* at some point “get nervous” and approach panic in their career; self-calming is an important tool. At the deepest level, our physiology drives our emotions and we decipher these into “feelings” that can sabotage our performance. This is clear in “choking” during an evaluation or performance or “startle” in flying. “Self-calming” techniques are highly useful in public life too. Here is an interesting video to get you started on emotional control based on the polyvagal theory.

Employing these two methods together (increasing skill and decreasing nervousness) has the synergistic effect of improving pilot confidence and capability together. Frequent and challenging training (Extended Envelope Training) builds confidence and creates a greater margin from startle and panic  – also moved through self-calming. Fly safely (and often).


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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