A view on what it’s like to be a pilot suffering from a fear of heights

Don’t look down: Can you be a pilot with a fear of heights?

There’s a job for everyone, right? Presumably, though, if you have a fear of heights, there are some jobs you should probably stay clear of. Window cleaners, roof repairmen, crane operators… aeroplane pilots… that type of thing!

There surely aren’t any airline pilots who fear heights? Well, believe it or not, this is a real thing. People with a fear of heights can and do become pilots.

Interestingly, around 1 in 10 pilots are alleged to suffer from a fear of heights, but estimates vary wildly. One retired Aviation Phycology professor estimated that in some groups of pilots he had studied, nearly 9 in 10 suffered!

The stats are just as muddled in the general population. On the one hand, it is claimed around 5% of the general population suffer from a fear of heights. On the other, some polls report over 50% of the public suffer!

In this blog post, we will explore if you can be a pilot with a fear of heights, and, what you can do to overcome your fear.

Agoraphobia and pilots

People with acrophobia have an intense fear of situations that involve heights, such as being in a tall building or using a ladder.

Acrophobia definition (Fear of Heights) — Cleveland Clinic

First, let’s look at what agoraphobia actually is:

  • People with this fear often experience anxiety and dizziness when they are high up off the ground.
  • The sensation can often be brought on by peering over ledges, with suffers gripped by an overwhelming urge to remove themselves from the danger of falling
  • Not to be confused with aviophobia — a fear of flying — agoraphobia solely relates to a fear of heights, and often has no crossover with aviation
  • For people suffering an extreme fear of heights, it can be difficult to do things like climb stairs or even stand on a chair.
Agoraphobia whilst looking off a cliff

For some people, their fear is so severe that they avoid any situation where they might be high up off the ground. So, can you imagine how difficult it would be to pilot an airplane if you had a fear of heights?

Well, it turns out there are many pilots with agoraphobia, and it often doesn’t form a large issue in their day-to-day lives:

  • Research into the fear of heights has found a key part of the fear is related to falling off high things — something presumably hardwired into our DNA to keep us safe
  • In aircraft, this feeling is typically not present, passengers and pilots are strapped in and aware they cannot fall out of the aircraft.
  • There are suggestions that being in control of the aircraft can negate a fear of heights, meaning pilots frequently don’t suffer from acrophobia whilst flying.
  • Aviation doctors alongside phycologists — and many pilots themselves — report suffering from a fear of heights but carrying out their duties as pilots without issues

I’m scared of heights, will I be a bad pilot?

While it can be difficult, there are many people who have a fear of heights who make great pilots. The Israeli defence force looked into fear of flying in their pilots, and found it was surprisingly common.

Interestingly, many pilots with a fear of heights report that in an aircraft they do not suffer.

As a result, if you are worried your fear of heights may stop you from being a pilot, one of the best things to do can be to book a trial flight in a light aircraft.

Available relatively cheaply, trial lessons will allow you to see if your fear remains present while operating. You might be surprised to discover that, like many pilots, agoraphobia doesn’t materialise in the cockpit.

Agoraphobic pilot in light aircraft

Even if your fear of heights does materialise in the cockpit, there are also many things that you can do to help ease your fear. While there is no set “cure” for acrophobia, a wide range of treatments are available, with therapy described as extremely effective.

Summary

It is important to remember that you are not alone in your fear. Many people have a fear of heights — it is one of the most common fears — but it is a problem that in numerous instances can be solved. Therapy, from CBT, exposure therapy, and even VR therapy in flight sims have all been used successfully to treat agoraphobia.

Equally, even if you have a fear of heights that persists, don’t let it stop you from pursuing your dream of becoming a pilot. Experience has shown that many airline pilots suffer from a fear of heights and have a successful career. For many, the combination of focus on pilot related tasks, alongside the feeling of control, means that agoraphobia doesn’t materialise in the cockpit.

So, there you have it! You can be a pilot even if you have a fear of heights.

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Josh
Josh

Flyingbynumber’s Resident Airline Captain — Josh

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