How courage, focus, and wingmen can help you tackle your fears
Three years into my eleven year Air Force flying career, my life changed when I almost died during a scuba diving trip in the Caribbean. Thirty feet under the water and exhausted from excessive use of my arms to swim, I inhaled a full lungful of water and had the most intense panic attack of my life. I literally thought I was going to die.
A week later, I found myself back in the cockpit on a training mission in bad weather. Unable to see the ground or the sky, I felt closed in. My mask tightened, my pulse quickened, and I suddenly had difficulty breathing. I became lightheaded and anxious and the panicky feeling I experienced a week ago reared its ugly head again. I screamed to myself, “Get me out of this plane!”
Within seconds, I transformed myself from a confident, fearless jet pilot to a doubtful claustrophobe. For the next eight years of my flying career I had to carry around that huge secret. Despite the fact that my skills never suffered, if my fellow pilots found out, there was a chance I could have my wings taken away.
Every training and combat mission I flew, I had claustrophobia as my companion, waiting to attack me and spin me out of control. But I fought it. On four hour training missions over the Sea of Japan and six hour night combat missions over Iraq in the cramped cockpit of the F-16, I fought it. And I won.
I never aborted any combat mission and always mustered the courage to do my job and execute the mission. It wasn’t easy. There were times when the panic was so great that when I landed, I would walk into the squadron with my wings in my hand ready to quit. But I never did. I didn’t let my fear take over me.
So how did I do it?
I never quit on any combat mission. However, I did quit a ferry flight I was supposed to fly from Spain to the U.S. Seven hours over the Atlantic Ocean was simply too much for me to handle. I reached the limit of my courage and I aborted. I thought my wingmen would mock me for quitting, but they didn’t.
What I learned from my experiences is that by stepping outside of my comfort zone, focusing on the mission, and pushing the limits of my courage, I could do almost anything. By facing my fear and not letting it strangle me, I was able to take action, do my job, and plant the seeds to a future of amazing opportunities and personal growth.
But it also taught me that my ego was more powerful than I realized. I learned that it’s OK to quit when all else fails. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to beat every fear, overcome every challenge, or fly every mission.
And neither do you.
I wish you all a wonderful holiday season full of hope, joy, and great wingmen!
Never Fly Solo,