Confessions of a Claustrophobic Fighter Pilot

by Waldo Waldman, Lt. Col. CSP

ClaustrophobicThree 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 that huge secret. Despite that 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?

  1. Mental Rehearsal: I envisioned having panic attacks in simulated flights while on the ground. Rather than fight it, I “befriended my fear.” I got used to the feeling in my mind and prepared to cope with the fear by shifting my focus.
  2. I focused on the mission: Regardless of my fear of having a panic attack, I had a job to do. It was my responsibility to live up to my commitment as a fighter pilot and soldier. If everyone quit when fear or challenge struck, nothing would get done. I had to earn my wings.
  3. I focused on my wingmen: No fighter pilot flies solo. We have wingmen who help us deal with emergencies and change. When I focused on my wingmen who were there to support me and who also needed me as well, it gave me more courage.
  4. I focused on what I loved: On every mission, I carried a set of silver angel wings that re-affirmed my faith in God. And I also carried a picture of my niece and nephew. They needed me to get back home. They gave meaning to my mission. Love is greater than fear.

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.

If you found these tips from Rob “Waldo” Waldman, Lt. Col. CSP of value and are a PMP looking to earn PMI PDUs, you might be interested in her self-paced, downloadable courses at PDUs2Go.com.

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