Monthly Archives: May 2011

"(Venez) M’Aider!"

In 1923 Frederick Mockford, the senior radio operator @ Croydon Airport, near London, was asked to come up with “the international radiotelephone signal for help, [to be] used by ships and aircraft in distress.” [Webster’s 1988 ed.] Since much of Croydon’s air traffic plied the route to and from LeBourget airfield in France, Mockford thought of the French phrase, “Venez m’aider!” [“Come help me!”], which was shortened to “Mayday,” then lengthened to “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!” [since the redundancy makes it clear that you really mean “Help!” and are not just talking about the 1st of May].

In this April’s issue of AOPA Pilot magazine [the official publication of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association], an article called “High Anxiety” recounts the consequences of a Panic Attack, suffered by a private pilot “with 20 years of flying experience” while he was flying solo and practicing an Instrument [as opposed to Visual] approach into Oceanside Municipal Airport [near San Diego, CA}. “Shortly after I entered the clouds, a wave of incredible panic and terror came over me. I believed I was completely out of control of the situation. I was afraid of losing control of the airplane, as well as the repercussions of [Air Traffic Control] if I got on the radio and told them I was losing control of the airplane.” [In other words, he feared that if he called a “Mayday,” he might lose his pilot’s license.]

Well, since this is a nonfiction article [not an episode of Lost], we can assume that he managed to overpower his “howling wolf” [fear-fueled amygdala, which was freezing up his hippocampus] and get it together for long enough to land, yah? Here’s what he recalls of that process: “I started talking to myself out loud, telling myself that there was nothing that needed to be done that I hadn’t done many times before. I got the needles centered where they were supposed to be and completed the approach successfully.”

Thereafter, though, he developed the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress, becoming unable even to fly as a passenger in a commercial airplane, and sought psychotherapy [of which more, later]. Meanwhile, what may have saved his life during the event was talking out loud to himself. If he had burst forth into song [maybe “I believe I can fly,” or “Off we go into the wild blue yonder”], he might have gotten a good result, as well, since his vocalizations short-circuited the unhelpful shallow breathing which fuels Panic. Speaking, singing, and whistling a happy tune really do work as anti-anxiety strategies, just as Rogers & Hammerstein told us.

His psychotherapist used 2 non-pharmaceutical techniques with our grounded pilot. He suggested a bit of in vivo desensitization [taking aerobatic gliding lessons with a seasoned instructor as his co-pilot], and cognitive challenging of any feelings of anxiety he experienced while flying, with reality-testing. If he began to feel anxious, he would quickly realize that he “was in complete control of the airplane and there was no reason to feel that way.” [And even if he “lost it,” the co-pilot could take over the controls at any time, if necessary.]

It is unclear, whether our pilot also took medications to control his anxiety. At the end of the article there is a message from the AOPA Medical Services Program, setting out the regulations for becoming recertified as a private pilot, after taking SSRIs or benzodiazepines. We do know that he has currently chosen to fly ultralight aircraft, for which no pilot’s license is required.

Be that as it may, the article offers insight into the onset, course, and successful treatment of a first-time Panic Attack, when a seasoned pilot who always thought he had “the right stuff,” got “tangled up in blue,” lived through it, and found the courage to take aother leap of faith “into the wild blue yonder.” Once again, he believes he can fly.

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Filed under limbic system, post-traumatic stress

On a Wild-Goose Chase

It’s probably not what you think it is. In the 16th Century, as if horses didn’t have enough to do already [what with pulling plows & carriages, carrying warriors into battle, or on hunts for wild boar, deer, or foxes], they were ridden [for sport & for wagers] over the fields and stone “fences” of England, in a variety of contests of speed, agility & endurance. The Steeple Chase [also called the Point-to-Point] involved racing from one church steeple to the next. In the Paper Chase, directions to the next “point” on the route were written on pieces of paper [like a treasure hunt]. More arcane than these was the Wild-Goose Chase [used as a metaphor in 1592 in Romeo & Juliet], in which the lead horse is the “alpha wild-goose” who chooses the route, which all the others must follow in the chevron formation of geese in flight. Since the interval between lead “goose” and the others must be maintained [in an apparent race of attrition], the enterprise became a metaphor for “a fool’s errand” [a futile waste of Therbligs], since the only way to beat the “goose” in pole position would be for it to fall at one of the fences. As in modern steeplechases [such as the Grand National], however, many fewer horses finish the race than start it, so it’s a Schadenfreudelich, Survival-of-the-Fittest wager the punters are making.

What a great concept for a reality TV show, no?

Most mornings, Lili gets to engage in a more literal wild-goose chase, charging the flock of insouciant, poo-dropping Canada geese who congregate on the school playing fields, and sending them off in a honking, airborne chevron [possibly just to the nearby golf course]. The school groundskeepers love this, as do the kids out for PhysEd [who whoop and applaud, and shout “It’s a wolf! It’s a bear! It’s the Goose-anator!”]. Haven’t heard the last moniker much, since the Fall of Arnie, though.

Unlike the English sporting event, no animals are harmed in the making of Lili’s morning show. The geese do not seem to experience her intrusion as awful [after all, they come back again the next day]; just highly inconvenient. Her efforts could be viewed as futile, in that they offer no permanent “goose-anation.” This is not a trivial matter for the keepers & users of airport runways, as Sully the Hero of the Hudson could tell you. Indeed, many airports have hired wild-goose-chasing dogs, since that high-profile [but not uncommon] bird-strike incident.

The mission [as they say in government-speak] is “on-going.” Win some, lose some. [Supply your own triumphs and disasters from this month’s headlines.] Disasters cause pain & suffering to their immediate victims, fear to the rest of us [that we could be next], intrusion [of additional security measures] and humiliation [that we can’t seem to find a “fool-proof” fix for the given threat]. No wonder the wolf is howling!

But, if we can focus on some of the triumphs, we might believe that our efforts are not futile. Our personal wild-goose chase may not be a “fool’s errand,” even if it must be “repeated, as necessary.” Our Therbligs will have not been expended in vain.

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Filed under therbligs, zero-sum-gaming