"(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

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