Staying Positive: Lessons From A Helicopter Pilot
March 14, 2011 by Dr. David Eifrig Jr.
My father and brother and several friends are helicopter pilots… and if you know any serious helicopter pilots who have flown more than a few hundred hours, you know that they are a different breed. For some reason, they’re willing to repeatedly go hundreds of feet in the air in a craft that has slightly better aerodynamics than a rock with sticks tied to it.
There are hundreds of things that can go wrong when you’re flying a helicopter, and hundreds of reasons why helicopters shouldn’t fly. Helicopter pilots have to be continually aware of these dangers, look out for them, prepare their responses for when one or several of them happens and regularly practice their responses. As they’re going through their training they learn about more and more potential problems and how to identify and react to the new problems they’re learning about as well as all of the ones they’ve learned up to that time.
The sheer number of problems quickly overwhelms some new pilots. By no fault of their own they aren’t ever able to relax and enjoy flying… simply because they know all the dangers. Some decide that flying isn’t for them. Many others decide to push through and trudge along with their flying careers in a constant state of near-panic… never willing to quit but never able to enjoy it.
Amazingly enough, many keep flying and thoroughly love it. They don’t bury their heads and ignore the dangers around them. Happy thoughts don’t keep helicopters airborne… rather, seasoned pilots embrace the reality of the situation and learn to thrive in the potential for chaos. Their continual discipline of identifying, preparing for and drilling to respond to risks makes an otherwise dangerous activity fun, enjoyable and relatively safe.
Most importantly, they don’t dwell on the danger. And if they want to live very long, they don’t freeze up because of all of the potential problems that could happen. They train thoroughly and continually, and have earned peace of mind because they KNOW that they are ready to handle whatever happens. The challenges that they face simply become an opportunity to react or to improvise, adapt, and overcome.
In many ways, preparedness has a lot of similarities with flying a helicopter. We live in a fragile society that has a very thin veil separating order and complete chaos. Earthquakes, volcanoes, terrorist attacks, viruses, economic collapse, cyber attacks and more could easily plunge part or all of the country into civil breakdown at any time… any day of the year… without warning.
Preppers are naturally more aware of these threats, as well as everyday threats around them from criminals, accidents and more. Some people freeze up as they realize just how many threats are present. Others trudge through, and others still fully realize all of the dangers we face, prepare for them and decide to fully enjoy life until the bad things happen.
None of this is new… man has always had uncontrollable threats to his existence… the threats just change slightly from generation to generation.
What’s important is to approach these threats pragmatically like a seasoned helicopter pilot. Just like with a helicopter pilot, baseless optimism can lead to surprise problems that you’re not prepared for. At the same time, dwelling on all of the potentially bad things that can happen causes people to freeze up, makes them depressing to be around and needlessly robs them of their enjoyment of life.
If you’ve ever gone through military survival or survival, evasion, resistance and escape (S.E.R.E.) training, read a military field manual on survival or spent any time in survival situations, you know that survival psychology is one of the most important components for survival. A lack of food may kill you in three weeks, a lack of water may kill you in three days, a lack of shelter in three hours, but losing your head in a survival situation can essentially kill you in three seconds. Either because of freezing in the face of a violent attack or simply because of medical reasons like shock, a heart attack, or an aneurysm, losing control of your mind can kill you.
In fact, if you gave me a choice of being shackled to a partner in a survival situation who either had great gear, skills and knowledge but a horrible attitude or someone with no gear, skills, or knowledge and a desire to live, learn, improvise, adapt and overcome, I’d take the one with the better attitude every time.
Positive mental attitudes kept prisoners of war like Jeremiah Denton, James Rowe and others alive during the Vietnam War despite torture, sickness and having numerous friends die. A positive mental attitude makes people fun to be around, and studies have shown that it will even keep you healthier. And the best thing of all is that it isn’t something that you’re born with—it’s a skill that you can quickly develop with a tiny bit of daily discipline.
And it DOES take discipline. In fact, I think that attitudes follow the second law of thermodynamics. Bear with me for a second—the second law of thermodynamics says that everything tends towards chaos unless acted upon by an outside force. A good visual example of this is a child’s room. Toys and clothes just don’t seem to pick themselves up.
I’d argue that a person’s attitude tends towards negativity unless acted on by an outside force. This outside force could be positive books, positive thinking, being thankful for the good things in your life or being around positive people. It doesn’t mean wearing rose-colored glasses or ignoring the bad things that are going on, but it does mean that you take the discipline to stop and think about what is right in your life on a regular basis.
Sometimes I’ll actually make a list about all of the things that are going right in various parts of my life: with my wife, with my kids, other important relationships, health, fitness, work, goals, etc. Granted, I can ALWAYS find problems in all of these areas. That doesn’t take any work at all. But taking the time to identify the good things in my life, no matter whether there are more or less of them than bad things, makes it easier to improvise, adapt and overcome obstacles that I face.
An extreme example of this is in Marcus Luttrell’s book, Lone Survivor, which I highly recommend. In it, over the course of a prolonged battle in Afghanistan, Luttrell, who’s a Navy SEAL, loses his entire unit. He almost dies several times, but always keeps a positive mental attitude. Once, after an explosion from a rocket propelled grenade throws him off of a cliff, (if I remember right) he awakens after being knocked unconscious and is in pain. His first thought is that he’s thankful for the pain because it means he’s still alive, and then he goes through a self-assessment to see which parts of his body still work—is thankful each time he confirms that another limb is still working—and then determines his next best action to take to improve his chances for survival. Again, I can’t recommend this book enough.
If you find yourself either ignoring or becoming frozen by potential threats, don’t be surprised—there are a LOT of big threats that we’re facing today. Try breaking them down into bite-sized pieces and find SOMETHING you can do to take positive action today and accept the fact that preparedness is a marathon and not a sprint.
In other words, instead of trying to focus on EVERY disaster that could happen simultaneously, focus on one at a time. Then, instead of focusing on every aspect at once, focus on one aspect at a time, like shelter, then fire, then water, then food, etc.
One of my favorite quotes is by a clergyman from the early 1900s named Douglas Horton. He said, “Action cures fear, inaction creates terror.” I can’t agree more. It has proven itself valid for me and thousands of others in business, athletics, hunting and personal matters and it will work for you, too, both now and in survival situations.