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Staying Positive: Lessons From A Helicopter Pilot

March 14, 2011 by  

Staying Positive: Lessons From A Helicopter Pilot

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.

Dr. David Eifrig Jr.

is the editor of two of Stansberry's best advisory services. One of his advisories, Retirement Millionaire, is a monthly letter showing readers how to live a millionaire lifestyle on less than you'd imagine possible. He travels around the U.S. looking for bargains, deals and great investment ideas. Already his average reader has saved $2,793 since 2008 (documented in each Retirement Millionaire issue). He also writes Retirement Trader, a bi-monthly advisory that explains simple techniques to make large, but very safe, gains in the stock and bond markets. This is a pure finance play and the reason Porter Stansberry loves having "Doc" on the team. Doc holds an MBA from Kellogg and has worked in arbitrage and trading groups with major Wall Street investment banks (Goldman Sachs). In 1995, he retired from the "Street," went to UNC-Chapel Hill for medical school and became an ophthalmologist. Now, in his latest "retirement," he joined Stansberry & Associates full-time to share with readers his experiences and ideas.

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  • Wild Bill

    A great positive article appropriate to the multiple threats to American citizens physical and financial survival in a free and sovereign nation.In all things attitude is the difference between winning and losing.
    Wild Bill

  • TIME

    I agree with Wild Bill, A fine blog. Thanks David

  • bob wire

    You’re a 19 year old kid.

    You’re critically wounded and dying in the jungle somewhere in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam.
    It’s November 11, 1967. LZ (landing zone) X-ray.

    Your unit is outnumbered 8-1 and the enemy fire is so intense from 100 yards away, that your CO (commanding officer) has ordered the MedEvac helicopters to stop coming in.

    You’re lying there, listening to the enemy machine guns and you know you’re not getting out.
    Your family is half way around the world, 12,000 miles away, and you’ll never see them again.
    As the world starts to fade in and out, you know this is the day.

    Then – over the machine gun noise – you faintly hear that sound of a helicopter.
    You look up to see a Huey coming in. But.. It doesn’t seem real because no MedEvac markings are on it.

    Captain Ed Freeman is coming in for you. He’s not MedEvac so it’s not his job, but he heard the radio call and decided he’s flying his Huey down into the machine gun fire anyway.

    Even after the MedEvacs were ordered not to come. He’s coming anyway.

    And he drops it in and sits there in the machine gun fire, as they load 3 of you at a time on board.

    Then he flies you up and out through the gunfire to the doctors and nurses and safety.

    And, he kept coming back!! 13 more times!!
    Until all the wounded were out. No one knew until the mission was over that the Captain had been hit 4 times in the legs and left arm.
    He took 29 of you and your buddies out that day. Some would not have made it without the Captain and his Huey.

    Medal of Honor Recipient, Captain Ed Freeman, United States Air Force, died last ( now two ) Wednesday at the age of 70, in Boise , Idaho

    May God Bless and Rest His Soul.

    I bet you didn’t hear about this hero’s passing, but we’ve sure seen a whole bunch about Lindsay Lohan, Tiger Woods and the bickering of congress over Health Reform.

    • Bill Cooper


    • libertytrain

      bob – good post, thanks.

    • Warlord X

      Thanks for honoring a brave man who served his country above and beyond all expectations. It is a privilege to have served with such men. It’s sad that the American people are so blase’ and unconcerned. Yet, we serve them still. GOD DUTY HONOR COUNTRY

    • TIME


      Yes in fact there are many of us know of the Good Captains passing, of what BTW was in 2008.
      {Also what you should have also added in is the last quote from the email.}

      {” Shame on the American “MEDIA” for not printing this story.”}

      Thus – I cmae back to our media is very sick.
      What storys were they touting at the time of this “BRAVE MANS” death. it was the Barry Soetoro story.

      Now is there any one who want’s to toss your lunch?

    • http://gunner689 gunner689

      You’re so right Bob. A few years ago another national hero, Nick Rowe, was assasinated in the Phillipines by Marxist guerrelas. Col. Rowe had survived 5 yrs. in jungle POW camps is S. Viet Nam (book -
      ” Five years to Freedom .”
      Anyhow when he died Abbie Hoffman; hippie anti-war guru killed himself; drug OD. Either Time mag or Newsweek carried a multi-page color spread on the life of Hoffman and a small obit on Nick Rowe. One a real hero, the other a national disgrace. Pop culture is far more interesting to the public in general than real heroes. Thanks to the media and the public education for causing this .

    • http://?? Joe H.

      Actually I did. As a crewchief on slicks in Viet Nam I feel safer in a “fling wing” than a fixed wing!!! That is the ONE thing that I truly miss about the army, my air time!! I don’t think the army ever had a more dependable aircraft than the Huey and sadly they have been removed from the TO&E of the armed forces and been relegated to the national guard! The UH-1, man what a great aircraft!!

      • texastwin827

        Joe, who did you fly with? My husband was a door gunner (flew slicks first) on a gunship, with the 191st AHC. Our daughter is dating a young man who is a command pilot in Afghanistan, right now…he flys an Apache gunship…which is an “another world” compared to what y’all flew! One look at it and you can envision “I’m a bada**” written all over it! The good thing…he rarely has to get up close & personal, thanks to our advanced technology. He says they can hit the enemy before the enemy even knows they are around.

    • Norman F.

      Bob, without detracting from his actions or your story, I need to point out that Ed Freeman was an army Captain (at that time) not Air Force as you tell it.

    • Kim Bruce

      Thank you Bob Wire for this post some times I forget the brave men and women of other sevices
      Sgt K.Bruce USMC

  • Eddie47d

    Excellent story in confronting fear and freezing up when facing urgent danger. Sometimes you do have to think fast on your feet and within seconds. The Jerimiah Denton’s are true hero’s in facing the unknown from day to day and not loosing their minds and giving up.I’ve asked myself that several times over the POW issue and I still don’t know the answer. I think we all have to wait until that day happens. We have so many comfort zones in our lives which would be good food,fast food,a warm house,plenty of clothing,Starbucks and many other ways of feeling good.Those things are great and a blessing but can we respond quickly to an immediate danger,(like in Japan or being stuck in a blizzard for a few days). I’ve been retired for 1 1/2 yrs and use to work outside everyday. Now I don’t feel the same urgency I use to have as when I worked in different elements. I think a person looses their edge if they aren’t aware of their surroundings or never had to face dangers.

    • Eddie47d

      Thanks Bob for telling us about Ed Freeman and his courage under fire.God Bless him.

  • Mac

    I didn’t read anything relating this article to tsunamis, but it definitely applies. I just saw a US Navy commercial last night that had words similar to “until there are no more natural or man-made disasters” with what I took to be the implication that someday disasters could be wiped out. I see zero chance of that happening, and even if life could be made 100% disaster-proof I still don’t see immortality in this plane of existence happening. People need to learn to cope with ‘stuff’ happening with minimal screaming, panicking and running in circles. Survival of the fittest applies. But I’m an optimist and feel I am prepared as well as anyone can be for the days when the stuff hits the fan.

  • bob wire

    We have “hero’s all around us. The “world” is lucky in that sense.

    It is the makeup of mankind to rise to the occasion or cow from it.

    One day a hero, the next day a zero.

    It goes beyond thinking and becomes simply a doing thing.

    A urgent need is seen and “will” take over the body. A lifetime might have prepare one for that moment or NOT !

    Time slows down, focus sharpen and the mind becomes crystal clear. Energy is pumped to the limbs while cells contract to slow the bleeding, it fight or flight.

    Mankind is an awesome creature. Many times, people become heroes and it’s the very last thing on their mind.

    We have men today that’s faith is already sealed as they attempt to control three nuclear melt downs and save as many fellow humans as might be possible on their tiny island home. Good God, what a job to have.

    • http://?? Joe H.

      bob wire,
      you’ll get no arguement there from me! there was a reported second explosion at the reactor. there are over 143,000 homeless and living in the streets and the temps are hovering at freezing!! God Help them!!

      • bob wire

        These men are toast !

  • Dave M

    A helicopter is actually a whole bunch of airplane parts vibrating in close formation.

    • http://?? Joe H.


  • Ralphus Lucius

    Excellent article. It is all about PMA – positive mental attitude. Only we defeat ourselves, paralyzed by fear and inaction. I was writing recently in another blog about adaptability. Man is an incredibly adaptable creature. But as we have become more dependent in this technological, interdependent society of ours, many of us have forgotten this – and have forgotten basic survivial skills.

    Many years ago I worked as an underground hard rock miner. It was always interesting to watch the new hires when they first came on. Most left after just a few days on the job – sometimes only two out of a new bunch of 25 would last a week. But those that remained were those that were adaptable and embraced their new work world. Many thrived and did well. It was always about attitude, and being sufficiently disciplined to handle the challenges. Personally, I came to love the work. Where else could a 23-year old kid speed around on big front end loaders, operate air drills, and blow up rocks?

  • Kim Bruce

    The bravest people I knew during my two tours in Nam were chopper piolets and coreman/medics.I remember hearing of this piolet he set the standared
    sgt K. Burce USMC


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