When panic strikes …

Can you stand another Fighter Pilot Wisdom post?

Let’s start with another moment from our friend, fighter ace Giora Romm. Flying in the north of Israel on Day Two of the Six Day War, Giora’s Mirage IIIC got hit by an enemy missile. Here’s Giora describing his situation:

The plane was for the moment still airworthy but I knew I had to get on the ground fast. The nearest landing strip was about twenty kilometers south. I turned toward it and lowered my landing gear. But the missile had hit the Mirage’s undercarriage, right beneath my seat. Had the landing gear in fact lowered? I had no way to know. The indicator on the instrument panel had been knocked out by the missile strike. 

Mirage IIIC cockpit. Sometimes even your instruments can’t save you.

What did Giora do?

It was late afternoon. The sun was low in the sky. I descended to near ground level and banked so that I could see my plane’s shadow on the ground.

Yes, the landing gear were down.

Another pilot from Giora’s squadron, Arnon Levushin, ran out of fuel on his first solo training flight. He could see the emergency landing field in the distance. He turned toward it. But did he have enough speed and altitude to reach the runway? No control tower could tell him. No gauges or instruments could make the call.

I lined up my pipper (the gunsight on the plane’s windscreen) with the forward edge of the runway. I figured as long as the targeting “X” stayed above the horizon line, my glide path was good. But if the pipper dropped below the apron of the runway, that meant I would not make it … and I’d have to start looking for a farmer’s field to crash-land in.

(Yes, Levushin made it.)

I love these stories because they inspire us all to use our noodles, as my mother would’ve said.

What clever solutions!

What simple, straightforward answers!

And how great that in moments of potential panic and paralysis, these fliers were able to keep their heads and come up with such smart and unorthodox solutions.

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27 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on October 6, 2021 at 3:49 am

    Fascinating. Of course there’s a selection effect here, where doubtless the Israeli fighter pilot selection process selects individuals who are level-headed, inventive, adaptable, versatile and resilient. Hmm, I wonder what the increasing digitalisation and prevalence of AI will do for this.

    But Steve’s point stands. And I think we all have moments where it’ll make a great difference if we can pluck an inventive solution (though often obvious in hindsight) from the ether. Those pilots have that quality in spades, at least in relation to aviation and air combat.

    Steve I really like this fighter pilots’ insight series. If you have more thoughts to share through this vehicle, please please do. I can ‘put up with’ 🙂 plenty more posts in this vein.
    Peter

    • Brian Nelson on October 6, 2021 at 7:29 am

      Peter,
      Agreed on selection bias–but there is also a training (my hunch is training has greater influence in this particular situation).

      Fighter pilots are, likely in all nation’s military, some of the best the country has to offer. It has been my experience that training is the way through fight/flight/freeeze ‘amygdala hijack’.
      bsn

      • connie lufkin on October 7, 2021 at 11:32 am

        Yes, Brian, please list the methods to train through the amy hijack.

  2. Kate Stanton on October 6, 2021 at 7:03 am

    Seth Godin’s blog today addressed who we are writing for. Who do we want to reach as our audience? By focusing on a mass audience we forget, as Franz Kafka puts it, not watering our work down according to the fashion. Godin said today “First, it [the need for validation] corrupts the work. By ignoring the smallest viable audience and focusing on mass, the creator gives up the focus that can create important work.” Since Facebook and Instagram went black a few days ago, I have been contemplating how important authenticity is to creators. As always, Steve gives us another gut punch. He lights a fire under me each Writing Wednesday. As a recovering people pleaser who has succumbed to the fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses, I will remember to use my noodle. Breathe. Be creative and problem solve!!

    • Brian Nelson on October 6, 2021 at 7:41 am

      Kate,
      Nicely said. Seth is another genius I frequently read. Need for validation is corrupting. Great insight. Even in non artistic ventures, I fall for this need at times. Maybe I lower my margin/price, lower the standards, keep registration open longer…behave in a way that panders to my customer/client/racer.
      bsn

      • Maureen Anderson on October 6, 2021 at 9:03 am

        Does this ever backfire? Can you get so much satisfaction from even a few people who love your work that it keeps you from doing what it takes to reach a broader audience? Wait, never mind. The task is to learn how to share that work more effectively, I guess.

        And a word to those of us who aren’t so quick on our feet (and should never become pilots). I used to think it was a character flaw. Then I realized how often it keeps me from responding to a random but cruel comment. I’m so stunned I’m speechless. But the best response is usually nothing, so I do the right thing by default.

        • Kate Stanton on October 6, 2021 at 12:26 pm

          Well said, Maureen. I know I can get analysis paralysis which I do consider a flaw of mine. Making no decision is still a decision regarding creative work. I agree though that if it is toward a mean comment on YouTube or those who have picked on me with my music in person, the best move is not to play their game.

    • connie lufkin on October 7, 2021 at 11:34 am

      Kate, please tell me about the faun response.

      • Kate Stanton on October 7, 2021 at 11:51 am

        Hi Connie!
        From my understanding, the fawn response is when someone tries to people please their way out of trauma. I think of children that were parentified and required to care for their immature parents. Stockholm Syndrome. Appeasement. Avoiding conflict as a coping mechanism for complex trauma.

  3. Brad Graft on October 6, 2021 at 7:38 am

    Agreed, Peter, this is a great series.
    These entries motivated me to dig into one of the few Pressfield books that I had yet to read– “An American Jew.” I’m only half done, but highly recommend it.

    Steve will likely not share this in his blog series, but in “An American Jew,” Steve illustrates how he handles his own panic during the writing of “The Lion’s Gate” (the content for this blog series).

    Further, Steve had never tackled the genre of “narrative non-fiction” and the way he goes about learning and getting the job done is inspirational. No surprise– via cleverness and hard work.

    Sorry if this entry smells like brown-nosing. ..But it’s good stuff to see Steve put his own advice to impressive practice… And to have answered some of the questions I had years ago when reading “The Lion’s Gate.” The main one– in a country as guarded as Israel, how in the world was Steve able to get connected with so many prominent warriors to interview?

    • Brian Nelson on October 6, 2021 at 10:36 am

      Brad,
      Nicely said. Here’s my hunch: Steve demonstrated for 20+ years his admiration for warriors and he has accurately written about the interior of the warrior mindset. If there was ever a trusted agent to document the 6-Day War, SP made his case from his previous works.
      bsn

  4. Mia Sherwood Landau on October 6, 2021 at 7:46 am

    The need for validation could also be called the need for a paying audience. Right? Selling vs selling out is the classic challenge for all artists.

  5. Yvonne on October 6, 2021 at 7:52 am

    Thank you for this Steve. I’m always amazed at how hard it is for me to think outside the box when I get stuck, so this helps a lot.

  6. Skip Raschke on October 6, 2021 at 7:53 am

    Been watching pro golfers wearing the “Whoop” fitness band/watch.
    Noted that the best shots made were when the pro’s heart rate was considered around being “calm” and “in control” of any emotions, and thus adrenaline not interfering with each swing.
    golf pro’s know that the more their adrenaline is pumping the further the shot will fly and the more the error factor basis their aim will be. The Whoop’s data is their new proof.
    Stay calm under fire. Or else!

    • Kate Stanton on October 6, 2021 at 12:28 pm

      This comment has me considering whether or not I should buy a Whoop watch. I think the sleep routine function could be very useful!

  7. Jackie on October 6, 2021 at 7:57 am

    When life punches us in the gut, it’s most important to find that litle thing called courage to keep us from paralyzing fear. The more you practice courage, the easier it becomes to adjust to the punches and learn how to duck. Great inspiration in this post. Thanks Steven.

    • Kate Stanton on October 7, 2021 at 2:48 pm

      Well said, Jackie. I was watching ‘Maid’ on Netflix last night. There is a scene where the young mom collapses onto the carpet in emotional exhaustion and agony after a custody battle. I thought her friend at the DV shelter was going to comfort her and listen to her. Instead she yells at her, “GET UP!! You FIGHT. You FIGHT back for once! I know that carpet well. I spent weeks on that carpet crying and it gets you nowhere”. Not to draw parallels to violence, but Resistance sure beats us down. We fight back. That’s been on my mind…courage.

  8. Tolis Alexopoulos on October 6, 2021 at 10:22 am

    Thank you dear Steve, the last few months I wonder about the balance between emotions and logic. Pure logic is when we can work our mind at will with nothing distracting it or making things seem different than they (realistically) are. We have the ability to do that, even at the middle of a crisis, and I would instinctively count two factors: the one is the load and quality of training that we did before the “day of crisis”. Did we try the same thing a thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand times? Did we use our intuition to bring more tension while training so that we could parallel to the real conditions? And the second would be, to take everyday care of our emotional world so that our emotional energies/states are as balanced as possible, and so not so many powerful, hidden repressed feelings, so that at a moment of crisis an explosion of hidden energies inside us that distract us, could be less possible to happen, or with a lower tension.

    • connie lufkin on October 7, 2021 at 11:40 am

      Hmmm, good point. I hadn’t thought of that.

  9. Tolis Alexopoulos on October 6, 2021 at 10:36 am

    ( correcting my last sentence, it’s a mess: ) And the second factor that I would pay attention to, would be to take care of our emotional world every day -this is quite challenging- so that our emotional energies/states in the present may be as balanced as possible. That way, when the moment of crisis comes, and it will come, we will have less repressed emotions inside us, and thus their explosion will be less possible to happen or with a lower tension.

  10. Brian Nelson on October 6, 2021 at 10:54 am

    Tolis stole my thunder…My immediate thought when reading this morning’s passage was: training.

    No one enters the military as a warrior–we all join as civilians. Warriors are manufactured. My last job while serving active duty was the deputy of essentially DSHS for the Guard. We had suicide prevention, family programs, job transition, SHARP, resilience training…everything that no one wants to discuss or train.

    When speaking with HR managers about what a Veteran brings to their company, I would always answer, “Military training manufactures ‘calm decision makers under duress’. When we are totally shellshocked/startled/frightened by unexpected/danger etc–all cognitive activity is in the amygdala. We are literally so ‘scared/shocked we are unable to think’–there is literally NO pre-frontal cortex activity. This must be trained. The only way to force thinking–is to train it. Daniel Goleman made this super clear in his book ‘Emotional Intelligence’. Seeing a snake, the cerebral activity is all brain stem–amygdala hijack. Nothing good happens when we make decisions/take action from this place.

    Look at our own COVID policies. Everything is based in fear–which gives us permission to ‘hate the other’ who sees COVID differently.

    Spend a few minutes on YouTube watching ‘shark attack’ by USMC or US Army-and you can watch how a young Solider–shaking/nervous/unsure–stays there until he/she is capable of answering the drill’s question. You can almost see the new neural pathways connecting.

    For years I have thought that a conscripted service would do much good for our country (primarily because of a shared ‘American’ experience in which all of us can connect)–but I also think this type of stress inoculation might be the very best outcome any Veteran experiences.

    While I applaud Steve’s advice to ‘use the noodle’–for many, many people–this access is simply unavailable to them until the pressure eases. Athletic training is also another great method – hitting the free-throw when exhausted and the game is on the line, 2 min drills, facing a 85mph fastball in high school–all of those force the athlete to move from reptile brain to human brain–slow down and make the shot.
    bsn

    • Kate Stanton on October 8, 2021 at 11:34 am

      Awesome comment, Brian. More and more research points to people storing trauma in the body. This comment makes me want to take up a cardio routine. I know I need to…

  11. Steve Koehler on October 6, 2021 at 11:18 am

    YES I can most definitely take MORE fighter pilot analogies. More please! Nothing like hearing real life experiences from people who’ve been in the S**T, and figured out how to get out of it.

  12. Joe Jansen on October 7, 2021 at 5:38 am

    Appreciate the post and all the great comments. I’m reading, but little time to respond at the moment. Appreciate you all.

  13. Jurgen Strack on October 8, 2021 at 12:07 pm

    When panic strikes …think outside the black box.

    j.

  14. Nicky on October 10, 2021 at 7:05 am

    Great post Steven

  15. Ellen on October 24, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    It was so exciting, I am always inspired by your work so that my articles are written as coolly, although I am writing not about war, but about economics and entertainment https://bit.ly/3A5v06J

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