Extreme Fear

14th January 2010

This book begins with a pilot preparing for the World Aerobatic Championship. He suffers a wing collapse and an almost complete loss of control. But thanks to staying calm, “a miraculous feat of airmanship”, and an enormous amount of luck, he survives.

Danger turns out to be a highly subjective concept: it can range from a confrontation with a terrorist or a grizzly bear, to giving a public lecture or asking for a date. Confronting it successfully, Wise explains, involves a dialogue between the amygdala (the source of primitive emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (in charge of more rational thought processes). Both are important to the task of escaping from danger unscathed.

Later on, we are offered an account of the extraordinary achievement of Chesley Sullenberger – who last year, by landing an ailing Airbus A320 in the Hudson river, pulled off “the first fatality-free ditching of a commercial plane in aviation history”. But the book ends with a fatal accident involving Neil Williams – the pilot with whom the book began. Wise’s conclusion: “Having habituated to danger, he was not particularly motivated to avoid it. He left behind two children, and a legacy to ponder.”

What are the messages we take away from this book? First, practise. If it doesn’t make perfect, it’ll certainly help: Williams and Sullenberger benefited from vast experience of the tasks they were performing. Second, don’t panic! Keep your amygdala vigilant but your prefrontal cortex in control. Sullenberger experienced “the worst sickening feeling I’ve ever felt in my life” – but, as cockpit recordings attest, he remained composed and focused. And third, be lucky – but don’t mistake luck for skill. Neil Williams’ luck ran out; Sullenberger, to perform his fatality-free ditching in the Hudson, had to be not only extremely skilful and heroically composed, but also very, very lucky.

Extreme fear is a correlate of extreme risk – either that, or you just don’t understand the situation. Wise provides a fascinating account of how, with luck, it can be conquered by experience and self-discipline.

Prof John Adams is the author of Risk in a Hypermobile World

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Price: £16.99