Culture of Fear Suppresses Joy of Flight

By Scott Spangler on May 5th, 2014

More than it has in the previous two years I’ve judged an airport writing contest, fear was a central theme in the nearly three dozen essays submitted by students in elementary, middle, and high school. Most of them addressed airline flights and began with the TSA and continued until they reached the desired destination, often in Florida.

The handful that wrote about their general aviation flights also focused on their fear, but unlike all of their airline flying peers, two of them actually looked out the window and marveled at the different perspective flight gives of the world they live in on the the ground. Dismissing the easy explanation that kids today are different, looking at the world in which they are maturing, being afraid is what our culture has taught them to be.

And as their parents and grandparents, it’s our fault.

A common Facebook theme lists all the things we did as kids that kids today don’t do, from riding a bike without a helmet and walking to and from school without a guard or guide to playing outside unsupervised and without organized activities. Keeping kids safe is every parent’s responsibility, but using fear of the consequences to achieve it has the unintended consequence of suppressing rational risk assessment.


Using fear to achieve the desired outcome is a successful tactic as old as humankind. But its employment has become universally pervasive since the end of World War II. It started with the Cold War drills of cowering under our desks at school to protect us from a nuclear attack. It’s fully matured in the polarized, zero-sum world we now live in, where there is only one good and safe way.

Pick any aspect of culture—politics, religion, education—and the leaders of the factions involved will state their case that, in no  uncertain terms, that their way is the only way, and all others will lead to unfortunate outcomes. These attitudes are easily promulgated with mass marketing, and they discourage the antidote, the courage to critically assess other ideas and rationally evaluate the merits—and supporting evidence—of each of them.

Reversing this culture of fear is not impossible, but it requires effort, dedication, and individual thought whose greatest challenge is overcoming our own fear of just about everything. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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11 Responses to “Culture of Fear Suppresses Joy of Flight”

  1. Bill Palmer Says:

    I’m afraid you might be right.

  2. Lon Sobel Says:

    You are — I’m sorry to say — absolutely correct. I’ve thought quite a bit about why this is so, and the reason that occurs to me makes me despair of ever being able to change things. The reason, I think, is that the upside of setting fear aside is hard to measure, but the downside of being unsafe, even once, is huge. You have written about children, but the same is true about things that are done to keep the President safe. When the President travels, TFRs shut down the entire region — TFRs that shut down most GA flights, including training in 2 and 4-seat prop planes, resulting in immediate and significant costs to CFIs, FBOs and students. Such sweeping TFRs aren’t necessary to keep the President safe, in any rational sense of the word “safe.” But from the Secret Service’s point of view, there’s no upside in relaxing TFRs, no downside to keeping TFRs in place, and enormous downsides if something should happen to the President’s plane even once. Parents are to their children what the Secret Service is to the President. The reason that I despair about the prospects of changing this is that I can’t think of a way to increase the upside of relaxing precautions, or to decrease the perceived downside of something going wrong.

  3. GuyRR Says:

    I agree completely with the article and the comment posted above (Bill Palmer) and I am as pessimistic as both of them. The technique has started before WWII in NaZi Germany. There is no short-term incentive in changing this way of thinking, and long-term to a politician is … the next election. It is an individual decision of parents to protect their children from the worst scenario: inability to make a rational decision with proper information. As long as a leader is elected because he/she is charismatic I don’t think our children will learn to judge the content. If they learn to distrust the man with a big smile willing to give them candies but whose speech is empty they will learn to assess the facts and protect themselves in a very large meaning. I don;’t expect to see that happen as long as we are govern by fear.

  4. Patrick Says:

    Aren’t we seeing the same thing in GA? I can’t remember the last time I picked up a magazine ( or went on line ) and read about some accident or injury caused by the weather, a mechanical problem, or pilot oversight. I could make the argument that we are seeing a decline in GA pilots because of these articles. Am I advocating that we ignore such events? Of course not. But the emphasis we place on them negates all the good things that have come about in GA and technology.

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    I don’t really agree Patrick.

    I think it all balances out. Scott’s point emerged from a writing contest we ran for one of the airports we work with.

    I’m not sure you were suggesting this, but we surely didn’t put the notion of fear into these kids heads. I doubt too that these kids read any of the article about weather, or pilot oversight you mentioned either.

    So where did the notion of fear come from then? Maybe the timing was bad after the non-stop coverage of the missing Malaysian airplane. Kids fear losing their parents more than just about anything else. Perhaps it was linked to that.

    Again though, aircraft safety is what it is. We keep killing hundreds of people in small airplanes every year and almost nothing seems to have successfully slowed that pace.

    Perhaps these kids really do read the newspapers.

  6. Gerald Skoog Says:

    It is really quite simple. Fear generates sales. Think of all of the products on the shelves now that are there solely to dissipate fear- safety gear for every joint on a child’s body, helmets for all possible activities, multiple ointments to kill germs, etc. None of these existed thirty years ago. Multiples of people “heard about” a kid not wearing a helmet and suffering catastrophic injury. Anybody actually know one? Of course the answer will be yes. One person knows one, and one is all it takes to set off the “safety first” panic. As long as the tag line “you don’t want to be the one unprepared” generates sales, fear will always be the number one cylinder of the economic engine. There is no money to be made in a generation how are trained in competent risk assessment.


    It may have started circa WWII but it has advanced to an artform with all these helicopeter parents. And you are correct in that these kids are incapable of assessing actual danger to themselves. I too often observe them blithely wandering about, enraptured by their technological teething ring, oblivious of any danger as they cross the street without looking. There is no such thing as Zero Risk, no matter what you do, and no matter the cost.

  8. Robert Mark Says:

    There’s a big difference between parents worrying about how severely their kids might be injured falling off bikes and skateboards without a protective helmet and the number of people killed in GA aircraft accidents.

    There’s also a big difference between what we as adults can discuss in a forum amongst ourselves and what a bunch of grade school kids think.

    Are you guys honestly saying you think helicopter parents are responsible for why these kids have some fears of flying?

  9. Robert Wright Says:

    I believe we did it to ourselves. Parents should be fearful of their children flying in general aviation airplanes. I wouldn’t let a loved one fly in a GA airplane unless I personally knew about the risk management skills of the pilot. The problem is our REME (romantic, elitist, macho, enthusiast) culture that downplays risk and a training system that doesn’t teach it. The general public doesn’t care about the REME BS or the “white scarf” culture. They MIGHT care about a GA system that gets them to their destination safely at least as safely as cars do.

  10. Michael Lemaire Says:

    I don’t think fear itself is the problem. Lack of rationality is the problem. Cars are killing 40,000 people a year, but we have no fear (or not as much as flying at any rate) in stepping into a car. That’s not rational.

  11. Glen Towler Says:

    I do think the media have a big part to play in this the massive coverage every time a airliner crashes of course one recently is a really good example. If the media published the number of people who get killed on the roads every week no one would drive ever again. Helicopter parents don’t help either but then the media add fuel there paranoia what child molesters round every corner it seems at times.

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