On Aspie Pilots

When I first started flying, I was caught up in the excitement of making the decision and it being real, and then the question came up in the medical “Do you have a neurological disorder?” I hadn’t even thought about my Aspergers diagnosis being a problem, and no one who knew me would have suggested I wasn’t competent enough to learn to fly. I can’t pretend to say I know what my instructor thought when I told her there would be a delay and why, but she never let on that she thought any less of my abilities as a pilot because of it.

But at the time, I could find nothing at all on the internet to reassure me that it wouldn’t stand in my way of becoming a commercial pilot. So once that was all resolved, and I had a bit of a soapbox for winning the first to solo prize, I wrote an article for the Women of Aviation Week site, about my experiences with getting my medical, despite having a formal diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome. I still get messages about it, from exactly the people I wrote it for. People with Aspergers who want to learn to fly but are afraid of discrimination because of their diagnosis.

Aspergers seems to be the unsubstantiated disorder du jour to slap onto every white male serial killer and mass shooter, but all that really is is society trying to “other” the person who did bad. It’s easy if the bad guy is black or Muslim, or some obvious not-like-us, but when it’s a white male for some reason they have to come up with something to place him away from other “good” white males, to explain why he did it. But I’m sorry, being a serial killer or mass murderer doesn’t make someone an Aspie, it just makes them an asshole.

But the result is a deep misunderstanding on the part of general society about what Aspergers Syndrome actually is, and what it means, and that can lead to prejudice and discrimination.

But I still remember my Mom once telling me that maybe I shouldn’t tell people I have Aspergers. I’ve had other pilots tell me I should have lied so that I wouldn’t have to worry about the medical. And I’ve heard from other pilots who have withheld the fact that they have Aspergers, or just avoided getting a formal diagnosis to keep it from being a problem, because they were afraid of being discriminated against. I have even heard about a student who’s being refused training by an instructor who is uncomfortable with her diagnosis, because he doesn’t understand what effect it might have on her competence. As far as I’m aware, he may not even be willing to let her try. I’ve heard from Aspies who can’t get a simple driver’s license in the USA because in their overly litigious world, doctors won’t put themselves on the line to be sued in case that person were to get in an accident and be found not to be medically fit to drive.

The difficulties I do have are mostly in making friends, navigating friendships, being able to tell if someone actually likes me, or if they’re just being nice, or sometimes being able to tell if someone is teasing me or being serious. Noisy crowds and parties burn me out very quickly. Those are the main things I notice that cause me the most problems in my life.

How does that affect my flying? It really doesn’t. The closest has got to be getting along well with my instructor and not being able to tell if she actually enjoys my company as much as I enjoyed hers, or if she was just being nice because I was paying her. After two years I got my answer the day I finished my commercial license and she sent me a facebook friend request with a note saying she had a policy of not friending students on facebook until after she was finished training them.

There are no noisy crowds in the cockpit. Communication in aviation, between pilots and between ATC is very structured and clear. I have a good memory for rules and the million other things you have to remember and notice when flying a plane. It’s a place where the difficulties I have aren’t really relevant, and furthermore, a place that lets many of the strengths that come with being an Aspie shine through.

Which is not to say that every person with Aspergers is capable of learning to fly an aerplane. Some of the common symptoms of Aspergers is being sensitive to loud noises (I have trouble with crowds but some Aspies have issues with any loud noises) and the roaring engine might be an insurmountable problem. Some Aspies might have social anxiety bad enough they wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively on the radio. Another common symptom is poor motor skills, which could affect their ability to develop the stick-and-rudder skills needed to do the actual flying. Some may just have too much anxiety to remain composed in an emergency situation.

The thing is, if you’re met one Aspie, you’ve met one Aspie. Every one of us is different, with different symptoms and severities of symptoms, and strengths and weaknesses.

Almost like we’re actual people huh? Individuals, even. Not every Aspie is cut out to be a pilot. Not every neurotypical (nomal) person is cut out to be a pilot either. That’s something that would be determined based on performance during training, not based on a diagnosis, assuming the student is cleared on their medical.

I haven’t faced discrimination myself so far. The doctor who did my medical stated out loud that he didn’t feel that Aspergers was something that should prevent me from flying. Transport Canada asked for a letter from my family doctor – I’m not even sure what it was he wrote for them, but I’ve seen the guy like three times in my life, I swear, so he couldn’t really tell them any more than no, she’s not on any medications or requiring any counseling or other support – and they signed off on my medical certificate based on that. I don’t disagree with the way Transport Canada handled my case. They were prudent and fair, and they didn’t deny me my medical for no reason. As far as training, none of my instructors treated me any different than other students as far as I know. I’ve been pretty lucky so far. This is Canada.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t run into problems in the future. There are plenty of people out there who will think that I would be better off deleting this post and any record on the internet that I can erase that might tell a future employer googling my name that I’m an Aspie. They’ll say, well Transport Canada knows, you’re legal, you have no restrictions on your medical, you’re not obligated to tell your employers, why would you make it easy for them to find out if they’re likely to pass you up for jobs because of it?

One friend pointed out, well, why would I want to work for someone who would do that to me if they found out?

But it’s more than that. The way people think about Aspies won’t change if we keep hiding and pretending. I’m not saying that every person who’s hiding their diagnosis needs to come out, but the idea that I and others are afraid of how people will react and how we could be discriminated against due to it, makes me angry. So yeah, maybe there will be jobs I’ll miss out on because a prospective employer gets cold feet out of ignorance and misunderstanding and fear, but I feel like I have a responsibility to bullhead my way through that and show them how wrong they are. To paint a new picture for the world of what it means to be an Aspie, in the hopes of making it easier for those who come after me. It’s always an act of bravery to be one’s truest self.

The Adventurous And The Anxious: Thoughts On Passengers

I’ve had my licence for a little while now, and that means I’ve had some time to take a variety of passengers out flying with me now. I’ve obviously been a passenger in a plane before, but being the pilot and having a passenger is a little different perspective. Because then you’re recognizing that this person you’re taking flying is someone who cannot take over flying like your instructor could.

And believe me, they know it too. They know very well that they’re putting their life in your hands. It’s a huge gesture of trust and confidence.

Some ask lots of questions, some were very quiet. Most passengers are fairly quick to clue in when someone says something on the radio, that the pilot needs to hear it, and they stop talking. One interesting observation: when I say “Okay, I’m gonna be concentrating on landing for a couple minutes,” suddenly passengers are dead silent. In the plane, I’m the boss and most people seem get that pretty well. I’m a pretty laid back person, and don’t often take charge, so people are often surprised when I’m put in a role where I’m in charge, and have no trouble telling people what to do. People have observed that my whole demeanor changes. Being the pilot makes people in the role of passenger automatically look to you for direction, and taking that role has come more naturally that I thought it would. 

Some friends were terribly excited to go flying with me. There’s certain things (things that are still perfectly safe) that you can do with an aeroplane, that you’ll never see done in a commercial flight, like demonstrating the rudder by wagging the tail, or what our aerobatics instructor calls a “seat-belt check” (nose up hard for a second or two, then nose down hard to pull negative G’s. If your head hits the ceiling, your seatbelt isn’t tight enough.) Things that would frighten a nervous flyer, but for someone comfortable with it, can be fun. I’ve had some of my friends giggling like kids in the passenger seat.

Of course, not everyone’s happy to hear you say “Hey, you wanna see something cool?” I’ve been upfront about asking what my passengers are comfortable with, and explaining what we’re going to do before I do it, and what they’ll experience. Also, when you get your licence, your instructor is very clear on what you’re allowed to do with passengers and what you’re not allowed to do. Spins, for example. They’re an aerobatic maneuver – Harv’s 152’s are all insured for spins and we spin them in training. I’m allowed to do spins solo – in fact, as far as I’m aware, there’s no restriction on aerobatics maneuvers when a pilot is flying solo, with no passengers, as long as the plane is capable of it, you recover before 2000ft AGL, and the owner of the plane has it insured appropriately and is okay with you doing it. But you can’t do aerobatics with passengers unless you’ve done ten hours of aerobatics with someone who has an aerobatics instructor rating, or twenty hours of aerobatics solo.

Generally nobody gets caught doing things they’re not supposed to unless they crash. But quite frankly, I don’t see any point in doing anything I can’t brag about. Like, when my instructor said I should practice spins solo, even, I guess no one had ever actually said I couldn’t go do spins solo, but if I was going to, I would have wanted her to know before I did it, so that I knew I wouldn’t get a finger wag or anything. When I was taking one passenger out early on, and it was one of the ones who was comfortable with flying, and I wanted to demonstrate a stall, I even checked before hand with my instructor to make sure that would be okay.

I think I was a little bit afraid at first, when I got my licence, that my friends and family wouldn’t have enough faith in my competence as a pilot to go flying with me. I needn’t have been though – anyone who knows me, the better they know me, the more they have confidence in me. This is in fairly stark contrast to some of my family that I’m less close with, and who knew me better around ten years ago. In the last ten years I’ve blossomed as a person, and since moving to Winnipeg, made a lot of new friends, so most of my friendships are less than ten years old. There’s one main exception, and he was happy to go flying with me.

Family who knew me better before – strangely don’t seem interested in going flying. Some (a lot) of them cite being afraid of flying, some won’t even talk about it. There just seems, you know, to be a disproportionate number of people in my family who are now afraid of flying. My mother, off in Australia, tells me she worries about me flying, that I’ll end up getting myself hurt.

My husband reminds me that the people who know me, are the ones who have confidence in me, and it’s true. Nathan, as in a previous post, was my first passenger, but it was also his first time flying, so he was understandably nervous. He made sure he told me several times that the anxiousness was over the flying thing, not over any lack of confidence he had in me. After all, he was coming up with me, wasn’t he?  As much as I sometimes wonder if they’re saying “I have complete confidence in your piloting ability” as much to convince themselves, actions speak louder than words, and they are in the plane with me of their own volition.

And then there’s one friend who’s afraid of flying. She’s been on big jets, and I know that’s a lot easier for people afraid of flying to deal with. She says she has an easier time of those, considering she can remind herself that most plane crashes involve small planes. So going up in a small plane – she hasn’t quite got there yet, was how he put it. It wasn’t a hard no, though. She said maybe someday, if she can screw up her courage. And seriously, that someone afraid of flying would even consider going up with a relatively new pilot, is a huge vote of confidence.

In conclusion, taking passengers is fun. To all my passengers, I love sharing this mad little dream with you and it’s been an honour to be your pilot.