December 7th, 2010
08:14 AM ET

Confessions of a claustrophobic fighter pilot

In the Human Factor, Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces you to survivors who have overcome tremendous odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. Be inspired by their successes, as we have been.

Three years into my eleven-year Air Force flying career, my life changed when I almost died during a scuba diving trip in the Caribbean. Thirty feet under the water and already exhausted, I inhaled a lungful of water and had the most intense panic attack of my life. I literally thought I was going to die.

I immediately got out of the water, brushed it off as a very bad experience and put it behind me. A week later at my flying squadron in Oklahoma, I found myself back in the cockpit on a training mission in bad weather. Unable to see the ground or the sky, I felt closed in. My mask tightened around my face, my pulse quickened, and I suddenly had difficulty breathing. I became lightheaded and the panicky feeling I had a week before came back. “Get me out of this plane!”

From that day forth, I transformed myself from a confident, fearless jet pilot to a doubtful and anxious claustrophobe. For the next eight years of my flying career I had to walk around with that huge secret. If my fellow pilots found out, I would surely have my wings taken away.

Every training and combat mission I flew, I had claustrophobia as my companion, waiting to rear its ugly head and attempt to spin me out of control. But I fought it.

On four-hour training missions over the Sea of Japan, I fought it. On six-hour night combat missions over Iraq and Serbia in the cramped cockpit of the F-16, I fought it. It wasn’t easy. There were times on some flights when the panic and fear were so great that when I landed, I walked into the squadron with my wings in my hand ready to quit. But I fought it. And I won.

So how did I do it?

1. Mental rehearsal – I envisioned having my panic attacks in simulated flights while on the ground. Rather than fight it, I “befriended my fear.” I got used to the feeling in my mind and learned to cope with the fear by shifting my focus.

2. I focused on my wingmen: No fighter pilot flies solo in combat. We have wingmen who help us deal with emergencies and adapt to change. When I focused on the fact that I had my wingmen there to support me in and that they needed me as well, it gave me more courage.

3. I focused on what I loved: On every mission I flew, I carried a small silver set of angel wings that re-affirmed my belief in God. And I also carried a picture of my niece and nephew. They needed me to get back home. They gave meaning to my mission.

I never quit on any combat mission. However, things changed when I was performing my before take-off checklist on a flight from Spain to the U.S.  Seven hours flying over the Atlantic Ocean was too much for me to handle. I reached the limit of my courage. I aborted the flight before taking off.

What I learned from my experiences is that by stepping outside of my comfort zone and pushing the limits of my courage, I could do anything. By facing my fear and not letting it strangle me, I was able to plant the seeds to a future of opportunities I never would have dreamed of.

But, it also taught me that my ego was more powerful than I realized. I learned that it’s OK to quit. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to beat every fear, overcome every challenge, or fly every mission.

And neither do you.

soundoff (117 Responses)
  1. Chantel Lace

    Thank you for sharing this story! I can relate to every example and piece of advice. Though I won't let my issues with flying (claustrophobia, the unknown, lack of control once I'm in the air) stop me from going on business trips and short-distance vacations, I'm hesitant to fly overseas and see the world because of the long distances in the air. I wish that this pit-of-stomach panic did not exist and that I could embrace the experience of flying, but perhaps I should just accept that this is an issue for me and continue walking with it rather than struggling against it every time.

    December 7, 2010 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • IMHO

      For those long, transoceanic flights, Xanax is your friend. Have a heart-to-heart with your PCP and enjoy the rest of the world.

      December 7, 2010 at 18:29 | Report abuse |
  2. OyVay

    I admire this pilot. I have some fears, but I also fight them. I don't like elevators, but I use them anyway. I don't like driving over bridges, but I do it anyway. I tell myself that logically I'm being ridiculous, even though I feel panicky. I just try to ignore the feelings and focus on the fact that in a few seconds/minutes, the elevator ride will be over, or I'll be on the other side of the bridge. It does work. I figure if I give in to my fears, I might as well hang it up.

    December 7, 2010 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • deschl

      I have the same issues with elevators and bridges as well as heights but I fight my fears. I feel that most mental illness are rooted in fear, if you can function and fight through the fear you can survive and are much better for it. When a panic attack takes hold it lasts all of a few minutes then there is a calming down period, I always felt mine was because I analyze too much instead of going with the flow.

      December 7, 2010 at 12:39 | Report abuse |
    • dude

      the only thing to fear is fear itself – Frankin Deleno Rovavelt

      December 7, 2010 at 19:41 | Report abuse |
    • Elizabeth

      I have some small fears, but I fear the most going out alone. I am terrified of becoming a crime victim again. My husband is ill, and I have to do a lot on my own now; I only hope that he recovers.

      December 8, 2010 at 01:15 | Report abuse |
  3. stars

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I have a crippling claustrophobia. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to use elevators, seat belts, be in a crowded place. Flying has become a nightmare for me; my terror has now grounded me. I feel distraught about it because my mother is in poor health in California and I am in NJ. I had made great progress, but had two bad experiences in a row and now the very thought of being in an enclosed aircraft up in the air (cant get out) sets me over the edge. I am also in trouble with my dr because they need to do an MRI. I tried, failed, left and wont go back. I have been in therapy for this for quite a while, and have made a lot of progress, but am at a wall with it now. I wish there was some way of blocking the pit of the stomach panic!!! It is actually the fear that I fear!!!! LOL. Anybody out there have any success with any kind of treatment???

    December 7, 2010 at 09:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • joonbug

      I have worked through panic attacks in therapy. For me the key was determining what the root of the problem was. Understanding that allowed me to be able to realize and accept that I cannot control anything, that I have resources internal and external and I have the knowledge to identify and figure out how to use them. I became confident in my abilities and reality to deal with life.

      December 7, 2010 at 10:11 | Report abuse |
    • jello63211

      i am severely claustrophobic as well. i was able to fly in planes and ride the subway with no problem until about 2 years ago, when my claustrophobia worsened. before that, i was mildly bothered by elevators, but had no problem elsewhere. now, it is a daily struggle to ride buses that get a little too crowded, and i CANNOT ride the subway at all. it takes great courage to ride through tunnels, and i always feel like i've climbed a mountain when i get out. i was in therapy for a while too but then lost my job (and health insurance) and couldn't afford COBRA to continue the sessions.

      i sympathize with your plight as i am struggling with this myself. i think the thing to keep in mind is that your mind is wired to trigger this (largely unfounded) fear, and it is very hard to stop the thoughts once they start. you have to catch the panic before it starts because once you're in the midst of an attack, you can't stop it. i try to combat this by taking deep breaths before i encounter a potential trigger. i quiet my mind and try to think of something positive, anything that will distract me enough to get me through the situation. admittedly, i have not been on a plane since 2008, so i don't know how well that would work. maybe you would need to have some medication for a cross-country flight from NJ to CA. lots of claustrophobes/panic sufferers rely on medication to sustain them during a long flight, where it would be difficult to use CBT tools to calm yourself for 6 hours or more. good luck to you and i hope you make it out to CA to see your mom soon.

      December 7, 2010 at 10:19 | Report abuse |
    • deschl

      I was told once if you concentrate on your breathing a panic attack can't take place because when you go into a attack you are hyperventilating causing carbon monoxide I think it is to build up thus the attack, you should practice breathing through your nose whereas your belly rises very slowly and out through your mouth, it has worked for me on occasion such as in a crowded train.

      December 7, 2010 at 12:46 | Report abuse |
    • GrammarGnatsie

      Stars, have you tried closing your eyes and relaxing? An airline cabin looks the same size as an open field when you close your eyes.

      I admit, I am not claustrophobic, but I'm very emphatic and would like to give you something to try, if you haven't already.

      Go somewhere that kinda freaks you out a little, but isn't overwhelming; start small, ironically starting big. Look around to fully see the room isn't as big as it should be. Then close your eyes and concentrate on breathing slow in through your nose, and calm out through your mouth. This breathing exercise is suggested everywhere for good reason, that I know personally. Once you create that rhythm, think these words: "I can't see the walls, they're wherever I want them to be." With no senses to tell you the truth, you can lie to yourself and stifle the fear. Don't stretch out if you would touch more than one wall, but you can put your back against something and imagine sitting against a rock, looking at a beach. Or think of a tree against your back while you look at a golden meadow. Close your eyes, breathe slow in your nose and out your mouth, and make up whatever images you want to see. Think about what you want, not what you don't want. Thinking "Let me out of this tiny place" just sabotages yourself because it puts "tiny place" in your head. You need "open space" in your head.

      December 7, 2010 at 17:57 | Report abuse |
    • dude

      the only thing to fear is fear itself- FDR

      December 7, 2010 at 19:41 | Report abuse |
    • Waldo

      Stars...I totally get the "fear of the fear"! I hope you see some of the great suggestions in the posts below and that it helps you.

      December 7, 2010 at 22:01 | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Hey Stars,

      Don't know if you're a Christian (like the pilot in this story), but if you are, I want to give you a Bible verse to mediate on.

      "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7)

      December 7, 2010 at 22:45 | Report abuse |
    • Duncan

      Stars and Jello – I also had severe claustrophobia after getting caught in the subway 2 years ago. It got worse and worse. The sick panicky feeling spread to buses, planes, etc. and I would have to get out, and then began avoiding everything for months. I quit flying right away even though my job called for a lot of travel. After prayer and making a number of lifestyle changes (to be as healthy as possible) – I finally overcame it by systematic desensitization (slowing going near and then into, and then up and down in elevators every day for about 3 months). The first step into the elevator I pretty much had to be forced by my psychologist (of course I had to make the ultimate choice). It was like a wheelbarrow wheel in a rut that was getting deeper and deeper and needed a huge kick to get out. That first time back in the elevator was incredibly difficult and I had to make all kinds of checks to assure myself it was not going to stop, though it was still a step of faith of course. But each time got ever so slightly easier. Then after a while I felt comfortable with that elevator and had to move on to another one, to keep pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone. Now I am able to go back in elevators, with minor discomfort and I am flying again with no problem. Best of all I know it is getting better, rather than worse. I am grateful to God.

      December 8, 2010 at 02:17 | Report abuse |
  4. pablo

    No offense Waldo, but if I were on the ground calling for close air support in combat in Iraq the last thing I would want is the pilot hiding a serious condition that could put his life or my soldier's lives at risk... I don't need a bomb or a gun run missing the target or worse yet hitting us because someone has a condition that could affect combat performance. That sir, is the epitome of recklessness and selfishness. You should have gave up those wings and worked on your condition in another job.

    December 7, 2010 at 09:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldow

      Pablo...I totally see your point and appreciate your perspective. I address this in my book and seminars. You are correct – if it did affect my performance, I indeed had no right to fly. But the fact is I was so focused on the mission, my wingman, and the threat (to keep my mind off the claustrophobia), that I executed very well. In many ways, my phobia was a gift. I did my job and have awards and medals to prove it. Moreover, I was trained and sacrificed to become mission ready – just like any soldier. I am fully aware that flying fighters (and the military) should not be a training ground to deal with issues. But we all have fears and challenges...especially in combat. The question is – did you execute well despite these fears? If you can't – then abort and do something else with your life. If you can, then dig deep, take action, and do the job that you signed up to do. This is what life...and courage...is all about.

      December 7, 2010 at 10:15 | Report abuse |
    • Um

      I think its funny that the guy who wrote the article actually commented you back Pablo! I bet you figured they don't read the comments so you can just insult him and move on. Nope.

      December 7, 2010 at 14:55 | Report abuse |
    • RedC

      I agree that it could have compromised a mission. It's what we trust each other to do every day. Since it could be traced to an isolated incident, taking a temporary break to address that issue would have been prudent. Not sharing it with the wingmen you trusted to take care of you was reckless. If you think that was okay then what were they hiding from you? I can't pick up any slack that I'm unaware needs to be observed, otherwise I'm thinking you are running on all cylinders.

      December 14, 2010 at 14:34 | Report abuse |
    • Art

      I appreciate the concern, but the truth is the anxiety was much more dangerous to his well being than it was to the soldiers around them. As a person in a similiar situation, I can tell you that you go through hell in your mind but when the time comes you do what has to be done. People who suffer from this condition are often the most thoughtful, creative, and responsible employees and team members. Times that require critical action are actually welcome, because they take your mind off the feelings of panic. It is (at least for me) the routine and the extended times that are beyond your control that are too much to handle. Thank you so much Waldo for sharing your story.

      January 3, 2011 at 11:48 | Report abuse |
  5. RightBrain

    This phobia was misdiagnosed as claustrophobia, it is known correctly as Agoraphobia: fear of situations where escape is impossible or impossible without social embarrassment. The dead giveaway is that it involves conveyance: airplanes, elevators, escalators, car on freeways, boats, etc, which claustrophobia does not. This is a well known disorder among pilots and flight crews, many who end their careers when it strikes.

    December 7, 2010 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      Thanks for sharing that. You are correct. I think I had a lot of both! Waldo

      December 7, 2010 at 10:19 | Report abuse |
    • Ace

      Thanks for posting that. I have had that off and on since I was about 20. First time happened when I was flying solo in a Cessna 152. I soloed, but never finished getting my Private Pilot's license. It subsided for about 20 years, but is back now in the last 5, mostly on bridges, subways, commercial flights. It really is a horrible feeling, but I've lived through every episode, and that's something I remind myself when one happens. It hasn't kille me yet ! lol

      December 7, 2010 at 17:22 | Report abuse |
  6. formerjetpilot

    What a breath of fresh air to hear of another pilot who was affected by this disorder as I have thought I was alone. I went into a management job at the airline I work for after beginning to have severe panic attacks while flying the aircraft. I quietly grounded myself as after over 5000 hours of flight time I did not feel like I was safe. Since then (7 years ago) I have used similar techniques to deal with this unfounded panic and have had great progress. I may one day go back to flying but I'm not there quite yet.

    December 7, 2010 at 10:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. JimBo

    Great story. I have claustrophobia as well and have found certain anti-depressant medication can help. I welcome any advice on how to deal with this....

    December 7, 2010 at 11:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Dan

    Great story and compliments to the pilot for sharing this. I have a fear of heights, but not all heights. The fear is mild, and I actually have enjoyed confronting that fear and even did some rock climbing (which was unbelievably scary but rewarding). I am also a pilot and have no fear of heights when flying. In a small Cessna, I used to be completely comfortable opening the door (to the degree that one could) while in flight. That all changed a few years back when a flight instructor opened a door during takeoff in a multi-engine plane and we ended up out of control... I recovered and we lived. We came within 20 feet of the rocks. After I re-established the aircraft into a safe and controlled climb, the adrenaline started to convert into shaking knees and I struggled to have the strength to work the rudder pedals. I was too busy for fear, but once under control and established in safe flight again the "hangover of adrenaline" set in. Yet, my fear of heights doesn't affect me when I am flying. I am in control, safe, completely focused on the safety and technical aspects of safe aircraft operation and my emotions are pushed aside and waiting for me on the ground. We once had a complete engine failure and had to glide in to John Wayne airport without any power. It was a long glide and there were many decisions to make on the way down, including landing at a closed military base, possibly a street, or could we make it to John Wayne. Again, I handled the emergency perfectly and my passenger (also a skilled pilot/my copilot) observed and assisted minimally enabling me to focus on the task at hand. I had complete calm and focus until the soles of my shoes were standing on the airport concrete next to the airplane and the airport officials came out with a clipboard to ask me questions- again with the knees shaking. Again, I admire this pilot and I am glad that we have guys like him, guys focused on the task at hand, flying on behalf of our country.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      Really appreciate your comment and support Dan. You exhibited serious courage in your emergency and should be proud. Wishing you a successful and healthy 2011. Waldo

      January 5, 2011 at 00:37 | Report abuse |
  9. Rise Above

    There is a big difference between fear and panic. Fear is only human; for example I am sure we have all heard the line that any combat pilot who says he is not afraid is a liar, right? Being able to rise above our fears and focus actually enhances performance. Panic, on the other hand is an entirely different matter. Panic is a loss of control and is potentially fatal.

    December 7, 2010 at 14:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Gweed

    Waldo, check four buddy, I have your six. Incredibly magnanimous of you. Guess we know you were not thinking much about mode 2 with the ACE-II?

    December 7, 2010 at 14:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      Thanks Gweed. Proud to be your wingman. Waldo

      December 7, 2010 at 20:18 | Report abuse |
  11. Juan Felix

    I just want to share my respect for being open about this. This will give other people the courage to be open about their fears and that is the first step to change. And that is what I call courages! Thanks a lot Lt. Col. Waldman.

    December 7, 2010 at 14:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      Thanks Juan. Sometimes it takes more courage to admit we're imperfect. My best friends remind me I'm not perfect all the time...and I need to hear it. Better to have a wingman tell us what we need to hear, and not what we want to hear

      December 7, 2010 at 23:03 | Report abuse |
  12. ArtInChicago

    Yes, I admire the pilot, but did he possibly jeopardize people and missions flying with mental challenges in secrecy? One of the pilots of the Blue Angels voluntarily left when he thought he no longer had the edge. I question the wisdom to fly when you are having these struggles.

    December 7, 2010 at 15:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      You're correct Art...if at any time I thought I would hinder the effectiveness of the mission, I would have aborted the mission and not flown. But please note my occurrences got more and more rare the more I flew. On most flights, i never got panicky...but on those long night missions with lots of weather, it was tough....especially when we were 'droning' to and from the AOR (area of responsibility). During these boring, non critical phases of flight where we didn't need to do much activity, I "got into my head' which never was good. I had to focus even harder and would occasionally experience what I call micro panic attacks...30 seconds – 3 minutes of anxiety and fear (heart pounding, etc)...I would focus on my breathing and get into my checklist, work my weapons systems checks, and it would eventually dissipate.
      Whenever we got closer to the enemy border to engage the threat, my fear of panic turned to my fear of messing up my responsibilities!!...which in turn got me focused on doing my job, the tactics, etc...I went from "fear focused to mission focused", and was therefore able to be effective.

      December 7, 2010 at 23:13 | Report abuse |
  13. Jennifer

    I am a bit of a claustrophobe, and dislike elevators, subways, and flying. For those who hate flying, here's what I do to make it easier:

    1.) I give myself plenty of time. That way there's no stress about security.
    2.) I treat myself. I buy a People magazine, which I really enjoy, but I only allow myself to read it when flying. That way it's a treat. I also buy a new book at the Borders in my airport, something else I don't normally do.
    3.) Before the flight, I go online and select a seat. I choose one near the front of the aircraft, preferably near the bulkhead. It's a small thing, but you're nearer the door when it's time to get off. If possible, I choose an aisle seat.
    4.) Alaska Airlines provides DigEPlayers for rent. I always rent one. It's a great distraction! If you're not flying Alaska, or you're not sure whether your flight will have movies, I suggest buying a portable movie player off Amazon.
    5.) I bring my own headphones. The airline headphones are terrible, and you'll barely be able to hear the movie. Bring nice, high-quality headphones. They'll block out the airplane noise and make you more comfortable.
    6.) Consider getting up and walking around the cabin during the flight.
    7.) I find flying with my spouse reduces my stress a lot.

    December 7, 2010 at 16:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • GrammarGnatsie

      Fighting one's fear is exhausting; distracting yourself from it is the right choice.

      I'm not certain about moving around the cabin, as that would just remind you of your frightful situation, but your suggestions about movies, books, and sitting in front at the bulkhead (that legroom does WONDERS for spacial issues, no doubt) sound like winners.

      December 7, 2010 at 18:10 | Report abuse |
  14. Deryk Houston

    When he was flying over Iraq and dropping his bombs, did he ever consider how the people below felt. Does he know what it was like to be inside the Ameriyah bomb shelter for example. Hundreds of innocent people lost their lives when a missile ripped through the three foot concrete and steel laced roof. The explosion ripped the people to shreds and many of them were vaporized. I witnessed an X ray image of a mother breastfeeding her baby. They were instantly vaporized by the heat.
    Not content with that, the pilots fired another missile into the hole left by the first missile and this one burst through the shelter and made it down to the second floor. The bomb burst huge storage tanks of water, instantly turning it to boiling water which flooded the basement floor and boiled the people alive. I witnessed their handprints and claw marks on the ceiling of the beasment as they struggled to stay above the water level. They all boiled to death. Their skin peeled off them and stuck to the walls. One could see their faces in the skin left on the walls.
    I would like to see this pilot think about what his missiles were doing down there..... as deeply as he ponders his problems with anxiety attacks.

    December 7, 2010 at 16:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Richard Walters

      Wow Deryk – pretty deep stuff. War is a horrible reality we face every day and its unfortunate that the world has to address such atrocities. Mans inhumanity against man! Thousands of years of atrocities. Its so sad. Unfortunately, there are always innocent casualties of war – those innocent people that get killed and then those that survive its aftermath and have to deal with vicious dictators. Your comment makes me reflect on how the thousands of innocent hardworking Americans (and many foreigners, too) felt when they burned to death and ripped to shreds as a result of the 911 attacks. Thankfully we have American civilians and service members who have the courage and honor to stand up and defend the freedoms of this great nation against such attacks. Wishing you peace, love, and happiness.

      December 7, 2010 at 17:35 | Report abuse |
    • Gweed

      Deryk – you add two and two and get seven. I was flying sorties in the sandbox that night and Saddam had been using that shelter as an Intelligence HQ. What the Intel folks missed was Saddam's troops opened the doors to that place and moved innocent civilians into harms way. It was a dark night filled with dust over the target so, the Intel folks simply missed the civilians. Bad guys use hospitals & schools to shoot at us from. Also, no missiles were used that night just some other heavy stuff. Rob has the right stuff and came out in public to provide a story to help people. Of course he ran the risk of having someone like you go off on their own misinformed agenda.

      December 7, 2010 at 17:55 | Report abuse |
    • IMHO

      Deryk; Please read the TOS for this forum and try to grasp the concept of "On Topic" before you post. Thank you.

      December 7, 2010 at 18:44 | Report abuse |
    • db

      I'm sorry guy but that is not how it works. You need to get a grip on reality and quit dreaming crazy dreams, it's bad for you. Now grow up and when your old enough join the Military and make a difference instead of crying in our milk with false stories.

      December 7, 2010 at 21:09 | Report abuse |
  15. John M

    Great response to Deryk's post Richard, couldn't agree more. Our reasons for being there have 3000 exclamation ponts!

    December 7, 2010 at 18:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • PetePeterPete...I forgot!

      I read all previous posts with interest. Everything seemed as expected until I read yours John. Are you among those who still pretend we went to Iraq due to 9-11 involvement by them? If you need to find reasons for conscience sake, please, so I can maintain my respect for you, blame it on WMD belief or some other such thing. Much more plausible.

      December 7, 2010 at 19:34 | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Still connecting the Iraq war with 9-11 is extremely ignorant. And because war is so cruel, you do not start one casually on a pack of lies. There is no moral superiority for those who massacre Iraqi soldiers defending their country to terrorists massacering civilians. Both are deliberate, intentional, avoidable acts of murder.

      December 8, 2010 at 06:40 | Report abuse |
  16. palomino

    I have some recommendations for 'stars' because I have the exact same claustrophobic fear of tight, enclosed spaces. It seemed to develop in my forties and it has become more difficult to deal with since I have had a couple of panic attacks. I think I am more fearful of the panic attacks then I am of the situation itself.

    For plane trips:
    1. Always get an aisle seat. You may not need to get up and walk about during the flight, but just knowing that you can seems to provide a more calm state.
    2. Wear high quality, noise-canceling headphones. i have a pair of Bose. They reduce the engine noise and make superb headphones for music or videos.
    3. Distract yourself with your choice of your favorite media. Watch a movie on your laptop, listen to your favorite music on your iPod, or read that engrossing novel that will take several hours to finish. I use all three strategies and I am still able to withstand 11 hour flights to Europe. A 5 hour flight from California to N.J. is very doable.

    For the MRI:
    1. Insist on an "open" MRI machine which is less confining than the tubular shape of the regular kind. You will still need more help though, so:
    2. Use an anti-anxiety medication to calm yourself. I was prescribed Xanax. It doesn't put you to sleep but it makes you apathetic about the confinement of the equipment. (I had to take two pills for my MRI).
    3. Bring your favorite CDs with you and have the attendant play them while you are in the machine. Music is very calming if it is your favorite song collection.
    4. Have your spouse or significant other or friend sit next to the MRI machine while you are in it. He can read a book. Knowing that he was right there and he could pat my hand or talk to me was very reassuring for me because I felt that if I couldn't stand it anymore, he would make sure I was taken out of the machine.

    I was successful in having an one hour MRI scan using these methods. Not eager to do it again but i could if I had to.

    December 7, 2010 at 19:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      Palomino – those are awesome wingtips. Thank you for sharing. When I first got out of active duty flying, going on airplane flights were the most difficult because now I want in control. I very rarely feel uncomfortable on airplane, but when it does occur, I pop on my headphones, get into a magazine, and before I know it, I feel better.

      December 7, 2010 at 21:55 | Report abuse |
  17. IMHO

    Is it just me or does anyone else think Waldo looks like Robin Williams?

    December 7, 2010 at 19:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      LOL. Now that cracks me up! Never been told that (Deniro, maybe...but Robin Williams!?!!) My wife is gonna give me heck about this one! 🙂

      December 7, 2010 at 20:17 | Report abuse |
  18. Tony

    Great story. I was a naval aviator. I found I was able to overcome fear in any situation by my confidence that I could do anything that anyone else could do. However, I have a deep down dread of being trapped in a confined space with no room to move, and there are times when traffic stops under an overpass when I don't like to think about earthquakes.... Good job facing your demons...

    December 7, 2010 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      Thanks for sharing that Tony...and thanks for your service too bro. Waldo

      December 7, 2010 at 21:50 | Report abuse |
  19. Sheri

    I overcame my fear of flying by starting with short flights and increasing the amount of time in the air gradually. I already take a small dose of Xanax daily for panic attacks I had/still have since the birth of my second child. When I have a panic attack, it's a physical reaction. I'm totally logical "in my head," but I can't seem to stop the physical symptoms. Anyone else have the same experience?

    December 7, 2010 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LS

      Yes, its sounds like Panic Disorder. I suggest you see a therapist experienced in the treatment of anxiety disorders. This condition is highly treatable and you likely can eventually get off Xanax (VERY SLOWLY WITH MEDICAL SUPERVISION)

      December 13, 2010 at 23:16 | Report abuse |
  20. Mike

    Waldo, thank you for sharing your story and your service to our great country. Your story help me understand something that startedfor me about 3 years ago much better. Some of the other post help too. Like you, I had to fight my way through it not to give into it. I did the thought process like so many others to handle and manage the trigger points. Thank you again sir!

    December 7, 2010 at 22:01 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      You're welcome Mike. Lots of helpful posts on here from people who want to help. Good stuff! Happy holidays.

      December 7, 2010 at 22:41 | Report abuse |
  21. Ace

    Claustrophobia, while I know it exists, is almost impossible for me to identify with. I spent 6 years on nuclear submarines for months at a time. My family thought I was crazy, but I found subs to be just cozy, if a little smelly.l

    December 7, 2010 at 22:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Anonymous

    Waldo, it's unfortunate there isn't more outreach for pilots with your former condition. It is certainly shared by many in the aviation community, especially in the military, given the close-quarter nature of the cockpits and high-stress environments. Speaking from experience as a recently separated military flight student, the service wasn't exactly supportive or willing to work with such a situation. It's unfortunate to only now see your success in overcoming your condition, albeit unknown to the AF/ANG, as this would have probably helped myself in handling my situation prior to being separated from single-seat fighters and being a pilot altogether. I'm glad to see you reaching out to others about your success, but hopefully you can extend your knowledge and experience to active military members to help bring to light a serious, but also seriously hidden problem many pilots may be swallowing down for fear of repercussion, persecution, or just embarrassment in a community of bravado and "zero-defects". Over-riding ORM and flying with anxiety or stress is common nature, especially if ORM regarding said topics may end your career, but that in itself defeats ORM altogether. Clearly it is a problem that can be overcome given the right measures, it's just a matter of addressing it. Your story comes out now after active duty flying, but hopefully it will prevent a mishap in the future. Wish I would have heard it earlier.

    December 8, 2010 at 00:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. godsoldier

    Anything is possible through our lord Jesus Christ who strengthens us! He is a fortress for the weak and has overcome the world. I can do anything with my Lord by my side

    December 8, 2010 at 04:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. godsoldier

    Anything is possible through our lord Jesus Christ who strengthens us! He is a fortress for the weak and has overcome the world. I can do anything with my Lord by my side.we all have fears but when you say I have closterphobia or anxienty, what your doing is claiming that one thing. I yous to get anxiety attacks but I rebuked them and didn't accept that because its not something given from god. God gives us strength joy wisdom understanding and all things in which are good. Is anxiety good? No is athsma good? No are panic attacks good? No. If those aren't things of God then whose are they? The enemies. The devil tries to make us be fearful. What does fear do? It stops is in our tracks (stops us from further progress) God wants us moving forward. Walk by faith and not by sight. Don't let doubt or fear stop you from doing anything. God is our shield! God is our strength! God has already gone through the storm before we have even seen it.God is great! Greater is He that's in me. Just know that God loves is and wants is to succeed just as much as we want ourselves to, only through Him are all these things possible! I hope these words would encourage all of you if your having struggles or doubt. Jesus loves all of us. He is the same yesterday today and forever! Amen

    December 8, 2010 at 04:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. ActiveDutyMilitary

    What?! For how many years did you regularly endanger yourself and your aircraft by concealing this disability? My son is in the USAF. I'm glad to know that you will not be flying as his wingman, potentially unable to cover him in combat because you are experiencing a panic attack that you knew was likely before you left the ground!

    I am not a pilot. I was denied the opportunity because of MY disability; poor eyesight. At the time, the unwaiverable requirement was 20/40 vision in both eyes, uncorrected. I wore glasses, and was immediately disqualified. I understand why. If I had followed your example, I would have worn contacts and faked it through the vision test, thereafter hoping for the best on each flight. HOPING my contacts didn't slide off my eyes in a high-G turn, effectively blinding me and jeopardizing my ability to fly and fight my aircraft.

    He had a duty to report a flight-limiting condition, a duty which he understood and failed to carry out. Fighter pilots have to report if they have a head cold, and are generally grounded until it clears! This is not a story of courage. It is a story of gross negligence.

    December 8, 2010 at 08:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      In all due respect Sir/Mam, please read my previous posts. This was not a skill problem or a "disability" like bad eyes, but a mental challenge that I overcame. My Ability to execute the mission was never affected, nor did I put myself or my wingmen "in danger".

      Every fighter pilot/soldier deals with fear and anxiety to some degree on combat missions....mine was more because I had claustrophobia (or actually agoraphobia). Bottom line – I dealt with it, overcame it when it came time to do the job, and executed the mission well despite the fear.

      December 8, 2010 at 09:52 | Report abuse |
    • ActiveDutyMilitary

      Waldo; by your own statement, "Every training and combat mission I flew, I had claustrophobia as my companion, waiting to rear its ugly head and attempt to spin me out of control."

      Physical, mental, or psychological... you still had the duty to report this potentially debilitating condition. Because you were lucky, and it never actually resulted in an accident or loss of life, does NOT make it okay. Every time you went up, mission readiness was degraded.

      For those of you who see this as a story of courage, the next time you get aboard a commercial airliner, maybe you should ask yourself if Waldo is the pilot up on the flight deck... or someone like him, struggling to deal with claustrophobia or whatever-phobia, as he prepares to launch you into the sky, hurtling at a few hundred miles an hour, miles above the earth, in an aluminum tube. Do you feel better now, knowing your pilot may be concealing a condition that might cause him/her to suffer a panic attack at any moment?

      You're welcome.

      December 8, 2010 at 10:47 | Report abuse |
    • Waldo

      Hey I totally see your point. But I really think you're missing it.

      I was voted Top Flight Lead by my squadron mates, Instructor Pilot of the Year by my students, etc. I say that not to impress you. But to show that I did my job and did it well. I wasn't a great pilot, but pretty darn good.

      No sir... I wasn't "lucky" as you stated I was. I worked to overcome my challenges. And I succeeded. The more I did, the less they had a hold on me. By the time i finished my flying career, I basically had beaten the phobia to the point it almost never affected me. But yes, it was always there.

      The point is – can you PERFORM despite the human conditions we all face such as fear, phobia, etc? Can you do the job?

      You can't "fake" performance.


      December 8, 2010 at 11:58 | Report abuse |
    • LS

      The really sad part is that this problems is not "disability." It's an entirely treatable problem that can be cured through therapy. It's really a shame that he had to keep quiet and couldn't get the help he needed. Instead he had to suffer in silence and possibly put others lives in danger.

      December 13, 2010 at 23:00 | Report abuse |
  26. ron grimes

    Thanks for all the great stories. Paxel cured me almost overnight. Unfortunutley I still have to take it after many years.

    December 8, 2010 at 08:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Vince

    You've very courageous in all regards. It's interesting how strong your fear was compared to the danger you were in every day. You were more concerned with the claustrophopia then with dying in combat! Where can we get info on your seminars?

    December 8, 2010 at 09:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      Thanks Vince. Per your request, you can visit http://www.YourWingman.com for more info on my seminars.

      Have a great holiday season

      December 8, 2010 at 12:00 | Report abuse |
  28. PetePeterPete...I forgot!

    I thought about your story all morning. It bothered me. As an officer you had a duty...yes a duty, to identify your issue to the AF. You chose not to for your own selfish reasons; I understand. However, your issue didn't (you say) affect performance. Maybe, but (and the "but" is paramount) there always existed the possibility, the potential to cause unintended harm to others. This is a risk that you do not have the right to take on your own volition. Knowing full well you had this problem, you ignored regulations and continued. Your reliability, whether you acknowledge this or not, was always on a thin string. You pulled the wool over the eyes of the people you flew for and with and for this you do not deserve accolades. Your "buddies" will pull for you on this, but would they go into combat with you again? If they say "yes", they're either lying out of misplaced loyalty or should themselves consider a conversation with their wing commander. I agree 100% with ActiveDutyMilitary and fully understand the concern of Pablo.

    December 8, 2010 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      Thanks for sharing Pete.

      I'm not saying I was 100% right for flying with my condition. Perhaps I did push the limit. But I got over it and worked hard until the phobia was no longer a factor when I flew. Once again, I never shirked my duties or failed to execute well in my whole flying career. I completed every combat mission. And when I realized my phobia could be a factor in the flight home from Spain to the US, I aborted. That was my limit.

      Should everyone quit when there is a possibility of failing? If every pilot (or soldier) who had fear and panic under stressful situations (like that experienced in combat) refused to fly, we would have a seriously thinned out military. My challenge was claustrophobia/agoraphobia...for others, it's something else. We all have it. Can you press through the fear and still perform? Can you focus so much and stay committed to put your fear to the side and press on?

      Sure – call me "selfish" and "irresponsible"for not quitting when fear hit..for not taking the easy way out and for stepping outside of my comfort zone to face my challenge and overcome it....For serving 11 years on active duty honorably, deploying to Iraq and Serbia and going to war, dodging surface to air missiles, teaching students to fly as in instructor pilot, and fulfilling my roles as an officer in the Air Force.

      By the way Pete, just wondering, have you ever been to war?

      December 8, 2010 at 21:12 | Report abuse |
    • LS

      It's not Waldo's fault that mental health problems are so stigmatized in the military. If he has been shot in the leg in combat, he probably would've received excellent care, called a " war hero" and be eligible for other benefits. Instead, he had no choice but to hide his condition and not get the help he needed for fear of losing the job that he loved.

      December 13, 2010 at 23:04 | Report abuse |
  29. Dagny

    Im so happy I stumbled upon this article. I have claustrophobia and resulting panic issues as well. Your ability to conquer those feelings under conditions involving extreme pressure and awesome responsibility is a testament to what a truly amazing person you must be. I cant help but marvel at your strength. Thank you for your story.

    December 8, 2010 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Smokey50

    Congrats Waldo, life is not so black and white as some would lead us and themselves to believe. If you had removed yourself there are many others in the aviation field that need to as well. As a matter of fact in many professions this black and white philosophy could be applied, but unfortunatley to the detriment of us all. Many in the aviation industry suffer from hypertension, diabetes, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, gambling addiction, anger disorders, etc... this industry and all others (Medical, Legal, Political... and many others) are filled with the all too fallible human condition. What is important is to address the issue and any underlying problems and to only remove yourself if you do harm. I am an former naval aviator and commerical airline pilot. I am proud of my heritage and changed careers because of the same issues you have shared, as well as other aviators and non-aviators. Fortunatley the aviation industry and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is beginning to understand your experience and view and is readying the treatment of depression and other disorders by allowing the use of anti-depressants in the future; versus having aviators hide their all too human issues. I have seen too many aviators as well as other professionals secretly endure painful issues for fear of career loss. As we evolve we will open the treatment of our human condition and be all the better for it! The aviation field as that of the medical, legal, political and so many others have developed to the degree that our humaness can be stretched way too thin at times by the incredible stresses and demands of modern life and technology. As a side note I have found one way to dramatically resolve the burden of phobia's both in aviation and in most other parts of professional life. There is no one way but mine has proven quite effective. I am currently a professional in the Federal Government and have obtained a post graduate degree and help veterans from vietnam era through current military service. God Speed Waldo, Strength and Honor my friend!

    December 8, 2010 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • PetePeterPete...I forgot!

      ...Smokey50...nice comment. Some empathy and concern...nice. Now, get real! You say "...only remove yourself if you do harm." Are you for real? Once you do harm, it's too late for the person or persons you harmed. The emphasis needs to be (and is) on getting you out of that position BEFORE you do harm. You owe this to your fellow servicepeople and to the US! Reliability is a major concern in the military. Miss what your shooting at? Don't shoot when you should? Can't turn a key to launch when the nation expects and/or needs you to? Can't complete the mission in the F-16? The irresponsibility borders on criminal. Lord knows how many lives were endangered whenever Waldo flew over any city. Waldo, I'm sure you're a good guy, and I'm glad you made it as far as you did, but I'm also sure that you understand exactly what I mean! I notice your buddies are very quiet now.

      December 8, 2010 at 16:47 | Report abuse |
    • Waldo

      Good words Smokey. Thank you.

      December 9, 2010 at 23:02 | Report abuse |
  31. Smokey50

    God Speed Waldo, Strength and Honor my friend!

    December 8, 2010 at 17:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Doug G

    I had the same thing happen to me while diving. If I would have been 3 feet deeper I would have died. It took a good year or so to even bo ok in the shower with water going over my face and head. 3 years later I decided I needed to face it and signed up for a 6 month Commercial Diving Course. During that time I again learned to enjoy the diving experiance. But man oh man, the first time putting that hat on and walking over the edge just plain old scared me to death!

    December 8, 2010 at 18:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. shoulder

    Nice article/comments. My advice to people with anxiety attacks is to first find out when and why they started. 4 waldo, it was admittedly a scuba incident. 4 maself, i never been fraida no nothin', till ma pa passed. strange indeed. was afraid of being in a car or a bus. of travelling. of moving through time and space. I still don't how this is, but at least i know why and when. some commenter here said something useful "it is known correctly as Agoraphobia: fear of situations where escape is impossible or impossible without social embarrassment. The dead giveaway is that it involves conveyance: airplanes, elevators, escalators, car on freeways, boats, etc, which claustrophobia does not." TY, it helps to read that. It took 4 years 4 me to be able to tell any1 that ma pa done passed, and since then i've gone on a few road trips, and it gets better everytime. not like the first time, when i wanted to stop my friend driving on a busy tollroad to get out and run and scream (but held it in). Maybe some day i'll figure the connection all out, when i read an article where some1 tells the link between death of a loved one, and fear of movement. guess it might have something to do with 'loss of control', or 'embarrasment' (doubt it). who knows.... But really, i'm suprised it's me. Never ever ever would have thought that something like this would have happened to me.

    p.s. to the mri problem people, just do it. at least you don't have to move. i just lied there and relaxed and almost fell asleep. maybe go to the hospital a little tired. close your eyes. gosh, it actually sounds really cool, the noised i mean, if you think about it. didnt you ever use 'white noises' to help you fall asleep? every1 knows bout that! i been doing that since kidschool! (washing mashine, fans, thunderstorms, etc....). I had a couple scans last fall, and it was fun! i remember ma pa having a hard time getttin in them and takin' drugs (ativan, etc...) to try to do them, for his 'cancer'. but it wasnt hard at all! the contrast felt awesome, and the sound was soothing!, and i got to rest!

    December 9, 2010 at 03:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Thomas J.

    Irrisponsible example of ego mortgaging out risk onto unwitting others. I'm happy he overcame his fear but it should have been done in persuit of a new career with less unecessary risk to those whom had no knowledge of his condition around him. Or at the very least identifying your limits and grounding yourself until they could have been rehabilitated. We are all great at something in our lives but eventually it is time to let the next wave take the reigns no matter how hard it is to leave something we love. This story only raises my eye brow to all the public and non-disclosed incidents of suburban homes and their inhabitants vaporized in a firey crash.....reported as "who knows" malfunction. Military combat air craft in my mind should be catorgorized as an ultra-hazardous occupation with risk to both participants and bystanders. For this reason the requirements for pilots should be far beyond average ie psycological, emotional and physical conditioning with no known conditions requiring medication.....THE RIGHT STUFF!

    December 10, 2010 at 16:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Waldo

      Irresponsible? I knew my limits. My performance was never affected and I rehabilitated myself.
      There was no "condition requiring medication?"

      The requirements for fighter pilots indeed are far beyond average. But "The Right Stuff" is not about being "far beyond average." at the end of the day, it's about having the courage to take action despite your fear and getting the mission accomplished.

      December 12, 2010 at 00:01 | Report abuse |
  35. LS

    He should've seen a competent therapist and did some cognitive-behavioral therapy and claustrophobia most likely would've resolved in a couple of months. Done and one. He should've had had to suffer like that for so long. So bad stigma and lack proper mental care is such a prevalent problem in our armed forces.

    December 13, 2010 at 22:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LS

      He should've seen a competent therapist and did some cognitive-behavioral therapy and claustrophobia most likely would've resolved in a couple of months. Done and done. He shouldn't have had to suffer like that for so long. Too bad stigma and lack proper mental care is such a prevalent problem in our armed forces.

      December 13, 2010 at 23:07 | Report abuse |
    • LS

      the reply is the proper comment. I got a little overzealous and didn't fully proof-read my comment before posting.

      December 13, 2010 at 23:09 | Report abuse |
  36. J. C. olivar

    Art is right and I want to thank him for his insight. I feel like coming out of a closet and finally being able to speak. I am a recreational pilot and full time fillmmaker so i can totally relate to Art's post when it comes to creativity and resourcefulness. When facing a situation, resourses do kick in and the fear goes away. I have been an anxiety suffered for over 25 years (since childhood) with many ups and downs and commorbid depression due to overwhelming phobias. the only thing to fear is the fear itself. I know it's easier said then done, but my doctor always told me that the only way (along with cbt and medications sometimes) is to go out there and do it. and keep doing it. Nothing will happen. At least nothing more than to a normal person. phobia is a smart beast. it knows enough as not to kill you, else, who would it posess?... Courage and peace to all, and most of all a big big thanks for this article.

    January 31, 2011 at 05:58 | Report abuse | Reply
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  39. MrSomeone

    I hope this helps anyone who was desperate like me.
    I've been panic attack free for about 5 years now, here's the good news for you folks who are worried that you can't get rid of these feelings, time will delete the sensations but won't delete the memory, trust me. You will forget the feelings about these trigger points that you experience now and the memory that will be left won't bother you because memories don't induce these feelings but even if they did you can deal with them, so here's how I did it.
    I'm probably a different case to many folks with phobias because I don't fear anything as much as I fear having a panic attack, this is what got me to avoid places and it was ongoing nightmare that only got worse. So I realized if I could learn to stop a panic attack before it happened I would be the happiest person in the world, and I learned how to do it and I would like to share it with you when you buy my book , nah just kidding. Ok so, here's what I found out as many of you know a panic attack is your body's way of preparing itself for an emergency, this potential emergency is falsely triggered by your irrational thinking which creates this physical sensations that are basically not required so all you are left to do with it is to deal with it until it passes but obviously this isn't as easy as it sounds so according to a lot of people here's what you could try:

    1. stop the negative thinking, which people say can be done through meditation and so on so as not to start these thoughts but this proved to hard for me and I couldn't do it so if you can well done to you but if you're like me then you're waiting for 2 and that is:

    2. stop the initial physical sensation of a panic attack, now this is what helped me and you can do the same simply by and this is the key: holding your breath, you cannot have a panic attack when you don't breathe, it's quite simple really and kept me panic attack free for over 5 years. But I have to say please don't put yourself in danger by holding your breath to the point where you would pass out, this is unnecessary and obviously can lead to death. I know it's ridiculous to write this but for the sake of darwin award nomminees I have to point it out.

    Initially as you begin to feel a oncoming panic attack you will feel everything as you always do, pounding fast heart rate, sweating, shaking etc. but you will not have a full blown panic attack if you persist to hold your breath, I convinced myself of this when I tried it. When you hold your breath the panic sensations will only last a few seconds this is because you will not phisically let your body have it's fuel (oxygen) to go into the full panic attack mode so it has no choice but to subside, which is a good few minutes of pointless suffering eradicated.

    This technique helped me to stay panic attack free and I hope it can work for you too, if it doesn't then you're doing something wrong. You really need to learn how to do this for it to work but if you don't I'm sure there are other alternatives for you out there that you could try. Good luck.

    February 10, 2013 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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