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.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.