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 (515 Responses)
  1. stornobrzinol

    Greetings! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading your articles. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same subjects? Many thanks!


    May 16, 2021 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Sprinter Broken Flex Pipe Repair


    May 16, 2021 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mercedes Sprinter Service Locations


    May 16, 2021 at 16:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Nearest Mercedes Service Center

    That is a really good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere. Simple but very accurate information… Appreciate your sharing this one. A must read post!


    May 16, 2021 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Sprinter Rust Repair Panels


    May 16, 2021 at 23:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sprinter Turbocharger Repair

    I could not resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!


    May 17, 2021 at 00:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Sprinter Diesel Repair


    May 17, 2021 at 00:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. 2006 Sprinter Tank Fuel Pump Repair


    May 17, 2021 at 03:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. 2006 Mercades Sprinter 2500 Turbo Actuator Repair

    You have made some really good points there. I looked on the net for additional information about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this website.


    May 17, 2021 at 06:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Van Door Repair


    May 17, 2021 at 08:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sprinter Valve Body Repair

    Great site you have got here.. It’s difficult to find high quality writing like yours these days. I honestly appreciate people like you! Take care!!


    May 17, 2021 at 09:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. 2006 Mercades Sprinter 2500 Turbo Actuator Repair


    May 17, 2021 at 11:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RV Fiberglass Los Angeles

    There is certainly a lot to find out about this subject. I really like all the points you made.


    May 17, 2021 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. RV Windows Near Me

    I could not resist commenting. Very well written!


    May 17, 2021 at 16:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. monrovia collision center


    May 17, 2021 at 16:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Maserati Kamsin


    May 17, 2021 at 21:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. rv parts and repair


    May 18, 2021 at 02:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. nearest rv store

    This is a topic that's near to my heart... Thank you! Exactly where are your contact details though?


    May 18, 2021 at 07:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. travel trailer remodeling companies

    Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post! It is the little changes that produce the most important changes. Many thanks for sharing!


    May 18, 2021 at 08:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. trailer painting near me


    May 18, 2021 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Emergency Dentist Around Me

    Having read this I believed it was really informative. I appreciate you spending some time and energy to put this short article together. I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!


    May 18, 2021 at 16:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Best Dental Offices


    May 18, 2021 at 17:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Assisted Living Palm Springs


    May 18, 2021 at 17:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. business training near me

    That is a really good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere. Simple but very accurate information… Thank you for sharing this one. A must read article!


    May 18, 2021 at 18:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. energy pills that really work

    I could not resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!


    May 18, 2021 at 21:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. best energy pills for men


    May 18, 2021 at 21:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Forklifts California

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Many thanks, However I am experiencing difficulties with your RSS. I don’t understand the reason why I am unable to join it. Is there anybody getting identical RSS problems? Anyone who knows the answer will you kindly respond? Thanx!!


    May 18, 2021 at 21:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Maserati Signs

    Pretty! This was an incredibly wonderful post. Thanks for supplying this information.


    May 18, 2021 at 22:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. 2019 Maserati Levante

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday. It's always useful to read through articles from other writers and use a little something from their sites.


    May 19, 2021 at 05:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Orthokeratology Near Me


    May 19, 2021 at 08:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Keratoconus Specialist Near Me


    May 19, 2021 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Maserati Mc20 Price


    May 19, 2021 at 09:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Sign Shop Near Me

    Good post! We are linking to this particularly great content on our site. Keep up the good writing.


    May 19, 2021 at 10:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Laughlin Jet Ski Rental Coupons

    This web site truly has all of the information I needed about this subject and didn’t know who to ask.


    May 19, 2021 at 10:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. RV Fiberglass Orange County

    This is a good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere. Brief but very precise info… Thank you for sharing this one. A must read article!


    May 19, 2021 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. emergency rv repair near me

    I blog frequently and I seriously appreciate your content. This article has truly peaked my interest. I'm going to bookmark your website and keep checking for new information about once a week. I subscribed to your RSS feed as well.


    May 19, 2021 at 13:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. ocrv storage

    I used to be able to find good information from your blog articles.

    https://www.iaai.com/VehicleInspection/InspectionProvidersUrl?name=AA Transit Pros Inspection Service&url=http://thuzzle.pl/przed-i-po/attachment/1556199554755212/

    May 19, 2021 at 18:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. rv cabinets and furniture


    May 20, 2021 at 00:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Social Media Marketing Agency Around Me


    May 20, 2021 at 09:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Local Marketing Near Me


    May 20, 2021 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Internet Marketing Company

    Aw, this was a very nice post. Finding the time and actual effort to generate a very good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and don't seem to get anything done.


    May 20, 2021 at 11:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Video Marketing Near Me

    Everything is very open with a precise clarification of the challenges. It was really informative. Your website is very helpful. Thanks for sharing!


    May 20, 2021 at 11:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Internet Marketing Agencies

    Having read this I believed it was really enlightening. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this information together. I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!


    May 20, 2021 at 12:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. RV Bay Doors Los Angeles


    May 20, 2021 at 21:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. RV Collision Repair Los Angeles


    May 20, 2021 at 23:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. remodel near me


    May 20, 2021 at 23:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. bus repair shop


    May 21, 2021 at 00:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. RV Remodel Los Angeles


    May 21, 2021 at 00:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. trailer painting near me


    May 21, 2021 at 01:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. dashboard repair near me


    May 21, 2021 at 07:15 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

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.