Ordeal by Fire: A Note on the Psychology of Fear

ONE afternoon in December, 1918, I took the air in a De Haviland plane, to pass a pupil through the Camera Obscura test, in thecourse of which colored lights are fired from a Very pistol at the moment when, in action, bombs would be released over the enemy’s lines; the target in this case being a darkened room on the aerodrome. Having climbed to a height of 2000 feet and flown over the target, to allow the observer to make certain necessary calculations and adjustments, I laid my course over it again, for the test. At the proper moment the pupil fired, but in such wise that the flare passed into the lower plane of the right wing, near the fuselage, smashing several ribs, and finally setting the wing afire.

At once I went into a vertical nosedive; but finding the strain upon the machine excessive, I pulled the stick back to neutral position, and at the same time caused the plane to side-slip on her good left wing. Wishing to avoid a forced landing outside the aerodrome, with the consequent risk of crashing and perhaps exploding the tanks, I decided not to switch off the motor, but to flatten out and land on the nearest part of the aerodrome. As I executed this manœuvre, the shower of sparks diminished, and as we touched the ground, I found that the fire was out. We ‘taxied’ up to the sheds.

The flight lasted a quarter of an hour, the descent about a quarter of a minute.

Such are the facts — what one learns in college to call the ‘brute’ facts of an experience; but the human organism is complex, and so played upon by a medley of emotions, thoughts, and reflex actions, that an account of the simple facts of objective reality must necessarily omit many aspects of the episode and, like all descriptions, inevitably fall far short of the truth. While directing attention to this unvarnished factsequence, for the purpose of emphasizing the continuity of the physical acts performed, the parallel series of psychological stimuli which swept over me like an advancing tide, but never for an instant threatened to submerge the primary working faculties or drown those motive-actions necessary to selfpreservation, must not be lost sight of; although from the bare recital of events given above, the whole realm of feeling, which in any drama, and according to its intensity, influences for good or for ill the destiny of the individual, has been ruthlessly divorced.

Furthermore, there was a rapid, vivid train of barely born images springing unbidden over the ‘threshold’ of the subconscious, obtruding with an almost comic unconcern upon a situation balanced on the brink of tragedy. For during that brief interval of lightning decisions and sudden physical efforts, there was clearly and dispassionately pictured in the mind’s eye a heterogeneous agglomeration of familiar scenes, conditions, and faces, each responsive — possibly through some subtle association of ideas — to long-past memories of places and people outwardly unconnected, after the swift kaleidoscopic fashion of dreams.

To select but one example from the multitude crowding those strenuous seconds — I saw, as in a play within a play, the blue mist stealing over the silver waters of the lake that sleeps between the hills in the wooded valley below my home; I saw the steep slopes turn from green to purple as the brooding shadows passed across them; I saw the gathering dusk soak up the changing colors; and I was aware, gratefully aware, of a deepening calm. Here is a single instance, one more enduring, perhaps, than the host of others which might have been recalled at the time the notes for this paper were made (which was only a few hours after the incident); and it will be seen that, as in dreams, a considerable time has apparently elapsed during the shifting scenes thus visualized; whereas, in reality, — as we say so glibly and, it may be, so ignorantly, — the element of duration was practically nil.

It is interesting, also, to note that, at the present writing, I cannot remember ‘what the weather was like’ on that memorable day, although through the agency of hypnosis every detail of this experience could no doubt be recovered from, let us say, the Bergsonian reservoir of mind. At any rate, it is evident that my so-called ‘content of consciousness’ was complicated to a high degree; nevertheless, there was, so far as I could recollect, absolutely no confusion introduced between the report of the senses and the proper motor-reactions

— the current flowing freely from external warnings through nerves to the brain, that bureau of interpretation, and thence by muscular translations into directed energy.

In the light of this inner human experience, we propose to review the chain of events related so baldly, and to discover if possible the position of fear. At once the story will become animated, probed by passions, stirred by sharp impulse; for now it deals with the deeprooted instincts of life itself.

As we flew serenely northward, I was leaning out of the cock-pit to get a better ’line’ on the target, when I heard the crack of the pistol. An instant later, I saw a ragged hole in my wing from which smoke began to pour, and realized with a start that the plane was on fire. — Thousands of sparks and wicked little red tongues of flame! What crazy shooting (I thought), when there was plenty of room; the fool must have fired with his eyes shut. Anger was uppermost in my mind, and already I was framing words of indignation with which to ‘tick him off,’ when we got down. When we got down! Instinctively I had dived, after throttling down the motor, goaded by an intense desire to reach the earth quickly, — yes, that was it, quickly, — before the flames burned through a spar or consumed a dangerous amount of the lifting surfaces. I wondered, in a flash of evil anticipation, whether the sparks from the magnesium flare (‘can’t blow that out,’ was vaguely registered) would reach the carburetors through their big intake pipes located on that side. Also, it occurred to me that one might have to crawl out on the other wing to adjust the balance, when lateral control was lost — such feats had been done before; but when would the ailerons fail to respond? Very different matter, having wires shot away: little worry then, with machines inherently stable. Confound those sparks! Infernal carelessness — We’re going hell for leather! But we must get to earth soon, or — perhaps a nasty crash — better unfasten belt and switch off, in case — must n’t think of that now — get down — fast!

Then, at the very birth of fear, the rescue was made — by some queer twist of redeeming nature, or by the sure touch of an inscrutable Providence — interpret it as you will, according to philosophic prepossession. For in this extremity, I was strongly conscious of a calm, like the calm at the storm’s centre, while a veritable torrent of cherished memories and familiar fancies rose and vanished and rose again, weaving a tangled skein of beauty and — regret.

Yet this train of images persisted with all its charming variety as a separate issue, as a sort of side-show, beguiling but unimportant; like those long thought-vistas conjured in the flickering reason of an exhausted swimmer struggling against the waves. Here, however, was no sense of desperation or desertion, but rather a strange fortitude fighting to deny an impending catastrophe. It was as if the soul were pitted against a universe shouting the approach of the inevitable; yet a soul somehow detached from disaster, and still the determined arbiter of its fate. The spectre of fear lingered menacingly on the edge of my resolve, clinging as it were to the fringe of desire, but without power to drug or paralyze.

Faintly coloring all this co-conscious strain was a certain aloof sadness, a feeling of possible and irretrievable loss: to die, to kill the body — the absorbing interest of this contingency overwhelmed the counter-drag of fear. Nevertheless, above this speculative undertow called into being by suggestive scenes (or vice versa), rushed the dominating and well-nigh furious purpose to turn the scales in life’s favor. Although most inconsequent details, normally inhibited, were not suppressed, but even accentuated, no confusion intervened to disrupt the correlation of immediate decisions with their practical expression through force. Indeed, the brain seemed to function with more than usual clarity, and hands and feet upon the controls responded with an added celerity.

But to return to the thread of our story: the plunge earthward; the rush of wind, and the whining wires; the enlarging landscape, and the comet’s tail of sparks. What a pace! Away past the safety point! The fabric may tear and rip clean off — it’s flapping now. Anyway, the wings will snap unless I take care to pull her out ever so gently, ever so gently. — There we are! Still burning, after that straight drop. — Sideslip, only away from the flames, of course. — So!

In a mere fraction of the time it takes to tell, the dilemma was solved — by the simple art of causing the aeroplane to fall almost vertically on one wing: a modus operandi not quite arrived at on the spur of the moment, yet perhaps not so tardily when one considers that the elapsed time of fall through about a thousand feet was roughly half a dozen seconds. It will be noticed that two issues were in conflict, their cross-currents flowing through what may be termed the ‘here and now’ aspect of my cognizance. On the one hand, rapid descent was essential; on the other to nose-dive in such headlong fashion was to invite destruction. Each involved a concomitant hazard, the choice seeming to lie between the devil and the deep sea.

There is no point in following the analysis any further, since the element of fear did not intrude again. The bleak record has expanded into a human experience. In its curiously composite photograph the atavistic strain is slight, so far has our civilization — despite its wars — removed from the individual the primitive dread of death. The past of a pilot is bound to have its lurid and indelible memories of planes afire crashing; and yet the throat-grip of fear, with that resurgence of the principle of survival, was obliterated almost in its inception by the rise and sway of anger.

A word may be added. On landing, a deep thankfulness took complete possession of me. We went into the air again with a new ship, completed the test, and then with light hearts came down for tea. Shortly afterward, while smoking a pipe, I burned my finger — and discovered that the play of a lively imagination is not an unmitigated blessing.