This will probably sound utterly bonkers to many and I feel very awkward coming out with this publicly - I'm a gliding instructor with 650 hours flying experience, and I'm scared of heights.

It's totally irrational, and it's not really height-specific. I'm completely fine thermal soaring under cumulus clouds of any cloudbase, or even wave soaring along the edges of clouds. But as soon as I either fly out into a blue gap, or start to climb above and "detach" from the cumulus tops, or start getting close to some kind of mid-level clouds, I experience intense acrophobia-like panic attack symptoms that seem to be triggered by the perception of excess height. Even more daft; getting "closed in" above clouds actually relieves these symptoms.

Outside of flying I am confirmedly acrophobic - I can get tense changing a light bulb. But in all other aspects of flying I'm of above average confidence; as an instructor I'm of the "let them screw up so they can see what wrong looks like and how to put it right" breed, I take willing students on detailed spin avoidance sorties where we explore all sorts of ways the glider will spin, I love aerobatics, fly cross country at every opportunity and am no stranger to field landings.

So far my coping strategy, especially with students, is to go long instead of up; make the "this is the best part of the wave" excuse and go cross country along the wave bars. This does extract some fun out of the situation but ultimately is a lame excuse - I'm avoiding telling them that I don't want to go any higher. More frustratingly, I'm actually not bad at and do enjoy some aspects of wave soaring.

I really want to break this; to be able to take my students as high as they like and the glider is equipped to go, and claim the last height badges, but even a gold height right now feels like it'd be a psychologically out of control, hellish nightmare. I've tried pushing my own comfort limits with it over the last couple of years, but so far it hasn't made things any better.

How can I overcome this? Is this even a known about thing or am I some kind of peculiar one-off?

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    $\begingroup$ You must have unbelievable self control to push through that kind of reaction and function safely, so in a way you are peculiar. I've been flying since the mid 70s and have never run into this sort of thing. Lots of pilots are afraid of heights, but not to that panic attack level and it's only a problem when they aren't enclosed. @Jpe61 is right. Go see a psychologist who can do desensitization/adaptation treatment. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Aug 26, 2023 at 0:36

1 Answer 1


Your best bet would be cognitive behavioral therapy, and one thing worth trying might be exposure therapy in simulated environment, a simple pc sim with VR glasses migh be sufficient.

Te thing with acrophobia and flying is, that an aircraft seems to form a safe space for those having the condition; pilots having acrophobia is certainly not unheard of.

Your situation migh not be a typical case of acrophobia. It seems reasonable to conclude that while you otherwise function normally when flying, proximity to clouds and certain other situations trigger the fear by giving you a "sensation of height" and/or a percieved risk of collision, even if the threatening object is a cloud.

It may also be that what ypu experience when flying is not acrophobia, but some other situational fear. You really should see a therapist to figure this out, phobias rarely can be overcome by oneself.

One more thing: it is not entirely correct to say that any kind of phobia irrational. They all are in some way echoes of our primary survival instincts, some more, some less obviously. Realizing this and coming into terms with the phobia, accepting it as a warning signal might mitigate the symptoms some. In any case, see a therapist, there's no shame in that, and you have nothing to lose.


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