POLE POSITION - Fear of heights tested in 'Acrophobia 101'

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
Sitting atop a 50-foot telephone pole, the black hawk fanned its feathers and spread his 5-foot wings in a menacing display. The bird of prey eyed the intruder who had advanced to within 10 feet of the hawk's perch. Reluctantly, the riled raptor relinquished his pole position and went to find another place to sunbathe.

Its unwitting antagonist didn't want to start a battle for airspace, but for basic trainees trying to pass the acrophobia test at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, invading "turf" usually reserved for birds is essential.

Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear of heights and can be hazardous, as sufferers can experience a panic attack in high places and endanger themselves or others, said Tech. Sgt. Michael Fettis, the acrophobia evaluator for basic trainees trying to get into career fields that require them to work above ground-level.

Acrophobia testing has been around since the late 1970s to help the Air Force take a look at the compatibility of Airmen to do certain jobs. There are six career fields that require testing for acrophobia. They include airfield systems; communications cable and antenna systems; voice network systems; electrical systems; structural; and pest management.

Some Airmen will find working at extreme heights is a perfect fit for them; others will discover this job's for the birds.

"I can't force them to do this test," Fettis said. "Some trainees get up there and do it with no problem, others do it but still feel it's not for them, and others decline to test altogether. That's OK, because it's better to filter out the ones that have an unreasonable fear of heights here than at tech school."

To pass the test, trainees must climb a 40-foot ladder attached to a 50-foot telephone pole. They wear a harness that is fastened to the ladder. When the trainees are at the peak of their ascent, Fettis instructs them to let go of the ladder, lean back against their harness and touch their nose.

The instructor said Airmen must learn to trust the harness to complete this exercise. But having faith in the harness to hold them while leaning backward 40 feet off the ground is not a natural act. Even those who have no fear of height can get skittish when they have to rely on a few safety straps to keep them from plummeting to their death.

"I don't pass or fail the students; they decide for themselves," said Fettis, who tests nearly 100 trainees a month with an average of a 7 percent failure rate.

He said the ones who have no fear of heights typically volunteer to go first and have fun with the test. Of course, there's the other extreme -- the ones who refuse to even try.

"Then you have the trainees who get up to the 10- or 20-foot mark, do the white knuckle thing, and say, 'I can't do it! I can't do it!'" the evaluator said. "One young man stayed stuck up there for 20 minutes praying to God. He refused to come down because he thought if he failed the test he'd be kicked out of the Air Force."

Fettis said some Airmen simply psyche themselves out by waiting too long.

"It's like me on a roller coaster," he said. "I don't really like roller coasters. I remember standing in those cattle lines of people waiting to ride, and the closer I would get, I would think to myself, 'Oh crap! Why am I doing this?' The more you think about it, the worse you make it on yourself."

He can coach a lot of these Airmen through the test, but there are still going to be those that rethink their career choice.

"I completed the task, but I didn't feel comfortable enough to work in my job (at those heights)," said Airman Basic Kevin Henson from the 322nd Training Squadron, who was testing to be a structural apprentice.

But failing the extreme exam doesn't mean the Air Force puts these Airmen back on the street in civvies. Trainees who don't pass the acrophobia test are simply placed into
other career fields.

"I was nervous at first -- I hate heights," said Airman Basic Weston Strong with the 322nd TRS, who will become a structural apprentice because he successfully completed the testing. "But it feels good to know I can do this, and that I can do my job."

Obviously, for Strong, the acrophobia test provided him with a glimpse of the heights he can reach in his future career ... a birds-eye view.