Navigating in Fog

It was IMC one steamy August morning at my local airport. As I stared down the weather computer, willing the red and purple line to stop blocking my route, I overheard an increasingly worrying conversation. 

The young charter pilot and I had chatted an hour earlier, comparing our planned trip to the northeast, similar routes, different altitudes but both facing major convection. His passengers, four rather vociferous, gaudily clad men, clearly headed on a golfing trip, were becoming ever more demanding, insisting that their captain “be a man” and take them where they got-to-get-to. As a doctor and aviator, I know the fatal disease that induces—just add the inflammatory “itis” suffix and you know how it ends. There was not only fog outside the FBO, but inside as well: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt—“FOG.” The golfers were endeavoring to guilt our gallant young captain into departing, leveraging the obligation he owed them, and inspiring fear he would be fired if he disappointed. And FOG as a “disease” can be every bit as deadly as cancer or heart attacks, but one has to recognize the illness for what it is.

The acronym FOG was first coined by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier in their 1997 book, Emotional Blackmail, which addressed how people might be manipulated in relationships using fear, obligation, and guilt. The example above clearly applies to anyone involved in flying, and if you have been in the left seat long enough you have heard passengers say:

“If we stop for fuel, I will be late for the party, and everyone will know it’s your fault.”
You invited me to go on this trip so let’s take off.”
“You said we could fly over my house, go a little lower so I can see it up close.”

Fog might occur when moist, warm air comes into contact with a cooler surface, and may have negative consequences for the unprepared. FOG may occur when a manipulative individual comes into contact with a target they recognize as manipulable, whether that be a romantic, platonic, or business relationship, and may have negative and lasting consequences for the unprepared. And just as fog obscures a clear vision of the landscape, FOG also impairs one’s ability to see threats clearly; oblivious controlled flight into terrain. It may be a work partner or colleague threatening to leverage something personal they know, or who browbeats by suggesting everybody but you thinks as they do. It may be your spouse or life partner constantly expecting more and using affection as a carrot and abuse as a stick.

I believe the term post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is overused, but repetitive abuse induces brain changes in those on the receiving end and the effects, once engendered, are not easily erased. As pilots, we know how hard it is to correct bad habits; responding to abusive situations hard-wires the brain to act in a certain way that is rarely beneficial. This pattern leads to emotional damage that has physical consequences; a sense of dread and anxiety that progresses to loss of power and self-esteem, feeling hopeless and with no idea how to find help. Eventually the abused become passive and accept the punishment, even believing they deserve it. This is not a condition compatible with flight and eventually personality deterioration occurs, provoking drug and alcohol use, other risky behaviors, reactive depression, and even suicide.

Humans evolved to recognize tangible time-limited fears, threats of violence or other threats to survival, but the fear part of FOG is intangible and continuous and thus causes stress. Similarly, the emotions of obligation and guilt likely arose to help us function within a community; to be good, collaborative citizens. But in FOG, a predatory individual recognizes a target who has a strong moral compass, and, as such, a well-developed sense of obligation and an active guilty conscience. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that those who give their lives in service to their country, their community, or others are especially vulnerable to being coerced to do the bidding of those whose moral compass is absent.

View this as a flight-planning exercise; prior to a flight mission one performs a careful risk-mitigation exercise, so please, take a moment to ascertain if you, or someone you care for, is in FOG. Maybe a checklist might help?

  1. Review interactions with a critical eye—what is real, what is perceived?
  2. Do negative feelings or self-doubt prevail?
  3. Ascertain if the interactions with the abuser are radically different in tone and manner to interactions with others.
  4. Identify if the abuser precludes one from saying “no” to anything. In healthy relationships one can disagree without being disagreeable and your opinions, wishes, and perspectives will be respected.
  5. If there is a suspicion that the individual is a FOG machine, investigate your concerns with legitimate online resources, as such manipulative people often have similar, recognizable characteristics.
  6. Set boundaries and terminate abusive relationships. Remember, it needs two people to make it function, the abuser and the abused.
  7. This last one is so true for those who provide care and service to others—doctors and pilots, are you paying attention? Providing care to others is wonderful, but provide care to yourself in equal measure.

As aviators we recognize what fog and other IMC looks like and learn to navigate it safely to fly under IFR. As healthy humans we need to recognize FOG and other Intimidating, Manipulating, and Cruel behavior and navigate it safely by doing what Intuitively Feels ­Right.

You can send your questions and comments to Dr. Sackier via email: [email protected] and listen to his weekly podcasts at:

Jonathan Sackier
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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