At age 16, I flew to Europe for the summer. I was already considered a world traveler at this tender age but this was my first flight across the pond solo. I was terrified. Not because I was alone and not because of what waited ahead of me. On this day, it took four screwdrivers for me to get on the plane and I chain smoked the entire eight hour flight. (back in the days when you could smoke on planes).
Three weeks before this flight I had been devastated by the news of the loss of a family friend on American flight #191, when engine separation caused this plane to crash at Chicago O’Hare seconds after take off. It remains the deadliest crash ever on American soil and grounded all DC -10’s.
This brought me the firm realization that yes, it can, and did, happen to someone I know and therefore could happen to me. My fear of flying became a harsh reality and a fear I’ve dealt with over and over again as I constantly wing my way across the globe.
But it doesn’t stop me from flying.
Two days ago, I posted on Facebook about my experience on a recent flight. On this short hop from Phoenix to Cleveland I talked a woman through her own fear of flying. I was amazed by the response to my post and how many people harbor their own fear of “up there”. I thought it was time to bring this subject to light. Here are my thoughts and hopefully some helpful hints.
Why Do We Have This Fear?
My main reason for a fear of flying was personal experience and few people, fortunately, have been through this on such an intimate level.
Fear of flying can arise from your own personal experience, stories you’ve heard or read about or even stress in other parts of your life. However, I think the main reason for most people’s fear on planes is lack of control. Once you board the aircraft you completely put your faith and your life in the hands of a large group of people including the aircraft builder, the maintenance crew, air traffic control and pilots, none of whom who know but ultimately have to trust. Let’s face it, if a train, bus or boat have engine problems, usually the worst issue is inconvenient delays. If a plane has similar problems, it falls out of the sky and from your seat in row 20, there’s not a damn thing you can do. You surrender all control. You simply must accept that if you are willing to fly.
So if you admit your fear to someone, the first thing that person will often do is rattle off the statistics of how flying is so much safer than driving or walking across the street or standing under a tree in a lightening storm.
Here are some statistics:
DEATH BY: YOUR ODDS
- Cardiovascular disease: 1 in 2
- Smoking (by/before age 35): 1 in 600
- Car trip, coast-to-coast: 1 in 14,000
- Bicycle accident: 1 in 88,000
- Tornado: 1 in 450,000
- Train, coast-to-coast: 1 in 1,000,000
- Lightning: 1 in 1.9 million
- Bee sting: 1 in 5.5 million
- U.S. commercial jet airline: 1 in 7 million
Sources: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California at Berkeley
Did this help? Hopefully for you it will but it never did for me. I needed something more than numbers on a chart to get over my intrepidation.
Steps Toward Conquering the Fear of Flying
First and foremost you must trust and believe everything will be okay. You have to allow yourself to have faith in the professionals who are in charge. Just as you are a professional in your job and you know how to do your job, you must have the same faith in others. If you don’t, then don’t get on the plane. Seriously.
Friends said I should take a class on overcoming my fear. This probably would have been a great idea. However, I learned that at the end of the class, I would actually go up for a flight. I saw absolutely no reason to get on a plane and go nowhere….so that stopped me right there.
But as the years have gone by I have educated myself and learned from others.
Here’s an example. I used to have a fear that some psycho would leap for the emergency exit door, pop it open and we would all be sucked out of the plane. Yes, I really did have this fear. Then someone kindly explained to me that it is impossible to open the door at 35,000 feet traveling 500 miles per hour. Oh! I get it. Fear alleviated. Simple as that.
And while that may seem like a silly thing, I’ve found, talking with other people that their fears are just as silly and a little education goes a long way to understanding. Throughout this post, you’ll find tidbits to help educate you about the process of flying.
I have a routine I go through when I fly. Some of it may seem odd but going through the routine brings a sense of calm. First, I have a mantra I repeat as I walk onto the plane. What it is doesn’t matter, it’s simply the beginning of a routine.
I always look into the cockpit and reassure myself that the pilots look capable. If there’s a little grey in their hair, I conclude that they are experienced and can handle everything just fine. This goes back to the factor of trust.
I look for the crew’s routine. I see that everyone looks calm and everything is “normal”. This is re-assuring as well.
I like the window seat for a couple of reasons. First, I control the window. This gives me actual control of some part of the process. (remember control is what is lacking on the plane). Being able to see the “routine” of the plane ascending and descending is quite helpful. As well, if I see clouds ahead I can anticipate a few bumps and when we will come out the other side.
On take off, I know that we will go through the clouds and often it’s a bit bumpy. I can see when this will begin if I am able to see the cloud layer. If I don’t have access to the window or it is closed, I can’t anticipate this.
Anticipating and Understanding the Plane
By knowing the routine of a flight you can alleviate fear. I always know exactly how long the flight is and set my watch on take off. Again, knowledge is power and control for me. I can tell you at any time in the flight how much longer it will be. This knowledge of timing is a key factor in understanding the workings of the plane.
A minute or two after take off, the engines slow as the initial take off thrust is over. It does not mean the plane doesn’t have enough power to “get up there”. Then the plane will bank to get out of the way of other aircraft behind us taking off.
At 10,000 feet, I hear the 4 dings on the bell and know this is the indication that I can use my electronic devices. This again, assures me that all is normal and routine. If I didn’t know that this would happen the bells might make me fearful that something is wrong rather than right.
About 30 minutes into the flight on large commercial planes, we’ll level off at a cruising altitude. I can anticipate the engines slowing.
Then the plane generally begins its descent 30 minutes out from landing. At T minus 30 from touch down I inevitably feel the plane slow and begin the routine of landing. I am reassured once again that this is normal. On smaller regional jets, it is often 15-20 minutes.
10-15 minutes from landing I hear the landing gear go down. If you are not expecting it, it can make a fearful flyer scared as it can be an odd sound.
Through knowledge, all of these sounds now become indicators of normalcy and create calm instead of anxiety.
Interesting Tidbit....Did you know that planes fly on highways? It’s not just all willy nilly up there. Planes follow each other at particular altitudes. I like to picture this as roads in the sky. When I see another plane in the air, I understand that they are like a passing lane of traffic going the other way. Fear of mid-air collision alleviated.
I listen for the announcements that are routine. I hear the pilots tell us about the route and the weather conditions. I prefer if the pilot tells us if there will be bumpy weather. If the plane hits turbulence and I’ve already been told about it, I feel confident that the pilots are aware and that it’s not dangerous, otherwise, if possible, they would divert around weather.
If the flight gets bumpy and the seatbelt sign doesn’t come on, then I know that the pilots don’t feel it’s an issue and therefore I shouldn’t either.
If the flight attendants are still serving drinks or are up and about, then I know everything is fine, even if it’s turbulent. If the bumps become more severe, the pilots will ask them to buckle in as well. So as long as you see them up and about, nothing to worry about.
What Should You Do With Yourself?
It’s very important that you have something to do rather than sit and worry about the flight. When was the last time you had uninterrupted time? Take advantage of it and use it to distract yourself.
Music is a great way. Get some noise cancelling headphones and crank up the tunes, sit back and close your eyes and forget you’re even on a plane! Sometimes, I even do this when I’m cruising through the airport or in a long TSA line. Don’t get stressed about it, simply ignore it through the relaxing power of music.
Reading. I love to have long hours to read while flying. But…I try not to start a book on the plane. Get yourself really into a LONG book just before you take a trip. You’ll be so anxious to get settled in your seat and get back into your book that next thing you know you’ll be hearing that landing gear go down!
Creative Time. Often I use plane time to edit video or write blog articles. It gives me time to completely lose myself in my work and forget I’m 6 miles up in the air!
Movies. Another great way to lose yourself on the flight.
What Do I Do When Things Don’t Go Right?
This is a big fear. When the flight gets bumpy, people get jumpy. I completely understand. I don’t particularly like it either. These days, with the ability of air traffic control and information from flights ahead of you, pilots are aware of upcoming turbulence. Have you ever heard of a plane crashing from turbulence? I thought about this one day. Nope. It’s uncomfortable and scary but planes are designed to bend with the bumps and fly on. Bury yourself in your music and trust your pilot.
Once you are on a flight, you have no control over the weather and sometimes it’s not pleasant. When possible, flights will divert around it. Also, I remind myself that there are always planes ahead of mine and will inform your pilots what’s ahead.
Better yet, be proactive to avoid stormy weather. Here are some tips.
Plan your trips according to seasonal weather.
Here’s what I mean. In the winter I route myself through southern airports. Why fly through Minneapolis in February if you can route your flight through Dallas? Chances of bad weather and delays are far less.
Plan your flights according to daily weather patterns
In the summer, storms pop up more often in the late afternoon. In hot places like Phoenix and Las Vegas, thermals rise as the day progresses. This makes for bumpy flights. Plan your flight first thing in the morning.
You might pay a little more if you are more selective on when you fly but ask yourself if it’s worth it.
Truly, Things Rarely Go Wrong
I have flown thousands upon thousands of flights and I can count on one hand the times that things went wrong. Am I lucky? Perhaps. But I think the more logical way to see it is that air travel ultimately is quite safe. I have learned to TRUST.
Never have I had to make an emergency landing or abort a take off. Never have I had pilots miss airports or show up drunk for a flight. Never have we had to land for a medical reason or have terrorists try to blow up the plane with a shoe. Yes, I’ve had to abort landings due to fog or because there was another plane on the runway and it was a bit scary but ultimately turned out fine.
Do bad things happen up there? Yes. And when they do, the media plasters it all over the news for days on end pumping up your fear of flying. But the likelihood is so minute that it’s absurd to worry about it. And when it does, turn the TV off. Understand that it happened but then move on with your life. Don’t let these things stop you from flying.
Get Over It
Does this sound harsh? Yes. Am I completely over my own fear of flying? No. But here’s the thing. I’ve told thousands of people where my fear of flying originated. It’s my story and it has allowed me to continue to be afraid because of something that happened 34 years ago.
How stupid is that? Would I rather not be afraid or would I rather hold on to my story?
It’s time to simply be done with the fear. It’s time to drop the story and move on.