As I write this I am sitting on a plane at 32,000 feet, about 5 hours into my 13 hour flight from Brisbane Australia to Los Angeles, USA.
Unknown to many I am actually terrified of flying. From the moment I know we are boarding, to the taxi, instructional video, take-off and then subsequent ascent into the skies I am having a panic attack each time (sometimes worse than others).
Now it doesn’t stop me from flying, but there are brief moments of panic where in my head I am freaking out, knowing that there is very little I can actually do to calm myself down in the situation.
I tend to have a couple of drinks. This flight I’ve had a scotch and dry (half of which spilled on my partner and her seat) and a Pure Blonde beer. Without sounding like an alcoholic: it does take the edge off.
Before we departed the pilots told us that over New Caledonia/Numea we would encounter turbulence (turns out it is clear air turbulence which can’t be seen).
The first couple of hours were fine, we hadn’t flown over New Caledonia yet (but we were close). But then we did and alarm bells were going off in my head, subtle bumps feel like drops of 1000ft, the shaking and when the crew were told to buckle up, it didn’t make me feel better.
I am very sensitive to turbulence. What is probably not even registering on the instruments in the cockpit feels like free-fall. Even though I reassure myself, there are times of panic where I grab the seat or instinctively lean forward trying to steady myself.
The weird thing about my anxiety and fear of flying is that I have done a lot of flying in the last year alone. In December 2013 through to January 2014, I flew to the United Kingdom, then flew from there to London, Paris, Rome and Poland before flying back to the United Kingdom and then back home to Australia.
In total during that Europe/UK trip I probably flew on about 9 planes, I had a terrifying landing into Heathrow (it was stormy and raining heavily, not to mention pitch black at 3pm). It was a rough landing.
Then there was the flight out of London to Rome, the plane experienced some weird kind of take-off turbulence, something I have never experience before. The plane wasn’t even in the sky and it was shaking and bouncing like a rock concert crowd.
Then in April 2014, I flew to San Francisco from Brisbane, flying through Sydney (for a week). This was a total of 4 flights as well. So all in all in 2014 I have basically been on a plane close to 13 times (including now).
And yet, the fear never subsides. I know that flying is safer than driving to the airport and choosing a western airline automatically betters your chances. But still the fear remains and I think it always will remain to an extent.
However, I have learned to cope with my fear and hopefully these tips below that have helped me will help you. If you are legitimately having small panic attacks at times (like me) please know this isn’t a cure, but rather help from a fellow scared traveller.
Get a seat over the wings
You see this mentioned everywhere and there is a damn good reason why: centre of gravity. Sitting over the wings means you’re sitting in the centre of gravity of the plane, this is the most comfortable part of the plane.
As the plane bounces around, it will move from the centre just a little bit, but always returns to the same point due to the lift of the wings and engines. When I say centre I mean picture a circle and the plane is within the middle of the circle. This is the centre of gravity, where the weight of the plane ensures that it returns to that point if moved.
Fortunately I have been lucky enough to get wing seats in most of the plane trips I have been on. If you’re flying long-haul and you are a nervous flyer, explain this to them and they will be very understanding and accommodating. My advice is to check in early, they will move other passengers if you have a legitimate fear and this helps manage it.
While sitting over the wings during turbulence and still feeling like you’re on a vulnerable piece of alloy flying through the sky: spare a thought for the nervous flyers stuck at the back of the plane (arguably the worse place to be during turbulence).
Listen to upbeat music
When you listen to upbeat music, it will raise your heart-rate. I personally listen to a lot of metal and bands like The Black Dahlia Murder get me through the rough parts.
Listening to up-tempo dance music, especially dubstep if you can stand it (the equivalent of electronic music death metal). I have found this raises your heart-rate and then confuses your body as to why your heart-rate is higher. You can confuse your bodies senses with loud uptempo music which in turn helps it kind of forget that you’re freaking out (just a bit).
Spotify has not only an exceptional catalogue of music, but also quite a good selection of therapeutic hypnosis and calming tracks.
If you’re not into hypnosis or other self-help materials, keep reading and skip this tip that won’t apply to some.
Searching “hypnosis flying” will yield a few fear of flying tracks which if you are a premium user, can sync onto your phone and listen to them on the plane. I actually found a really good one linked here which I felt as though did indeed calm me a bit.
Picture yourself in a car on a highway. This highway has been neglected by local council and is very bumpy. Driving over those bumps, some bigger than others will result in your car to shake and be temporarily thrown off balance, but only slightly.
Remember how it felt to drive on a bumpy road. It felt similar to being in turbulence, didn’t it? Remember the last time you drove down a hill and you got that feeling in your stomach? that is gravity making you lighter.
The more you tell yourself you’re 35,000 feet in the air, the more you will freak yourself out. There is nothing you can do, so all you can do is stop, take deep breaths and place yourself elsewhere. An irrational thought process will only result in irrational thoughts.
Remember the last time you flew
Do you remember the last time you were on a plane? Good, that means you departed and arrived safely. Sure, planes have been known to crash and they always will, but you should focus on the positive. You survived last time, you will survive this time.
Now remember how sill you felt after you got off the plane. A sense of relief and slight embarrassment, “I can’t believe I freaked out over nothing. I will be better next time”
In the iOS and Android app stores there are numerous paid and free applications that can show you the position of the plane and its movement. Lying your phone flat on the tray table and opening your app will show that even during the shakiest of flights, the plane doesn’t actually move that far.
I am an Android user, so I user an application called “G-force Speedometer” it shows you the vertices and axis. If you’re sitting in the middle of the plane, it works really well and can be calibrated to work within your position of the plane cabin.
What surprised me the most is this actually how little the plane is moving, it’s not even really moving up and down or left and right. During the turbulence on this flight over New Caledonia (the worst on the flight) it was basically staying in the middle of the axis and showed the plane probably wasn’t even budging an inch in height.
I have only just discovered these kind of applications and even if they are not 100% accurate, as long as I think they are, it will calm and reassure me to a certain extent.
Put in earplugs or headphones
If you’re not listening to music, put in some noise-blocking earplugs. I used to let the sound of the engines get to me. I am no jet engine mechanic, but it never used to stop me from freaking out every time I heard a noise I thought wasn’t right.
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
“The engines have gone quiet, something must be wrong”
“I hear the engines getting louder, something must be wrong”
“I hear large banging noises when we are about to land, the landing gear must be broken”
Trust me, if something isn’t right, the pilots will know about it and passengers will be alerted accordingly. It’s like being home alone in the dark and having a slight fear, you will think you hear noises and assume they’re bad.
Your safety is paramount and no pilot will keep any potential issue from you, in-case in the rare event you need to follow the appropriate brace procedure, you will be told.
Fly with someone else
If you can, fly with a loved one or partner. If you are flying with your partner, holding their hand can help steady you. If your partner is not afraid of flying (like mine) look at their face, they are not worried, why should you be? Reassure yourself by looking to your partner or loved one.
Have a drink
But don’t drink too much. I know some will frown upon this, but if you are a drinker, have yourself a glass of wine, beer or scotch to ease the nerves. Make sure you drink plenty of water, the pressured cabin will dry out your skin and dehydrate you (this will cause immense jetlag).
I find after a couple of drinks, I am a lot more relaxed and able to actually sleep for a little bit. I am never truly at ease to go into a deeper slumber, but enough to have a cat-nap.
Because I knew what plane I was flying on and the airline, I did some research. For some airlines this might make you worse, but for me it helped knowing some interesting facts.
This section is going to be quite long, so bear with me. This is the last section as well and comprised of a few sub-tips.
Research The Airline
Research the history of your airline. I am flying Virgin Australia and I know they are rated 7 stars for safety (up there with Qantas and other larger companies). When was the last time they had a crash resulting in fatalities? How many planes have they lost in the last 10 years?
Research The Plane
I then researched the type of plane I was flying on a Boeing B777 300er. The B777 is regarded as one of the safest planes in operation, my understanding based on my internet research is that one has never crashed resulting in fatalities. There have been a few issues with it, but nothing to worry about.
Airlines are businesses
Understand that planes cost a lot of money. Airlines require planes to make them money, on-top of the high salaries they pay pilots and staff, not to mention accommodation and food allowances for plane staff on-top of the fact that plane hold tonnes of fuel and fuel is VERY expensive.
Losing a plane is the last thing an airline wants. As bad as it sounds, they are a business and losing a plane because of recklessness or other human-errors means they take a hit (sadly Malaysian Airlines recently is an example of this).
The aviation industry (at least in the western world) is heavily and I mean, very heavily moderated. Log books need to be kept on absolutely everything. How many hours a plane has done, the weight of the plane, temperatures its been through and any incidents (how minor) are reported and logged.
There is actually no other industry in the world that I can name that is as regulated as airlines. Not even gun manufacturers are as regulated as an airline.
Pilots are highly trained
The process for becoming a pilot is a long and painful one. Unlike your drivers licence, you can’t just have a few lessons and get behind the cockpit of a Boeing 777 jetliner.
Before a pilot is even allowed to step footer into a simulator, there are many tests they need to undertake. Mathematics, problem solving skills, IQ tests, aptitude tests and psychological tests.
The process is so gruelling that a lot of applicants don’t make it through the process. A pilot is a special kind of person, detail oriented and somewhat boring, but fitting the kind of criteria you would want for someone piloting a multimillion dollar plane full of people.
And then after all of the training and tests, once a pilot is allowed to fly, they need to get their hours up. A pilot does not simply just start flying international flights, they’re made to fly domestic routes first to get their hours up and then, once they’ve reached a certain amount, they are allowed to pilot the international flights.
I know Australian airline Qantas makes new pilots fly Dash–8 Turboprop planes on their many domestic routes for quite a while before they can become an international pilot.
The Plane Components
Every single part in a plane that moves or experiences any kind of stress is heavily tested before the plane is even allowed to go on a test flight. And I am not just talking about theoretical limits, plane manufacturers stress parts in a plane well beyond their recommended operating limits just to see what happens.
Surprising to many, the wings are the strongest and lightest part of the plane. They might look like two pieces of light metal attached to the plane, but these things are the most stress tested part of the plane. This video actually shows just how much Boeing wings can handle being bent in before they break (a lot more force than a plane would ever encounter).
The engines are equally as reliable on the plane. Jet engines on modern planes are actually the same kind of engines planes were using 20 years ago (just slightly improved over the years for fuel economy). It might reassure you to know that engine manufacturers like Rolls Royce actually use the same technology in power plant turbines.
There are power plants out there especially with turbine engines that have been running for 30+ years, possibly even longer. The technology of plane engines in particular is down to a science and most cases of engines failing or encountering issues were due to external factors (like birds).
Cruise altitude is the safest part
The safest part of your flight is when you are at cruise altitude. Modern planes are flown mostly on autopilot (with crew there to monitor instruments and messages). This is referred to as “fly-by-wire” in which the plane flies itself most of the way there.
The least safest part and historically based on statistics from the last 30 years or so, most planes encounter issues when taking off and landing. Of the accidents that do occur during this part, you have about an 80% survival rate if the plane has issues with landing gear or something else.
These tips will hopefully help you as they did help me. I am still a nervous flyer, but the above tips have helped me see the world and not freak out so much when flying high at 32,000 feet and I hope they help you as well.
Just remember flying is the safest form of transport. Your chances of dying in a crash are less than once percent and the number of fatal crashes on western airlines in the last 10 years can be counted on two hands with room to spare.
Like I am right now, tell yourself in your head, “How good is this? I am flying above the clouds with a few hundred people at 900km an hour, with access to entertainment, drink and great service”
Keep thinking positive thoughts as cliche as it sounds, it will make you feel better. Thinking over crash scenarios in your head will just make things so much worse for you.