My Uncontrollable Fear of Flying

Cathay Pacific Cargo Boeing 747-800F

I hate flying. I am the Scrooge of the air. Tell me I’m going to be on a flight and I’ll automatically start to mumble, “BAH HUMBUG!” while shouting nasty things at Kermit the Frog.

Everything about taking a flight is crap. Getting jostled through security, squeezing into a tiny seat with a stranger constantly elbowing you, the looks of smug satisfaction from the first class passengers when you’re forced to walk by them. The whole experience is degrading.

However all of these things pale in comparison to that one horrible thought. Whether the plane is taking off, flying high or coming in to land – it’s always there. What if. What if. WHAT IF SOMETHING HAPPENS!?!

Some people laugh the thought off. To them the fear is an irrational one. If I had a thousand air-miles for every time I’ve heard somebody say, “It’s statistically safer than driving a car!” then I’d finally be able to escape from economy class.

What I say to those people is, who gives a crap about statistics? Statistics don’t help me get to sleep at night. Just because something is less likely to happen, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. To me, every time I step on a plane I’m rolling a dice of chance and when it comes to accidents, the house always wins.

At some point in the future, something bad will happen on a plane and I really hope it’s not the one I’m sitting on.

Best case scenario: The engine fails on the runway and I get to try out one of those fun inflatable slides.
Worst case scenario: Pretty much everything else.

Count all the things that could go wrong on a plane. There’s a lot isn’t there. Now quadruple the number. You don’t know shit about planes, if you did you’d probably be even more scared for your life.

Ask yourself this: what would happen if the Johnson-Mills gauge stopped working? Do you know? Of course you don’t. Nobody knows because I just made it up. The point is, there’s so many things you don’t even know about that could go wrong that you can only assume one of those things may go wrong at some point. Why not while you’re on the plane?

But still, I try to push all these thoughts to the back of my mind. The plane exploding in a ball of flames, a crash after the landing gear fails, or the man standing in front of me jumping up and shouting, “THIS IS A HIJACK!” (Side thought: would a hijacker ride economy? If you’re going to commit a major crime or even kill yourself, you might as well just spend a little extra on business class! It’s not like that debt will follow you into the after-life – plus you’ll get free champagne [or orange juice] before you kill yourself. [Side-side thought: Why is the choice champagne or orange juice? Can’t they find a classier type of juice than orange?])

No matter how hard I try to forget all these horrible scenarios, they find their way back to me. In the weeks leading up to my flight, everywhere I look I see signs of my impending doom. I turn on the TV and I flick through the channels.

Channel 1: Final Destination – Teenagers are going on holiday when…. a plane explodes killing every passenger on board.
Channel 2: Knowing – Nicolas Cage is driving along when…a plane explodes killing every passenger on board.
Channel 3: Castaway – Tom Hanks is being Tom Hanks when…a plane explodes killing every passenger on board.
Channel 4: Lost – A multi-racial cast of attractive people are trapped on a desert island after…a plane explodes killing every passenger on board.

The more carnage I see, the quicker I flick through the channels, but all it does is push a thousand other images of planes exploding into my retinas. There’s a name for this of course, it’s the Baader-Meinhof phenomena. When you learn a new word or phrase, suddenly it’s everywhere you go. You never noticed it before, but now it seems to be everywhere. Similarly when your mind grasps hold of an idea, suddenly everything around you enforces it.

Here’s a statistic for you: You’re 75% more likely to hear about a person dying in a plane crash than a car accident on TV. It’s a made up statistic but I’m 90% sure it’s true.

Think about it though, whenever a plane crashes anywhere on the planet, it’s right there in the newspaper, on the internet or TV. The sight of a plane exploding is so thrilling that it ends up in dozens of movies and TV shows. Nobody gives a shit if there’s a car crash though, it’s nowhere near as exciting, unless one of the drivers is a cat then it’d make front page news.

We’re all so bombarded by the image that planes crash or randomly turn into a ball of flames that it almost seems rational to assume that’s what will happen when we go on one. What we need to remember is that plane crashes are used so often because of their dramatic value, not because of any reality.

If everything of frequency that happens in movies actually happened in real life too, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog post. I’d be too busy having a light-hearted love affair with Jennifer Lopez.

It’s also important to distinguish between an actual plane crash and what you see at the cinema. In the movies it’s all people screaming, flames, and drama. In reality you’d probably be so unaware of what is happening that you’d have no time to scream.

Actually, I don’t think it’s plane crashes that scare me at all. It’s being put into a situation where I know that I’m about to die. Plummeting towards the Earth, holding the hand of the stranger next to me, knowing that when we hit the ground that’s it. But even this, I fear, is just another thought perpetuated by popular culture. Would it actually be like that? If such an event happened, adrenaline and shock would kick in and you’d have only a vague recollection of anything happening. If I’m lucid enough to be in fear of my life, I’d definitely be clear minded enough to avoid awkwardly holding a strangers hand.

Still, none of this really helps. It’s one thing to know it’s all in your head, but another thing to step on a plane and feel fine. Every bump and noise I hear makes me think, “Oh shit, this is it!!” When really all I’m hearing is the cabin crew taking my meal out of a cupboard.

Suddenly I start to think of all those movies and TV shows I’ve seen, and it seems so likely that it’ll happen to me. Whenever I’m sat by a window, I always remember that episode of The Twilight Zone, where there’s a monster on the side of the plane and a passenger sees it, but can’t convince anybody else it’s real. I scare myself into believing that I’ll somehow see that same monster. Even at this point I can’t admit to myself that I’m possibly just using popular culture to feed my anxiety.

Maybe the problem is our brains love a story so much. We like to believe something will happen. But really reality is boring. Nothing significant ever happens to most of us. How many people have actually ridden down that inflatable slide? Do you know anybody or have you only seen people on the news do it?

Our head doesn’t like to believe the next few hours of our lives will be uneventful and dull. It wants something to happen. We watch a movie like Snakes on a Plane and instead of thinking it’s laughable, we decide that it will surely happen to us!

Next time I go on a flight, I’m going to imagine something positive happening. I’m going to imagine a hot girl whispering in my ear, “Meet me in the bathroom!” Gulp. (Hey, there’s no law against having a sexual fantasy on a airplane, is there?!)

In the weeks before going on my trip I’ll watch every movie I can which features flights that don’t end in complete disaster.
DVD 1Fight Club – A man meets a charismatic soap maker…and the plane doesn’t explode.
DVD 2Airplane – Hilarious shenanigans ensue in the air…and the plane doesn’t explode.
DVD 3 – Um…er…dammit. I can’t think of another. Clearly movies always want bad things to happen up there in the sky.

Still, it’s important to remind yourself that you live in reality and that the positives of plane travel far outweigh the risks involved. Nothing bad will happen to you, why would it? Your life is as mundane as everybody else’s. And as much as it pains me to say it, it is the safest form of transport.

If your fear is so debilitating that you can’t even look at a plane without your pulse quickening then you can always seek help from a doctor or psychologist. After all, it worked for Marge Simpson so it should work for you too!

Do you have a fear of flying? What techniques do you use to manage it?

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  1. says

    You are absolutely right. Statistics don’t help. No matter how big the big number is, there is always this other number: “one” and that means you. And that means YOUR plane could be that one. And that causes the problem. How? That thought triggers stress hormones. Then on the plane, every noise and bump triggers stress hormones.

    What’s the answer. Take a look. Go to Log in with username soar book and password 54321 and read some. If not convinced, look at the amazing reviews on Amazon. Everyone things nothing will work. And yes, there is a lot of “junk help” out there.

    This is solid help. I’ve been doing this as both a pilot and a licensed therapist for over 30 years. I can fix it.

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