How I Overcame My Fear of Flying

In Essays, Self Improvement

I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to travel. I’ve visited four continents and seventeen countries. In 2010 I took upwards of twenty-five flights.

I started travelling at a young age so I had never really thought much about flying. It’s just something that was done. So it came as a surprise when earlier this year when my slow build up of anxiety over flying became a fully fledged fear of flying.

It all started with a landing in Barcelona. Everything was going absolutely fine and we were perhaps a second or two away from touching the runway and arriving when the engines flared up again and the airplane was up in the air again.

No message from the captain and suddenly all conversation in the cabin stopped. One could feel the nerves.

It’s probably worth mentioning that I was nursing a fairly epic hangover and I had already taken a flight from Sicily to Milan, spent the day running around like a maniac seeing as much of Milan as possible and then went back to the airport to take this flght to Barcelona.

Needless to say, I wasn’t in a mood conductive to rational thinking.

So, we gained altitude again and still no word from the captain. One of my friends noticed that the stewardess, who wasn’t young, looked a little uneasy strapped in her crew seat.

The plane banked to the right and we circled around and then went for a second, successful landing.

It wasn’t a big deal, the pilot probably overshot a certain part of the runway and so had to take a second attempt.

Still, that really hammered home how little control one has when flying, and how much trust you are putting in unknown people.

I had a wonderful time in Barcelona and a few days later it was time to make the journey back home. Two flights within twelve hours. I suffered a big case of the nerves but made it home.

I then spent the next four months without leaving Sicily, partly due the amount of anxiety and fear about flying.

I actually managed to overcome this anxiety and fear and I flew four times in the summer and I have recently taken three flights in a week, including one long-hall flight to Asia from Europe.

I’d like to spend the rest of this essay explaining how I managed to overcome this fear of flying.

The Method

The advantage human beings have over animals is that we are rational beings, but many times this can also bring us a degree of discomfort.

Seneca noted this while he was travelling by ship and was caught up in a storm. Everybody was worried, but there was one passenger who took a stoic outlook on the whole situation and continue eating and sleeping as if nothing was happing. It was the pig.

The pig wasn’t worried about the storm and the movement of the ship because it wasn’t aware that there was a danger of the ship capsizing and then of drowning. The pig’s lack of reasoning capabilities made it calm.

But I’m not suggesting that we start thinking like a pig. Being rational is the privilege of human beings and so we should try and use our superior intellects and willpower to overcome difficult situations.

So that’s what I did, I overcome my fear of flying by reason.

I began to study exactly how planes functions and specifically how commercial airliners work. I poured over crash statistics and I read about all the major fatal airplane crashes. I read about all the safety measures that modern planes have to prevent accidents and incidents. I learned about turbulence, I read about the strict maintenance schedules set by law in the developed world.

Rationally speaking, it makes absolutely no sense to have a fear of flying. In fact, you are in one of the safest places in the world when you are 30,000 feet up in the air in an aluminium box.

Strange, but true.

I also think that the fear of flying is closely related to the fear of death. Overcome the latter and you will overcome the former. After all, if you aren’t afraid of dying then a plane crash is hardly going to bother you now is it?

So, let me share a few things I’ve learnt about airplanes.

Why Flying is Safe

Obviously one cannot always take statistics at face value, because it often depends on who is providing the statistics.

The following quote is quite apt:

Lies, damned lies, and statistic

That said, there are extremely detailed and accurate statistics about the number of journeys made each year and the number of problems encountered overall.

It boils down to this: The chances of being involved in an airplane crash are extremely low, something along the lines of 1 in x.

To put that into perspective, you are more likely do die from a bee-sting and flying is around sixty to one-hundred times safer than driving.

But it gets better than that. If you were involved in a serious airplane crash, you have a 76.7% chance of survival.

In fact, 95.7% of all people involved in plane accidents survive.

1. You Are Flying In Two Airplanes

What’s the likelihood of two planes crashing? I don’t know, but I know it’s less than one plane crashing and that’s why modern airplanes are actually two airplanes in one. Think about it, you have two pilots, at least two engines, and every single function on the plane has at least one backup feature. So a crash cannot be caused by a single failure. I will say that again: a crash cannot be caused by a single failure. I find that very reassuring. So if an engine fails, you probably won’t even notice. The cool thing about total failure in all engines is that an airplane is simply a very big glider and so it’s not like it will drop out of the sky like a stone. The pilot can simply glide it to the nearest airfield.

2. Most Crashes Are Caused By Human Error, Not Mechanical Malfunction

Most transportation crashes, especially in car travel, are caused by human error. This is an area where air travel wins out. You don’t have an idiot flying your plane. Pilots go through training which can be compared to the training that medical doctors receive in both length and intensity. They know what they are doing. When you are out and about in your car, you have no idea who is driving the car behind you. It could be a drug addict, it could be a drunk, it could be someone underage or someone who doesn’t even have a license.

On top of that, not only are the pilots highly trained, but the whole host of support staff that they work with are highly competent. Air traffic controllers, ground maintenance crew are all thoroughly checked and have set limits to how much they can work in a given time period.

Plenty of car accidents involve two or more cars. Well, airplanes fly in a 10 mile wide corridor to ensure that two planes will not collide.

Mechanical problems don’t really happen. Think about it, we can build supercomputers that fit into our pockets, send people to the moon and destroy entire cities with one bomb. I don’t think that it’s expecting much of the human race to build a reliable machine. Mechanical problems are highly unlikely. Turbine engines are incredibly reliable, and there is a good 70 years of data to back that up.

3. Airplanes Are Checked

I was quite shocked when I heard how airplanes are maintained. Every five years, a commercial airliners has to go through what is known as a “D check”. This takes roughly two to three months and involves a complete disassembly of the aircraft (by the way, an average airliner has over five million parts…) and a complete structural check for invisible stress in the metal. This generally requires about 50,000 man hours (that’s over five and a half years!). Yes, there are also smaller A, B and C checks done more frequently.

Things that used to worry me

Turbulence

Every time the plane starts shaking uncontrollably I used to always assume the worst. I mean, why the hell should there be all this vibration? Well, it turns out that it’s simply like the bumps on the road when you are in a car or a bus. It’s not comfortable, but it’s likely to happen at some point in your journey. It’s part and parcel of flying. Full stop. Turbulence is generally caused when different air “streams” mix.

Remember that aircraft are built to a specification. The severe turbulence that you might experience and that makes it feel like the plane is going to be ripped apart is acting on the aircraft with a gravitational force of around 0.4g. Regulation states that aircraft must be able to fly with turbulence up to 2g and many manufactures now build their aircraft to withstand up to 7g.

Strange Noises

When I was on an aircraft preparing itself for takeoff I used to get nervous about all the bangs and grinding noises coming from the plane. Turns out it’s simply the hydraulic systems doing their job, which is completely natural.

Landing

Landings are statistically the most dangerous part of a flight. This really used to annoy me because you could have a really nice flight and you still know that you have the landing at the end. I actually quite enjoy landings now.

Anyway, I hope this has been some help to you and enjoy your next flight