A phobia of airplanes and flying, like a phobia of spiders, snakes, or the dark, is so common that almost every sufferer knows someone with the same fear. Unfortunately, many also find such a phobia hugely restricting, cutting them off from much of the world, preventing them from visiting loved ones, and even undermining relationships.
Some cannot remember a time when the thought of flying did not terrify them. Others fly all over the world for years only to wake one morning and realize that they can no longer do so. Indeed, for many it really can be that sudden, and they may even recall the exact moment at which they said to themselves “I can never get on a plane again.” A nasty experience, such as a near miss or an emergency landing, can also be to blame. Some will trace their phobia back to a movie, documentary, or news report they once saw. During therapy, or even under hypnosis, a specific childhood incident, long-forgotten, may also be recalled. For example, the phobic may remember a boy at school gleefully relating some bloody horror story about a plane crash. Having children is another common cause. Indeed, many parents refuse to fly on the same plane without their children (though they will take a car journey together – statistically a far riskier activity!).
Some develop a phobia for reasons that have nothing to do with airplanes themselves. For example, people who suffer anxiety or some form of agoraphobia may fear suffering a panic attack on the plane. And people who once thought nothing of flying, or maybe even enjoyed it, may be shocked to discover that anxiety in other areas of their life (such as marriage breakdown or redundancy) leads to nasty, panicky sensations during a flight. Sometimes, people experience dreadful incidents just before taking a flight (a mugging on the way to the airport, for example) and subconsciously link the trauma with planes and airports.
The Exercise of Reason
A phobia is an irrational fear. In other words, it is a fear unsupported by the evidence. So, for example, fearing the crumbling edge of a cliff would not be a phobia. In that situation, fear would be an appropriate response: the cliff edge really could give way and you might fall to your death. The fear of a small, non-poisonous spider, on the other hand, is irrational. The creature can do you no harm and has no interest in you at all. Since phobias are irrational, they are best combatted through reason. Quite simply, your chances of being killed in a plane crash are very, very small.
Let’s begin with some statistics. Over the course of an average year in the USA, about 1,000 people die in bicycle accidents and around 5,000 from drowning. Now compare those figures to the following: between 1982 and 2010, 3,288 Americans died from accidents involving airplanes. In 28 years, fewer people died in airplane crashes than drown in an average year! Now consider how many flights must have occurred during those 28 years. The next time you sit, sweating and trembling, waiting for your flight to Chicago or London, calmly recite these statistics to yourself. It is the car journey to the airport that should really concern you. Indeed, the FAA estimates that flying is 200 times safer than the average car journey. Consider this final statistic: in the five years between 2002 and 2007, 109 people died in plane crashes (many in private planes, no doubt either drunk, high on drugs, or just behaving foolishly). During that same period, nearly 200,000 people were killed in car crashes.
Another common reason is that airplanes seem so unnatural – a fear that dates back to the appearance of the very first plane. The great Edwardian novelist Joseph Conrad, for example, once said that airplanes disturbed him because they imitate the ridiculous, clumsy flight of a beetle rather than the effortless grace of a bird. An airplane is a man-made object, built of many complicated parts, any one of which could go wrong. People dread a bolt coming loose, gasoline leaking, or even a wing falling off. While these concerns may seem absurd to an engineer (particularly the idea of a bolt coming loose!), they are very real to the victim.
First, it is important to understand that jet engines are relatively simple – simpler in fact than car engines. They are also highly unlikely to break down. And even if they did, a plane can easily run on just one. Second, planes are constantly being checked and repaired. It has been estimated that for every hour it spends in the air, your airplane has spent 11 hours in the hands of highly trained maintenance crews, who have checked and re-checked it. Finally, it is worth remembering that human beings have been flying for over a century now. And the forces that enable us to do so (known as “gravity, drag, lift and thrust”) make flying as “natural” as walking. As pilots and engineers often say, “a plane is happiest in the air.”
Tormented by Imagination
Imagination may be a wonderful place to escape when life becomes hard, but it can also turn against you. This is especially true for those who fear flying. There they sit, shaking with fear, imagining the plane being zapped by lightning or upended by a hurricane etc. Again, such fears are best addressed through reason and facts. The weather is monitored both before and during a flight. Indeed, so sophisticated has weather radar now become that pilots are aware of storms developing well over 100 miles away. And should the weather truly become threatening, the pilot will simply fly around it or land at a different airport (after all, no pilot wishes to risk his or her life either). And in any case, rain has virtually no effect, while airplanes are designed to withstand direct lightning strikes. As for turbulence, this is quite normal and poses very little threat – a modern airplane can cope with more turbulence than you will ever meet. Remember, turbulence simply means that the plane is flying from high to low pressure (or the other way around). It isn’t dangerous, and pilots only avoid it because it upsets their passengers.
As for planes crashing into one another or doors falling off mid-air, again try reasoning such fears away. Planes don’t crash into one another. Air Traffic Control tracks a plane’s movements by radar to ensure they maintain a safe distance from each other. Again, this is a tried and tested system (the British were using radar as early as 1940 to track German planes on their way to bomb London). And ignore the movies. Once an airplane is up, 20,000 pounds of pressure holds the door shut, so if another passenger were to go mad and try opening it he’d have to be stronger than the incredible hulk!
Of course, there are also more practical steps you could take. For a start, spend lots of time at your local airport. The more planes you see landing and taking off, the more normal, even mundane, the whole business will seem. If possible, speak to pilots or air stewards – people who have flown thousands of times (and survived).
Mindfulness meditation may also help. In fact, any meditation practise is likely to prove helpful. These techniques will keep you calm and focussed. Those who have practised them for years find that they can slip “into the zone” whenever they like. Eckhart Tolle’s cult classic The Power of Now would be a good place to start. The fear of flying comes from a fear of the future – a fear of what might happen. Through meditation you will learn to focus on the here and now instead. You could also increase the effectiveness of this by a visit to your doctor. A couple of tranquilizers combined with deep meditation may be all you need.
Finally, be careful who you travel with. You do not want to find yourself sitting next to a friend whose terror is greater even than yours! If you do, you will simply spend the journey frightening one another. Neither do you want to be sitting next to someone who treats your phobia as a joke and thinks it funny to scare or provoke you. Ideally, you want someone who will set an example. Rather than constantly asking you how you feel (which will just reinforce the idea that there really is something to fear), your fellow passenger would help you most by yawning and dozing throughout the flight, behaving as if there is no more need for alarm than there would be on a Sunday stroll in the park.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Such a phobia may be irrational, but human beings are only semi-rational creatures. So never allow anyone to belittle or shame you. And remember, if you can talk yourself into a fear of flying, you can also talk yourself out of one!