Fear of Flying

Something funny happened to me on the way to Atlanta…

…and boy are my arms tired!

Many of you know from Twitter and elsewhere that I have a very silly fear of flying, to the point that I get extremely stressed in the few days before a flight and extremely crazy during (I’ve cried under a blanket during turbulence, and not once have I used a plane toilet, because of the horror of my burned-up body being found mid-poo).

However, I recently returned from a trip to Dragon*Con in Atlanta, and on the ten-hour flight there I was baffled, amazed and delighted to discover I was no longer afraid. On the return flight, same thing. No fear. Even during the bumpy bits. Even during the “omg what was that noise what was it something fell off I smell smoke THAT MAN HAS A BOMB!” moments (which used to be all of a flight).

The even stranger part was that I did something I’ve never before done in the air: I fell asleep.

I’m not sure of the cause for my sudden rationality, although I can pinpoint the events of 9/11 as the cause of my phobia in the first place. Perhaps I’ve just simply broken through the ‘exposure’ threshold; I now fly many times a year, usually to the USA, and perhaps at some point the brain just says “right, we have enough practical experience now to know that we’re not going down, so let’s flip the switch from panic to cool”. Or perhaps there has been enough time since 9/11 to get complacent about the threat, sub-consciously. Yeah yeah, I know, I’m an idiot.

I say ‘sub-consciously’, because phobias are generally irrational and therefore not something to be easily countered with reasoning and probability. The old “you’re more likely to die from a donkey spitting cyanide at you whilst simultaneously whistling Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini than you are to die in a plane crash” stuff doesn’t work, and neither does the “hey you’ll be dead or passed out before the plane even hits the ground!” sort of reassurance that I’ve had so often. One tip that did help was to keep a bottle of water on the table in front me, so I could see how much the plane is actually moving during turbulence (or as I used to call it, pre-plummeting). Once I realised that the water doesn’t move very much at all, I was a little reassured, although not enough to stop me digging my nails into whatever poor soul was sitting next to me.

But now, that’s all over. During my Atlanta flights I didn’t even bother with the water thing. I still haven’t moved on from my habit of mentally pre-fixing my flight number with the words ‘the doomed’, but I can’t have everything. Now I just need to figure out how to make friends with spiders.

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  1. Congratulations on overcoming your fear! That is very admirable!

    Maybe you can tell me how to overcome my irrational fear of hospitals.

    My Dad has survived all kinds of cancer (colon, prostate and skin), so I’m expecting to blow up any second now like Tetsuo in a giant blob of Tokyo-eating-flesh, but I’m so terrified of going to he hospital that I’d rather kill someone than go through a colonoscopy again.

    Intellectually I get it, hospitals are good, but like I said this is an irrational fear. I go into full fight-or-flight mode just walking into one, and it takes my full concentration to not run out as fast as I can.

    Or is that an Ask Surly Amy question?

  2. Totally feel you, Tracy. I’d love to visit the UK, but I’d have to fly to get there in any reasonable amount of time. I had to take some happy pills to get to Mexico, and my mom was right beside me. Going to Europe and the British Isles…not happening.

  3. Sorry to hear that :(

    I think your fear of hospitals being based on actual experience makes it a lot harder to fight. It seems quite rational to have a fear of places where Bad Things and Intrusive Pain Happen, and hospitals are only good on the back of Bad Things, so I don’t think you are being unreasonable. However, the practical need to go to hospitals sometimes has to outweigh the negative association.

    Phobias are only a problem if they stop you doing stuff. If you avoid going to a hospital because of it, then you should look at ways of conquering the fear. I’m a fan of aversion therapy: go and read to old people :D

  4. Interesting. I have an aversion to flying that I’m trying to get others to share. Maybe I should try more fear-mongering.

    “hey you’ll be dead or passed out before the plane even hits the ground!”

    I don’t think this is true. Most accidents happen during take-off and landing. I don’t know about passed out, but I doubt you’d have time to die before the end of the crash. It would be interesting to find out of most airplane deaths were caused by trauma or smoke-inhalation/asphyxia.

    Now I just need to figure out how to make friends with spiders.

    I’m okay with spiders, and I thought my wife was okay too, but early this week I learned more. We were enjoying a nice lie-in and I saw a small spider descend from the ceiling and land on her chest. I grabbed the silk and transfered the spider to the floor.

    She asked, “What was that?”

    I said, “Spider.”

    She said, “Oh.”

    I couldn’t love her more.

  5. Hi there!

    It seems like the more I fly, the more terrified I am with the idea. As a kid, flying didn’t bother me in the slightest. As a teen, flying was just AWESOME to me. As a college student, it was a little nerve-wracking, but not anything approaching … scary.

    Now, I get a little nervous. I still know that it’s safer than driving, statistically. However I also know that there’s nothing PREVENTING me from going down in a firey ball of death. When I was younger, I could just console myself in the belief that: “God/Jesus/Great Spirit/Goddess/Krishna/Non-Specific Higher Being of Light and Order in the Universe isn’t going to just let me be some kind of random ignominious safety statistic plastered across the side of the Appalachians, right?!”.

    Now I don’t have that luxury.

    I blame YOU, Modern Skeptical Movement!

    [shakes fist]

    — Craig

  6. “hey you’ll be dead or passed out before the plane even hits the ground!”

    I don’t know what kind of idiot made the advice above, but I don’t see how it can even be remotely reassuring.

    As for my fears, they are injections, or any needles inserted under my skin in the name of health. I have a terrible fear of vaccination, to the point where I am trembling and complaining about everything. Worst of all, when they tried to draw blood, they missed my vein three freakin times! When they did, they tried to wiggle the needle into my vein, and that sucked. I will never get over that.

  7. First of all, congratulations! Beating something like fear of flying is a major accomplishment. Many people suffer their whole lives rather than to deal with fears like that decisively. You’ve opened up the world to yourself in a very literal way.

    And no, you’re not an idiot for having that fear. It’s not like you got up one day and decided that you were going to adopt a brand new, irrational fear just for the fun of it. It only means that you’re human.

    As far as hospitals and surgery goes, I’m pretty much desensitized by now. Spiders, I can take or leave. I’m not overly afraid of them, but I don’t think they’re cuddly either. (shrug)

    There are some things to know about emergencies when you board a flight. If you (or anyone else) want to know them, e-mail me offline.

  8. @Draconius: There ARE some things preventing you from going down in a fireball.

    The LAWS of physics, particularly aerodynamics.

    The SCIENCE of aeronautical engineering.

  9. I’ve never really been afraid of flying, though I am afraid of heights. But the first time I was on a really long flight (18 hours) I made the mistake of reading “Black Hawk Down” and got to the part where the first helicopter crashed right as we hit a nasty bit of turbulence and that definitely scared me a bit. Now I only read fluffy happy novels on long flights. :)

  10. @QuestionAuthority: Well yes, there is that. But it’s not that I think that the wings of the plane are suddenly going to be immune to lift or that Earth’s gravity is going to increase. I’m worried that some guy at Boeing came to work hung-over after he fell asleep at his mistress’ apartment and snuck back home at 4am to find his wife sitting on the couch with a not-happy-to-see-me expression and now he’s wondering if he should buy her flowers or did she actually BUY that story about missing the last train and having to hitch a ride with a traveling circus group and WHAT the Hell was JJ Abrams thinking: “Oh they were all just in purgatory or some shit”, I mean SERIOUSLY and oh wait was that the LEAKY fuel line I just installed on that starboard wing or the GOOD one? Oh SHIT, someone please TELL me that I didn’t wear her panties home and leave them in the laundry for my wife to find, Oh God NO I am so dead, so DEAD!!”.

    There’s not really anything preventing THAT, is there? :(

  11. @Draconius: Quality control…The fact that the plane has been flying for a couple of years by the time you board it.

    Of course, OTOH, a pink unicorn might have left rainbow jelly beans in the fuel tanks just for you, too.

  12. I used to love to fly, especially when I did my junior year abroad in the UK and flew back and forth several times. Loved it.

    Then, while in grad school, I was on a plane that had to make an emergency landing. You could tell by the banging noises, the extreme vibrations and the panicked looks on the attendants’ faces that there was something horribly wrong with the plane from the second we left the runway. ( I don’t remember what; I’ve probably blocked it due to psychological trauma.) We were in the air for about 5 minutes, and it was terrifying. The landing was…rough. I’ll just leave it at that.

    Now, I am scared to death of flying. I’ve had to do it three times since then — twice for business, once for vacation — and it was panic-inducing all three times. I know it’s an irrational fear, but damn. I do not like to fly. At all.

  13. “you’re more likely to die from a donkey spitting cyanide at you whilst simultaneously whistling Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini than you are to die in a plane crash”

    -Yeah, but only because that musical reality show with the cyanide filled donkey skewed the stats.

  14. I don’t mind flying and work in the aviation maintenance industry so I know exactly what can go wrong.
    There are many checks and balances, redundancies, and training that work very well to prevent most accidents, which by now are generally human error related.

    I do however hate flying. I fly from Oklahoma to Cincinnati at least once a month and it’s on aircraft that area getting smaller and smaller. I’m not a small guy. I’m 6ft, and roughly 270 lbs, give or take. So those tiny seats make it very uncomfortable.
    Now on a real airplane (737 and larger) I’m perfectly fine.

    Also, most American airlines are very reliable.
    And the TSA does not instill any faith in me in their ability to protect me.

  15. My niece once kissed a spider. I asked her about the rumor I had heard (she was 6 at the time.) I was expecting a denial, but I should have known better. All she said was “But it was sooooo cute!”

  16. Well, on one hand we have aerodynamics, aeronautical engineering, quality control and statistics. On the other hand, we have hung-over aircraft builders, turbulence, high speeds, great altitudes, pink unicorns leaving jelly-bean shaped turds in the fuel lines and the TSA. Run for your life!

  17. @Buzz Parsec: On the other hand, we have hung-over aircraft builders, turbulence, high speeds, great altitudes, pink unicorns leaving jelly-bean shaped turds in the fuel lines and the TSA.

    Good point! While I hate flying I don’t fear it. I do both hate and fear the TSA.

  18. @T-storm: I spent 25 years in airline operations, ramp, CS, SAWRS and technical writing. I have written operations and maintenance manuals, and I’m also a private pilot. I’m also 5’11” and 220lb. I don’t fit in Y seats either.

    Been on a few planes with inflight emergencies and handled a few on the ground. I just ready myself as best I can and watch the flight crew for instructions. I also volunteer to assist in an emergency because of my experience. I figure if I’m as ready as I can be, then the rest has to take care of itself.

    If human error causes an accident, there isn’t much I can do about it. I watch carefully on takeoff and landing for anything unusual that might signal trouble, but I’m not anxious about it. If they fly into the side of a mountain…Well, I could have been hit by a drunk driver on the way to the airport, too. I used to be a deicing instructor, so I even watch as much of that as I can. If I ever see a bad deicing job, I WILL say something.

    I keep a mental list of airlines I won’t set foot on – The ones in the US I hate happen to be regional airlines and I have solid reasons for avoiding them.

    I think we all (aviation or non-aviation) that the TSA is ridiculous. I can’t say more in a public forum…

    I’d like to be an aviation accident investigator, just because of the scientific and investigative work. Unfortunately, I’m not qualified for it. It can be gruesome, too. So are bad car accidents., though.

    If the Thunderbirds asked me to go flying with them, the only question I’d have is when to show up. :-D

  19. I think one of the reasons that those arguments about an aerial emergency being really unlikely are not reassuring is because you have no control over the aeroplane. In a car at least you feel like you have some semblance of control (although you can’t control other drivers) and you can pull over whenever you might feel panicky for a breath of fresh air.

  20. @Draconius: Very interesting. My wife told me that flying to TAM earlier this year was the first time ever that she didn’t pray for her safety on the flight, AND the first time that she was not afraid. We fly together a few times a year for vacations, so I was pleased to hear this.

    I fly all the time for my job, sometimes every week for months at a time (like now, yuck), so it doesn’t bother me. I actually enjoy watching during take offs and landings, and read while we cruise. However, severe turbulence or dropping a few dozen feet suddenly does get me a little on edge.

    And very soon, we are flying to TAM London!

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