How I overcame my fear of flying

When I was 27, I became nervous about flying. I don’t know why. Maybe it was a severe turbulence on a Paris-Berlin flight, when the aircraft entered an unexpected jet (a powerful high-altitude wind) during the cruise, rocking the cabin. Maybe it was the news of a friend of a friend dying in a plane crash. Maybe it was my father’s contracting, and later dying from, a rare cancer that carried a lifetime risk of 1 in 500 (still much higher than the odds of dying in a plane crash, which are about 1 in 5,000 if you take off 30 times per year during 40 years).

Whatever the reasons, what started as a mild inconvenience grew to become a panic that made me decline invitations that required transcontinental flights. On short-haul flights, I’d start sweating right after take-off and do breathing exercises while staring at the seat in front of me until touchdown. Turbulences were… painful. And when you’re panicky in a plane, “turbulence” starts with a light breeze, not when the seat belt signs are turned on.

I’m now 31, and while I still dislike flying, mostly because I hate to be responsible for CO2 emissions and because I don’t like the idea of Securitas personnel looking at pictures of me naked when I go through millimeter wave scanners, I don’t fear flying anymore. Here’s what I did, it might be useful to some.

What doesn’t work

Habit

Many people and websites tell you that flying a lot will make the unease go away. It doesn’t. I’ve flown a lot in the past ten years, including when I was afraid of flying - it doesn’t help. The unease stays.

In the cabin, my brain would switch to fear mode and wait for a terrible thing to happen (it never did). It’s like walking in a dark alley at night in an unfriendly neighborhood. Your brain is way too alert, can’t focus and keeps you in a state of fear. In inconvenient when you walk down a sinister street, it’s horrible when you’re stuck on your economy seat.

Drugs

I tried sleeping pills on long-haul flights and drunkenness on short ones. Being afraid is bad. Being afraid while stoned is worse.

Technical knowledge

Airlines offer courses to cure the fear of flying, during which they explain how planes work (and invoice you around €1,000). None of them made any serious attempt at assessing their effectiveness.

The underlying assumption in these programs is that fear comes from a lack of trust in the aircraft. Believing this to be true, I started to read about flying. I read threads on PPRuNe, a forum for airline pilots. I watched videos of flights on Pilots Eye, a brand that publishes full-length takes from the cockpit (it’s as boring as it sounds). I read dozens of Wikipedia articles about commercial flight.

If anything, it made things worse. When your brain is looking for excuses to panic, giving it more information to play with is not a good idea. Did you know that Alaska Airlines Flight 261 went down because of just one screw, which broke in mid-flight? Or that China Airlines Flight 611 exploded at 30,000 feet because of a faulty repair 22 years earlier? And this time when the crew of an Air Baltic flight arrived reeking of alcohol in the cabin? And this AirAsia pilot who input the wrong longitude in the autopilot and didn’t notice immediately? The Überlingen mid-air collision of 2002? I have dozens such horror stories my brain can pick to scare me.

Using FlightRadar24 (of which I bought the paid version, of course), I’d check the history of the aircraft I was about to board, looking for reasons to freak out. Because I knew much more, I had plenty of signals that I could wrongly interpret as a critical problem, from the sound of the engine or the power transfer unit (the loud squeaky noise A320s do after takeoff) to a small deviation from the usual flight path.

What does work

Outsmart your brain

My brain could take a small cue from any situation and link it to a crash - it had way too many stories at its disposal (that’s called the availability bias). I decided to stop reading horror stories and focus on heroic ones, where luck or skill prevented catastrophes. Did you know that crew member Vesna Vulović survived a 30,000-foot free fall after JAT Flight 367 exploded during cruise? And this story when the crew of China Airlines Flight 006 lost an engine, stalled, fell 10,000 feet and regained control a few seconds before the crash? Or that a Learjet was flipped and rolled in the wake of an A380 and still managed to land safely after the pilot restarted the engine?

Such stories now aptly compete in my brain with the more somber ones. Whenever I fly into a turbulence, I now think of the story of hurricane hunters that survived flying into hurricane Hugo in ‘89 and not the story of Air Algérie flight 5017 which went down in a storm.

Recreate a sense of normality

In the end, what worked best to break the fear was to convince my brain that flying was normal, more akin to taking the bus than to walking a dangerous road at night. I had to find distractions. At the beginning, opening a book or watching a movie was too much. I had to find simpler entertainment, such as looking down the window and trying to guess the aircraft’s position. This will improve your geography and map-reading skills a great deal (look out for stadiums and nuclear power plants, they’re easy to spot. In cloudy weather, I tried to recognize the type of clouds (much less fun).

The next step was to read books with very simple plots, that did not require much concentration. That lead me to reading a lot of Robert Seethaler, Wolfgang Herrndorf, Ferdinand von Schirach, Dörte Hansen and Annelie Schlobohm. Not only is this a much better way of spending time than working on Powerpoint presentations, it also created a reward system that associated flying with fun.


This worked for me and might not work for you. Catering to nervous fliers is a big business based on zero serious analysis. If you know of a systematic attempt that was made at measuring the causes and possible therapies for aviophobia, do drop me a line.

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