For years, I’ve had the idea in the back of my head to write a book for my fellow nervous fliers. Since the start of this decade I’ve had reason to fly round-trip once or twice every year, and every time I take a few more notes towards this scheme. It’s been an achingly long time since I last wrote a book, and the idea of sinking myself into a major project that has nothing at core to do with my day job really appeals, sometimes. But then, inevitably, I get a great idea for something creative I can build with code, and the book idea goes back into the freezer for a while.
I’ve no reason not to start sharing the gist of it, though! Find below three key sub-topics of the several I have in mind. I write these while at a Perl conference in far-from-home Salt Lake City, my very first visit to the beautiful American West: a reminder of flight’s unparalleled ability to broaden one’s horizons, and the worth of learning to cope with it.
I’ll preface them by linking to Captain Stacey Chance’s website, which I browsed several years ago while in perhaps the absolute nadir of my flight-fear as an adult: I didn’t want to accompany my partner to visit her family for Christmas, because the notion of a two-hour flight from Boston to Columbus filled me with absolute and very literal terror. Fortunately, she insisted I go, so I sought help, and I found Chance’s site. Then as now, it ultimately exists to sell you a fear-coping course on DVD, but has a wealth of free information available as well. My book, should it ever come to happen, will comprise ideas and experiences catalyzed by what I originally found on Chance’s website.
It’s okay to have an irrational fear of flying. You can recognize and cope with it. Both of my parents were inveterate travelers, flying many times every year, and through my whole childhood I accompanied them happily. My dad was one of many sources from whom I heard, over and over, that no mode of transportation is safer than flying. And then, for no clear reason, in my late teenage years I became terrified of flight — even though I never took this earlier education about air travel’s safety as false.
Until my research of a few years ago, I had nothing to bridge the gap between this sure, statistically backed knowledge and the just as sure fact that the act of boarding a plane involved choking back panic while my endocrine system went right ahead and pumped me full of adrenaline, so that I might better flee the predator whose maw I appeared to be strolling into. I have, since then, found various ways to mitigate my fears, in part by changing the way I think about how air travel even works.
A plane is more like a submarine than a sailboat. This is my single most important takeaway from Capt. Stacey’s site: to an airplane moving at airplane-typical speeds, the air that usually seems so inert to us slowpoke groundlings transforms into a thick, viscous fluid — a buoyant fluid, in fact. Every part of a plane’s construction and external profile plays into this. This is most obviously true in the wings, whose interaction with the rushing air results in lift because of math and physics. Nothing that happens in the world or in your imagination will cause math and physics to stop working. Math and physics don’t fail in the face of wind, weather, magical thinking, or bad luck, and they won’t make the plane do anything other than fly exactly as it ought.
I used to try calming myself by imagining a plane as a mighty sailing ship coasting across the blue sea, but Capt. Chance made me realize that a much more accurate metaphor existed. A plane in flight is very literally in its element, using its turbines or propellors to pull itself through the air that both embraces it wholly and keeps it aloft. And in this way, a plane at home in the atmosphere works very much like a submarine slipping forward through the ocean.
Taking all this together, a plane has no more chance of spontaneously succumbing to gravity and crashing into the earth as a fish does. It’s not “defying” gravity, much less “fighting” it. Gravity does the plane the favor of keeping the navigable atmosphere wrapped around the planet, and provides a handy tool for speed control. In no way does it serve as the ever-present danger that I tacitly assumed of it for years.
I find these sorts of reframing thoughts far more mentally stabilizing than recitations of safety records, which for me seemed to gloss over the apparent unlikelihood of how planes even worked in the first place.
Another fact following naturally from the previous: The plane does not care about turbulence. I envision this heading an entire chapter unto itself in my notional book, examining the whys and hows of air turbulence. But, ultimately, turbulence just thumps the plane a few inches this way or that, a negligible distance when taken against the plane’s altitude. It means nothing.
To a person sitting inside the plane, it can sure feel like a lot of shift, at least when compared to the utterly smooth experience that defines most of a typical trip’s flight-time. But cutting through choppy air poses no more danger to the aircraft than switching from a freshly paved highway to an old dirt road poses to you or your car, while you’re driving. It’s just a thing that happens on the way to your destination, sometimes.
Familiarity nullifies fear. I remember very well all the flights I took soon after developing aviophobia. So many sounds, sights, and sensations filled me with confusion and fear, even though I’d flown dozens of times before that. Why was the plane banking so much? Why did the engines just become quieter? How come I suddenly felt lighter? And so on, all implying the frustratingly unanswered followup Is this normal?
Fortunately, like with any sort of simple lack of information, the countermeasure can prove as simple as reading clear answers. Capt. Chance’s website provides help in this area, with a “virtual practice flight” narrative that describes, in simple language, all the sensations an attentive (or very nervous) passenger will notice during the course of a typical flight, and in the order that they usually occur.
A related, more engaging, and possibly even more effective technique I discovered by myself involves playing with a flight simulator program on one’s PC or tablet. Not a trivial arcade game where you joystick a plane-shaped player-object around the screen — I mean a program that puts you, with a first-person viewpoint, into a reasonably accurate simulation of an actual airplane’s pilot seat, such that you can see all the indicators and manipulate all the controls a pilot would. You can take off, fly around a bit, and then descend back to the runway only by following the same steps that a real pilot would follow.
Once I had the experience of flying a pure-software plane through my own computer’s simulated atmosphere — a learning process which involved at least a little bit of reading, as well — I found it much easier to identify and explain everything I saw, heard, and felt as a passenger on a real plane. While I still hate the lurch of unexpected turbulence, I today actually enjoy following along as the plane ticks through all the routine maneuvers of takeoff, cruising, descent, and landing. When I pair this with even more information, such as noting the orientation of the destination runway while following the plane’s course using the on-board seat-back map, I feel much less ignorant and powerless than I used to.