How I Got Over My Fear of Flying

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September 17th, 2012 was my own personal judgement day.  Months of anxiety and nervousness had built up and today was the culmination.  It was time to pay the piper. What in the world had me so scared? Was it a court date? A visit to the doctor to receive bad news? The day aliens finally landed?

No, it was the day my wife and I prepared to go on our honeymoon. Two days prior we had a nice outdoor wedding with eleven bridesmaids, ten groomsmen, six flower girls and zero ring bearers. We had been planning the wedding for well over a year but I was not really that nervous about the nuptials; the honeymoon, on the other hand, was a major concern. I would venture to say that this is not the thing that most people get anxious about, as the honeymoon is supposed to be filled with fun, drinks and sex. However, there was one thing that the honeymoon involved that the wedding did not and it was the biggest source of worry for me personally: flying.

I was scared to fly. Now granted, I had flown before when I went to Vegas in 2005. I was able to get over my fear of flying then because I had grandiose visions of being a professional poker player and so my desire to visit the Mecca of gambling far outweighed any fears I had of perishing in a fiery ball of plane wreckage.  It also helped that I had seven other friends on that trip and it was a direct flight. I figured I could tough it out for a three hour flight to embrace the decadence of Las Vegas.

The honeymoon, on the other hand, was a different story. We were going to Boro Boro, an island in French Polynesia. The closest major continent to it was Australia.  It would take us 10 flights to get from Ohio to Bora Bora and back to Ohio. We had an hour flight from Columbus to Minneapolis, a three and a half hour flight from Minneapolis to L.A., an eight hour flight from L.A. to Tahiti and another hour flight from Tahiti to Bora Bora. Then, assuming we survived being by ourselves in a foreign country for five days, we had to travel back the same way, except we flew from L.A. to Atlanta and from there to Columbus on the way back. We ended up accumulating twenty seven hours of flight time for the entire trip, with ten takeoffs and landings. Anyone who knows anything about plane crashes knows that the overwhelming majority of crashes happen either during takeoff or landing.  If you have a direct flight, you decrease your chance of an accident since you do not have to switch plans and takeoff and land anymore.  I suppose you could consider it the same principal as someone who cuts back on driving decreases their risk of having a car accident.

So why was I so scared of flying? I had done it before and, besides some ribbing from my buddies who knew I was not the biggest fan of air travel, the flights were relatively smooth. On the way home from Vegas, we hit an air pocket during the ascent and dropped a few feet, which was scary. Turbulence was an issue during that flight too but apparently it was pretty tame compared to some of the other flights that my friends had previously been on. So apparently my fears should have been unfounded.

But if you think about it, are our fears really grounded in rational thinking? When we are kids and we think there is a monster under our bed, our parents are not scared because they know there is not a monster under the bed and that our fears are foolish.  We are not being rational when we fear monsters under the bed; my fear of flying was the same. Flying is statistically the safest form of travel.  You’re more likely to die in car accident on the way to the airport than you are from an actual plane crash.  Speaking of car crashes, I have been in 5 car accidents, hit 2 deer and a Great Dane and ran off the road numerous times in bad weather.  Add in 6 speeding tickets, a failure to control and a citation for running a red and you could say that I do not have the most stellar driving record. Yet my heart does not race every time I step into a motor vehicle. I do not have a routine that I do every time I get ready to drive somewhere (aside from fastening my seatbelt of course) like I do when I fly.  I did not do research on how to survive a car crash (although perhaps I should). So why the fear of flying?

I’m not a psychologist by any means, but I think lack of control would be at the top of the list. Whenever I travel anywhere, I like to drive. I have volunteered to drive on our annual golf trip for the last 5 years. I do not like my fate being in someone else’s hands.  I trust that many people probably feel the same way. The thought of someone else being at the controls of a plane with one hundred to three hundred people, with all of those people’s fates at the hands of the pilot and co-pilot can be a scary proposition. The recent plane crash in the French Alps caused by the suicidal pilot helps bring home that point. It is one thing to be suicidal but to crash a plane on purpose filled with hundreds of people is homicidal. The co-pilot of this particular flight had locked the pilot out and the pilot could not get the door open.  Evidently, the sound of the pilot banging on the door and trying to get into the cockpit could be heard on the black box recorder. In all of the car crashes I have ever read about, I have never heard of one that killed 150 people in one instance.  The potential for catastrophic death is quite terrifying, to say the least.

Some other factors involve include genetics, as my father also has a fear of flying, as well as a small fear of heights. I have found that the older I get, the more I appreciate being on the ground. I do not get sick or dizzy whenever I am high up in a building or anything, but I do not feel very comfortable either.  Roller coasters used to be a source of fun when I was a kid, but the fact that the last time I went on one, my seven year old daughter was WAY more brave than I was told me that I had inherited some of those fear of heights from my father.

So how did I get over my fear of flying to enjoy the honeymoon in Bora Bora with my wife? Well, I did several things. I researched plane crashes and found that, like mentioned earlier, most crashes occur during takeoff and landing. More specifically, I found that the prime window for crashes is during the first three minutes of takeoff and the last 8 minutes of landing. With the information in my mind, I purchased a wristwatch with a stop watch on it so I could time the takeoff and landing. I held my wife’s hand like a death grip on the takeoff and finally relaxed after the three minute window. The landing did not frighten me as bad and it was also harder to predict because the captain does not exactly come on the intercom and announce when we are specifically 8 minutes from landing. They usually would announce when we were 20-30 minutes landing so I would use that as my reference point.

During my research, I also found that the best place to sit on the plane is in the middle of the plane, near the wings and close to an exit. The emergency aisle in the middle of the plane is probably the most ideal place. If that is not available, a spot in the back is preferable to a spot in the front. You might like the service better in first class, but if the plane goes down, your odds of surviving have drastically reduced. Hope you enjoyed that foot of extra leg room!

I took other precautions as well. I made sure to wear pants and long sleeves (in the part of September that is still considered summer) instead of shorts and a tee shirt.  This helps to keep your bare arms and legs from getting burned in the event the plane would catch on fire. I wore shoes instead of sandals, not to make my life more miserable in my interactions with the TSA, but because it’s easier and faster to run away from burning wreckage in tennis shoes instead of sandals.

As I made my way to my seat, I counted how many seats I was sitting from the exit. This is in case the lights go out or the cabin is filled with smoke and it is difficult to see.  I not only counted the seats between me and the exit, but I counted the steps, that way if some of the seats were missing, I would still have an idea of how far away from the exit I was.  Once I was seated, I took turns buckling and unbuckling my seat belt so that I was confident I would be able to undo it should I need to.  After all of this preparation, I was confident that if the plane did in fact crash, I had given myself the best odds of anyone on the plane to survive.

Of course, I was still scared and I did not get over my fear until I actually did it. Once we reached cruising altitude, the flights were not that bad. I did not like spending 8 hours on a plane at one time, but I do not image most people do.  By that point, my only problems were lack of sleep and a meal that left a lot to be desired.

I must have really tamed my fear of heights because when we got to Bora Bora, one of the things we did was go parasailing. We were strapped to the end of a boat over the reef and lifted several hundred feet in the air. We could see out over most of the island and since the water was so clear and blue, we could see the stingrays and small sharks swimming in the water below. It was quite peaceful to be honest.

Two years later, we attended a destination wedding of a friend of ours in Cancun, Mexico and although I still took the same precautions as I did before, I did not have near the anxiety of flying as I had before. I would not call myself a seasoned veteran by any means, but I’m also worlds beyond what I was.  I am already planning a trip to California for next year that will require me to fly and I’m not nearly as anxious about it as I was 3 years ago. My fear, by and large, has been conquered.

What specific steps did you take to conquer a fear of yours?

Photo by Thomas Leuthard