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Home > Fear of Flying > Flying without fear (R) - a repost.
Flying without fear (R) - a repost.
Flying - Fear of Flying
Tuesday, 08 July 2008 23:25

The September 11th attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in the US had great implications. It not only caused more people to be fearful of flying but it also shook the world's economy and caused the airlines industry to go into a slump. Many reputable airlines suffered, triggering bankruptcies in Sabena in Belgium, Swiss Air in Switzerland and Ansett Airlines in Australia. More than 100,000 people in the USA lost their jobs in the airlines related business.

Many people who have expressed their fear of flying are well founded. I hope I can help to convince the people at large that flying is still safe. The September 11th tragedy will not stop me from flying an aircraft as a pilot nor as a passenger. In fact this has me even more determined to explain and to reassure everyone to come back to flying. It is easier said than done I suppose. How can I explain to people effectively the fear of flying and to convince them how safe it is to fly again? Well, my mind tells me that it will not be easy in the aftermath of the September 11th attack. I have to write something more about it...

Firstly, let us face the fact of life. About 20 years ago, Boeing made a survey that one out of three people is fearful of flying. That number comes up to about 25 millions people in the USA. Out of these, fifty percent won't fly at all and the other fifty percent fly with difficulty. In January 2002, the CBS News poll figures showed that 2 in every 10 Americans are still 'afraid' to fly and another 3 are 'bothered slightly'. But I was told that if one is afraid to fly, it is difficult to convince one with any statistics. Or is it so?

Overcome Fear with Knowledge

One way to overcome fear is knowledge. Do you know that flying is more than 20 times safer than driving? Do you know that climbing up the stairs in your home is 10 times more dangerous than flying? Do you know that Dr Arnold Barnett - the Professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came out with this result, "A traveler in the First World Airline who took one flight a day will only encounter a fatal accident after flying for 31,000 years.." Okay, okay the odd seems unbelievable after the September 11th attack! But the fact remains true. Remember that everything we do in life has a certain amount of risk involved. Flying is just another risk but it happens to be a smaller risk than almost anything we do in a day. I will elaborate more on statistics later on.

Fear of flying is often made worst by great flying disasters that are widely reported in all the medias. Disaster like the Concorde crash in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris can trigger great fears among the traveling public. Psychological experts say that the effect of the hijackings and the attacks on the New York Twin Towers and the Pentagon is likely to aggravate the situation even more.

Of course, the attacks in New York and Washington have caused many to fear flying in the short term but I don't think this would last for long. Memories are short and most people would get back to flying pretty quickly. What about those who were fearful of flying before these tragic events?

Air accidents are usually great news for the medias. Motor vehicle accidents causing death are a non event even though this form of ground travel is 21 times more dangerous than air travel. Even an air accident involving a small airplane piloted by John Kennedy Junior dominated the newspapers and news broadcast for days. Gory images of air crashes in TV and closed-in images of grieving families are bad business for air travel. This often triggers more fears about flying.

The estimated 25 million fearful or anxious fliers in the US have cause to be apprehensive. But one has to differentiate between crashes due to terrorism and one due to the safety of the airplane. Data from the National Transportation Safety Board indicated nil fatalities in 1998 for all US commercial flights. If that statistic does not calm your fears, think of this. Data has also shown that it is more dangerous to take a shower in the bathroom or that more people are likely to die from falling in their homes than to get on an airplane.

There are many psychological counselors who have been busily conducting courses to assist people and potential passengers to cope with the fear of flying. That is fine. Most of these Fear of Flying Clinics or related books on fear of flying always recommend, amongst others, that the very fearful flyer meet the Captain of the flight in the cockpit. Since the September 11th attack, ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) has come out with a ruling that prohibits passengers from visiting the cockpit at any time. To overcome this problem, instead of the passenger visiting the cockpit to meet the Captain, I will now come to you to explain in this Web Site, everything you want to know about flying, with a hope that it will help to soothe your fears away!

As I have said earlier, one of the most important ways of allaying your fear of flying is knowledge. I will briefly discuss fears of flying and then cover more examples later on, mainly related to the Boeing 777. 

A passenger's fearful experience

Here is one of one of my experience. One day, a passenger traveling from Johannesburg to Brisbane was on my flight. It was reported to me that he was extremely nervous throughout the journey. He was full of anguish and anxiety in his facial expression. The flight attendant noticed his demeanor and asked what was wrong with him. He confessed that he was very fearful of flying, especially when the aircraft encountered turbulence and had to take the anti-depressant drug to calm him down. The drug did not work very well on him. After being informed by the flight attendant, I then invited him to the cockpit to see if I could do something to calm his fears by explaining to him everything he wanted to know about the flight.

He told me he was a bank executive and had once flown with an Airline in Australia that entered into very severe turbulence. He thought that he was going to die, and vouched that he would never travel with that Airline again. It took me sometime to calm him down as I explained to him the mechanics of flight, the various types of turbulences, the integrity of the Boeing aircraft structure and the capability of the engines in turbulent conditions.

He was very grateful after that and requested to be in the cockpit every two hours for a short duration to calm his nerves during the flight. I obliged and on landing, he apologized for his behavior and told me he was just as normal as anyone else on the ground. I felt good that I was able to calm one passenger that day and made him happy and less fearful of flying. I hope I have cured him permanently. We exchanged business cards and since then, I have not heard from him again.

Stimulus of Fear

Basically, fear of flying can arise from many stimuli. For example, remembering the experience of a previous flight like the one I mentioned above. Then you can become fearful because you have heard of very tragic stories of previous flying accidents, for instance, the deliberate crash by hijackers of the Boeing 757's and 767's into the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th, 2001.

Fear of flying can also be triggered by panic attack caused by such feeling as being claustrophobic. Then one can become a flying phobic as a result of traveling during a stressful phase of your life.

Other general stimuli that can contribute to fear in an airline passenger inside the airplane can be due to loss of control of emotion, embarrassment in the eyes of fellow passengers, loss of bladder or bowel control, feeling that the airplane would tip over or one would fall through the cabin floor and letting other passengers know one has to visit the toilet. The greatest fear among all these appears to be fear of turbulence which I will elaborate later.

From statistics, 35 % of the fearful flyers fear the airplane would crash. They are extremely vigilant. They would imagine that every little noise, vibration or a bump like the retraction of landing gears would lead to the airplane to crash. The main reason for feeling thus is that they are totally out of control of the situation.

Casey's Story

Casey is a close friend of mine but is not convinced that flying is safe. Here is his story...

"One day I was flying in a Boeing 737 and we entered into severe turbulence for a long while. There were no announcements made as to the cause of the turbulence except the standard, ' Ladies and Gentlemen, please return to you seats and fasten your seatbelts'. I was totally petrified and waited for the Captain to say something. None was forthcoming. I was very tensed and was still grabbing onto the seat belts very tightly, waiting and anticipating for the for the next bump to come before the aircraft finally landed. It was the most frightening flight of my life and I have no intention of ever flying again unless it is absolutely necessary."

I had to convince Casey that firstly, he was afraid of turbulence because he thought the airplane he was flying in would not be able to withstand the bumps of the turbulent ride. So in fact he was fearful of the integrity of the structure of the airplane. In reality, during the design of the airplane structure, every conceivable angles were taken into consideration and the designers had anticipated as to what would be the worst possible turbulent force that could break the airplane structure. That breaking force would be at least five times of the force that he felt in a normal turbulent flight. From the test rig, a Boeing 777 wing was stressed and bent up to 22 feet before it came apart


Secondly, I had to explain to him what caused turbulence. Turbulence is inevitable and occur naturally in various weather environment. It is just like having to travel by an Ocean Liner in the sea during a stormy weather. You cannot expect smooth sailing when compared to a calm day.

You can expect turbulence when that aircraft flies into any clouds. The severity of the turbulence would depend on the intensity of the cloud types and its sizes. The worst are rain forming clouds or the dreadful cumulonimbus. They are very active clouds with massive updrafts and downdrafts. So imagine flying an airplane into a mass of air that moves up and down at about 500 mph! No sane pilot would deliberately fly the airplane into a cumulonimbus.

Can the pilot see a cumulonimbus hidden by other clouds? Of course! They are visible hundreds of miles ahead of the airplane with the aid of the weather radar as something red in color on the computer screen. We pilots would take actions to avoid them by requesting clearance to deviate our routing to the left or right of the clouds. It is only when avoidance becomes impossible due to other conflicting traffic or when one flies in the vicinity between two cumulonimbuses that one has to tolerate the turbulence for a short duration. Pilots are mindful of the great discomfort caused to passengers and aircraft by such turbulence and take all precautions to avoid them. The air traffic controllers are often willing to allow deviations of the routings if they do not jeopardize the safety of other airplanes.

If avoidance is possible why there are injuries still caused to air passengers? Injuries to passengers are caused not because of the turbulence but by the fact that the seats belts are not properly fastened or totally unstrapped.

Besides the turbulences that the pilot can see visually outside or through the weather radar screen, there is another category of turbulence known as Clear Air Turbulence or 'CAT'. Tackling these can be a bit tricky by the pilots because they are invisible. Usually one can expect CAT from the weather charts provided to the pilots before flight. They occur in the vicinity of jet streams, a strong westerly wind found near the warm and cold fronts in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere.

Clear Air Turbulence

Clear air turbulence, as the name suggest is invisible. Therefore the pilot cannot see it other than from forecast from the weather maps or from reports of other pilots actually experiencing them. Pilots also get such information from the Air Traffic Controllers who receive such details from other airplanes.

Sometimes the effect of clear air turbulence can last for a long time especially if the aircraft is flying on a route that is inside the vicinity of jet streams. Possible steps taken by pilots include evaluating the various levels free of CAT by communicating with other pilots in their private radio frequency. Thereafter they would request for change of altitude from the Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) for a more comfortable ride.. If you are lucky, you may be able to be slotted and spaced between other aircraft. Remember, ATC will only allow the pilots to change to a level free of turbulence only if they can space the every aircraft at an interval of 10 minutes between each other. Otherwise you would have to grind your teeth and bear the discomfort until the turbulences subside!


Another cause that can lead to fear of flying is the feeling of claustrophobia the moment the aircraft doors are closed making the fearful passenger feel that he could not get off the plane. His fear is not about the airplane but in his mind, he is trapped and that something dangerous may occur and he has no control over it. When the phobic feels he cannot control the situation to stay comfortable, he will try to get more control. If that fails to materialize, the natural reactions of human beings are to fight, freeze or flight. These reactions are often exhibited by animals when confronted or cornered. For an air passenger, these reactions are not possible. You can't fight or run away. Instead you freeze, and this is manifested in a state of panic.

The way to overcome claustrophobia is to recognize it. Many courses and clinics on fear of flying teach the flying phobic that they are safe in the aircraft, and then gave them lessons on relaxation techniques.


Some people have fears about leaving home. This is what we call agoraphobia. His fear is proportional to the distance from his home. The further away, the greater the fear. In such situation, his agoraphobia must first be treated before he can be trained to overcome his fear of flying.

Human beings often create fear in their own mind with a lot of hypothetical scenarios. "What if's" are running through their minds triggering adrenaline flows faster than anything else. He thinks of negative thoughts like "The airplane is going to crash!" "I cannot survive this crash!". So the phobic must learn that his mind must be controlled, not the airplane.

Boeing estimates about 25 millions in the US are fearful flyers and at least one in five are less confident nail-biters when they board a passenger airplane. About two third of these are females and the other third are males.

Different Contributory Circumstances ...

Additionally, many people can identify many different circumstances that contribute to their fear of flying. They are things like as mentioned above, remembering a frightening experience of a previous flight, hearing stories about flying that arouse great fear in their mind, suffering panic attacks during flight and traveling during a stressful phase of their life.

A frightening experience is any experience that the mind decides is frightening. In reality, it might not be a problem, yet if the mind feels scared; the phobic will remember the experience as a dangerous one.

Let's say you are taking a commercial flight and the ride is smooth. Then the Captain announces, "Ladies and Gentlemen, soon we will be entering some rough weather. Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts". Simply hearing it may make your heart race immediately. Even though the plane is safe, you were frightened because you felt out of control of the situation.

Scary Stories

You can also develop fear by hearing scary stories about flying. This is a true incident that happened in one of my trip. One day, on a flight to Brisbane, I was shocked to see a First Class passenger bursting into my cockpit without permission, shouting very angrily, "Captain, how could you allow passengers to light birthday candles inside the cabin!! You are endangering my life!!" Sure enough, it was true. He remembered an incident many years ago when a pilgrim going to Mecca lighted a fire to cook something inside the aircraft. Unfortunately it actually caught fire and many perished. I had to pacify him that our modern aircraft allow one to light a cigarette lighter or a candle momentarily without endangering anyone's life.

Panic Attacks

Fear about flying can stem from feeling of panic attacks. Perhaps you are someone who has had panic attacks. Your first panic attack might, for example, have been just after a failed sales meeting or before giving a speech. Then slowly, but surely, the panic attacks start to occur. Most people who have panic attacks need to believe that, they can escape from the fearful place easily. This, unfortunately they could not. The only solution is to inform the flight attendants of their fears and talk to them to reduce their anxiety.

If you go through a very stressful period in life, your mind becomes vulnerable and more fragile to panic attacks. Since you don't get to fly the plane and don't get to get off whenever you want, you are then most vulnerable to the fear of being trapped inside the aircraft.

The tragedy of the events of 11th September 2001 has made airline passengers more conscious of the vulnerabilities of air travel. Fear of flying is a complex psychological effect that is not easy to be tackled but a good understanding of what trigger them can help to alleviate the problem.

Who are the fearful flyers?

Who are the fearful flyers? There is a misconception that fearful flyers are those who refuse to fly at all. Survey indicates that one in six air travelers are fearful flyers. Most of these travelers do not really consider flying really unsafe but were suffering from many different degrees of anxiety like increased heartbeats, nausea tic, heavy sweating and uncontrolled thoughts.

The risk of flying as applies to air accident has not changed. There were no accidents or air fatalities in the USA with any of the third generation aircraft like the Boeing 757, 767 (pre-September 11), 777 or the Airbus 330 or 340. But since September 11th, the flying risks as it applies to terrorism were atrocious. Terrorism can be felt anywhere, not just in the air. Even working in an office in the Twin Towers in New York, one is not free from the effects of terrorism.

More contributory causes of fear inside the airplane...

Sudden power reduction

I would like to further discus some circumstances in flying that can trigger fears to the uninitiated. One event to a new flyer in an airplane that depart from a major city is that, immediately after getting airborne, there is a mark reduction in the engine noise and the aircraft nose appears to drop down creating a feeling as though one is falling down.

This is normal. What the aircraft is doing is that it is executing a mandatory noise abatement procedure as required by law. This would require the aircraft to reduce the take off power from about 100 % to about 85-88% at around 1000 feet so as not infringe the noise level imposed by the City Council or Airport Authority over a particular residential area. The fact that power is being reduced automatically at this low height can be alarming to the new flyer when the nose attitude is being reduced due to the reduction in power.

The apparent feeling of falling is caused when the power is being reduced but it does not mean that the aircraft is dropping but merely a reduction in the rate of climb. A seasoned traveler would probably feel the normality of it but because the new traveler is hyper-vigilant, he will notice every motion, noise and behavior of this huge flying machine. He would also be very anxious to hear the thumping of the nose tires on the center line lights as the aircraft takes off and the noise of the landing gears retracting after airborne. All these are normal and unless one is aware of them, they can trigger fears that the airplane is unsafe.

Unusual Maneuvers

Hyper-vigilant flyers are also very mindful of every little movement of the aircraft especially when it is doing a climbing or descending turn to the left or right on a change of course. They imagine that the aircraft will rollover and dive to the ground.

Again, this fear is well founded because every climbing or descending turns makes one experience some form of gravitational pull on one's senses, like riding on a roller coaster or inside a high speed elevator. This is further aggravated by lost of control of the situation. It is just like sitting beside a driver speeding at 160 mph in a car. The driver is happily cruising along confidently whereas the passenger had great fears of possible collision or accident.

Besides the sensation of falling as a result of experiencing the gravitational forces when the aircraft maneuvers, hyper-vigilant travelers felt that the aircraft may lose control during such movements. In reality, the aircraft is designed to be very stable in a straight and level flight. It has a built-in stability that enable it to regain its normal horizontal state when it is accidentally banked to the left or right in flight. It is similar to driving a car. When you are turning and then let go of your steering wheel, the car will return to its original position. So the airplane will not lose control or tip over and crash.

In today's highly automatic flight system, the computer will not permit the aircraft to bank over a particular angle unless one deliberately disconnect the automation That will require some conscious force to effect any abnormal maneuvers.

Great Heights

Height can induce great fears to some air travelers. Most airplanes often cruise around 30,000 to 35,000 feet and such information is given by the Captain of the flight in his usual announcement to the passengers or displayed in the on screen monitors. That is about six to seven miles high. Hyper-vigilant passengers will imagine how frightening it would be for the airplane to fall off from such a height.

Realistically, it would be impossible for an airplane to fall off from the sky like a stone. Remember, the designer of the airplane ensure that, in the most unlikely event that the airplane stalls, the nose would drop down first like an arrow. As it dives, it would gather speed, thus creating lift on the wings and the airplane would stabilize and become controllable again. It would continue to glide even if all the engines are dead. At 35,000 feet, the planes is capable of gliding for at least 10 minutes and travel a distance of about 65 to 80 miles away to land safely if there is a suitable landing area at the end of the glide.

It is very difficult for an average air traveler to feel the effect of airflow in holding the aircraft airborne. Flying at a height of six or seven mile, one is amazed at the mechanic of flight yet fearful of its capability in holding the airplane aloft. One cannot feel the average speed of between 500 to 550 mph as the movement at great height is not apparent when compared to driving at 55 mph on the ground. It is the effect of the air particles or collectively, the airflow that keeps the airplane in the air. When you are driving at 100 mph, stick your hand out of the window with your palm stretch flat against the airflow. Now imagine the force that would be generated at 500 mph! That is the force that keeps the aircraft afloat. I will elaborate more on the aerodynamic of flight in the later topics.

Night Flights

Another cause of anticipatory anxiety about flying may be due to the question of traveling at night and over long stretch over water. To the pilots, flying by day or night makes no difference. In fact, flying at night has its inherent benefits. The air is generally calmer and therefore less turbulent and you are likely to get a smoother flight. It is also safer as one can see other airplanes at a greater distance allowing one to take any evasive actions if they are on a collision course. From a navigation point of view, the pilot is happy because landmarks stick out very clearly, not forgetting the bright runways that enable the aircraft to land safely.

Flying over long stretch of water pose no problems to the pilots. Airlines abide to stringent navigations laws that require their two-engined aircraft to operate within a particular distance from a certain suitable airport if they operate over a large expanse of water. This is to ensure that the aircraft is able to divert to the nearest airport within at least an hour should it suffer an engine failure. The airline have to comply with the extended twin-engined operations laws and so the aircraft is never more that at least an hour from a safe airport. In fact, with more reliable engines today, the laws have now allowed aircraft to fly further away from a suitable airport.

Unusual Noise and Pressurization Changes

Highly excitable passengers also interpret every squeaky sound or noise that comes through the cabin and subtle changes of pressurization felt through their ears as the airplane takes off or during the cruising phase of flight as a possible engine malfunctions. Such erroneous interpretations do contribute to their increased fear of flying. Such reactions are normal and unless they are explained, their fears may persist.

Minor squeaky noise as the aircraft accelerate during take off, especially on a runway that is slightly not well paved or rolling centrally over the center line runway lightings will produce some abnormal sound when trays and trolleys are not properly secured before take off. Such noise does not pose a safety problem to the aircraft in the take off. It was merely vibrations that shakes the not so well secured trolleys and the noise will diminish as the power are reduced after take off.

If you fly with a slight cold, any change of pressurization will be felt more easily than when you don't have one. This is because the ears cannot equalize the differential in air pressure as the aircraft climb to a higher altitude. Remember when you take a lift you can feel the pressure in your ears as the elevator climb to a higher floor in a high rise building. This same sensation is felt in the airplane but more distinctive due to the greater heights. Usually all airplane cabin are pressurized before take off and they are maintained at ground level pressure to up to about 8000 feet. Any power changes may sometime trigger a slight pressurization changes and they are very slight unless the Eustachian tubes in your ears are blocked by a cold.

Best Position

Where is the best position to sit in an airplane? In an air crash, there is no particular area which can be considered safer than any others. In terms of comfort where turbulence is concerned, it is smoother to be sitting near to the front, which is where the first class seats are located. Although safety experts have argued that a rear seat is the safest based on their reasoning that the black boxes are placed at the tail portion, a practical seat would be one at the aisle in front and near to an emergency exit.

Tips to reduce fear

A passenger can do something to reduce the onset of the fear of flying by doing many things prior to the flight. Most important of all, always be prepared well before undertaking the flight. Make a check list of all the important things that needed to be taken along and pack up at least a day before the flight. By doing so, you avoid the rush in case you forget something on the day of the flight. Rushing can cause great anxiety. Get to the airport early. Be in the check in counter at least two and a half hours before flight. After the September 11th attack, security checks are getting more stringent and longer than usual.

Before a long flight, ensure you have a good and nutritional meal. If you have not taken a meal for a long period, your level of blood sugar in your blood will reduce. In time of stress caused by fear of flying, the body burns off more blood sugar than when the body is in a relaxed state.

Learn to relax by deep breathing exercises. Breathe from the diaphragm. Alternatively, breathe from the belly, diaphragmatically. Inhale from the mouth or nose and fill your belly with air. Most of us have forgotten how to breathe properly. Look how a baby breathes naturally from the belly. As we grew older, we became lazy and we don't inhale enough. One way of checking how efficiently we are breathing is to place a hand gently above the belly button. The hand should rise when you inhale and fall when you exhale. Try and hold your breathe for about 3 seconds before exhaling.

Learn to control your mind with positive thoughts. Think about the pleasant journey that you are going to undertake. Remember these figures and statistics and believe in them! Flying is more than 10 times safer than climbing up the stairs at home, 21 times safer than driving in your car and that you will have to take a flight every day for 30,000 years before you are likely to encounter a fatal air crash. Do you feel better now?


It is hope that, with better knowledge and with increased and more stringent airport security checks, flying would be less fearful and safer than it had been in the past.


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As a fearful flyer, I have to thank you for this post. Knowing what's going on as the plane encounters turbulence or makes unfamiliar sounds is really helpful!
Abigail , 27 Dec, 2010

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