From Smooth Takeoff to Bumpy Landing - Confessions of A White-Knuckle Flier

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Flying in Fear

My fear of flying was born the day I had a bad ride and a bumpy landing on the way to Pittsburgh. In the space of about ten minutes I became aware of my own mortality and my total lack of control over the situation.I was 27 years old at the time,on my way to a family wedding. As the plane made stomach churning drops that sent coffee cups flying and cabin crew scuttling for cover, it came to me in a blinding flash that I was held hostage in a cigar shaped metal object, hurtling through space 23,000 feet above the earth.

I was convinced that my fellow passengers were the people I would be spending my last moments on earth with. I wanted to scream, run away;, do something, but I was helpless. Frozen in terror,I endured until the turbulence subsided. Whatever the other passengers experienced that day, I left that plane a different woman, shaken to the depths of my soul by a new certainty.I was mortal--vulnerable--and eventually would certainly die, if not that day then someday, somewhere. That plane trip brought it all home to me viscerally on a very personal level.

It was ten years before I got up the nerve to fly again. The irresistible lure was a trip to Paris, a city I love and where I spent some happy student days. There was no other way to get across the Atlantic. I had to fly. I was terrified for weeks before the trip. I had a kind of mystical feeling that the minute I bought my ticket, the plane was doomed. I had frequent nightmares which always involved me in a plane going down in flames. In the airport, before boarding, I took a valium and had two martinis( on the rocks with a twist). With sweating palms and shaking knees I got on the plane and drank my way across the pond. Much to my surprise there was no mid-air collision and I arrived all in one piece at Charles DeGaulle Airport, exhaused, alive, and drunk out of my mind. It was on the return flight to New York that I began to think about my irrational fear and resolved to try to do something about it.

Conquering the Fear

I started giving my fear of flying some serious thought. Why did I expect to die every time I got on a plane? Why am I not afraid to drive my car in mid-town Manhattan or on a crowded interstate, which, statistically , is much more dangerous ?

The answer is that I feel more in control at the wheel of my car than in an aisle seat on a Boeing 747. My fear is not really about flying, It's about control. Aha, Eureka. It's not even real control, it's the illusion of control. The same illusion that makes me exercise, watch my cholesterol and take my vitamins in the belief that these actions can stave off the grim reaper.Dying is the ultimate loss of control. I had the misfortune to become aware of my mortality on an airplane, but it could have happened anywhere.

Armed with this knowledge, I set out to conquer my fear of flying. The first thing I did was to fly. Whereas before I would drive or take a train if I could, I now flew. I found that each successful flight lowered my fear level. I started with short, non-stop flights of no more than two hours. The first two or three were nerve racking but it got easier the more I did it. Over a number of years I graduated to longer international flights. Today I find flying about as comfortable as riding in a cattle car,but it no longer frightens me so much that I'd rather stay home.

Taking Control

The next thing I did was to read about fear of flying and to talk about it with friends. It is surprising how many people share this phobia, For almost all of us it isn't the flying but the lack of control that is the issue. Out of my reading and talking came some simple practical tactics for letting go of control that have helped me a lot. Here they are:

  • Once I make the reservation I make a conscious effort not to worry about the fate of the plane. i tell myself that it is wildly paranoid, given the number of planes that take off and land every day to assume that my plane will crash just because I am on it. I consciously visualize the plane landing safely in an effort to let go of negative thoughts.
  • I no longer drink or take tranquilizers before flying. Instead, I exercise control over my reading material and toys like mp3players, special pillows and eyeshades. It really makes me feel better. I carry an array of gums and candies too. If there is an in-flight movie I almost always watch it. Even if it stinks, it is a distraction.
  • My worst moments are always take-off and landing. I close my eyes and do a little deep breathing thing and count backwards from 100 in my mind. I focus on mentally helping the pilot land the plane( sounds silly but it helps) I suppose other people think I'm crazy or maybe they just think I am praying.Sometimes I am.

So these are my little mechanical tricks to combat my fear. I've been doing them for years and they really have helped a lot. Perhaps also, as the years have gone by, I have become more comfortable with the notion of my own mortality and that has also helped. I'll never be serene in the air, no part of me will ever set foot in a Beechcraft or Cessna, and ,no thank you, I'll pass on the flying lessons, but the next time a chance to go to Paris comes along, I won't have to think twice. I'll be on the plane before you can say bon voyage.

Here's What White KNuckle Flyers Have to Say

© 2008 Roberta Kyle

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Comments 40 comments

terrymill profile image

terrymill 8 years ago from Florida

Your solutions are just what they teach on www.fearofflying.com. The suggestion of visualizing yoursellf on a safe plane is very wise. Many fearful flyers have a movie in their head that involved the plane crashing. When the movie turns to a crash it is best to literally stop that movie in your head and force yourself to think of the plane flying safely. Visualization really helps wonders. Your hub is great.


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi Terry. I'll go visit fearoflying.com. It sounds great. I don'tknow where I got my solutions--prolly from books or other scardy cats in that long-ago pre internet ers--been depending on visualization for years to keep me sane in the air....thanks for reading and for the kind comment.


Rod Beglerf profile image

Rod Beglerf 8 years ago from Moving across Europe

Thank you robie for answering my request with so much details.

I like your view of the control, or illusion of control. It is true that while driving you're in control of your car. But you're certainly not in control of all the thousands of other cars around which can hit you at anytime...

Ooops, I hope this won't make you afraid of driving;-)


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi Rod-- I really had fun with this. Thanks for posting the request. You are right about control. It is the illusion not the reality that seems to do the trick. I feel safer in my car than in a plane but in reality I am not--I'd feel safer if I were flying the plane too--now there's a really frightening thought LOL--Notice the new me--I've changed my avatar on hubpages again--tradeed in the cherub for a sedate lady writer:-)


dafla 8 years ago

Robie, I had to fly 8 months after 9/11. I was terrified! The weather was so bad, and the wind so hard when we got to our destination, that we had to circle the airport for 30 minutes, because there was only one runway they could bring planes in on. The plane shook so hard, I thought it was going to fall apart. The cabin was totally silent, until we landed, when we all cheered and clapped. Every person without an exception shook the pilot's hand and thanked him. I have flown once since then, and it was pretty uneventful, but I'll never forget that one.


Raven King profile image

Raven King 8 years ago from Cabin Fever

I like your solution by imagining that you are helping the pilot. Thoughts really do have energy. :)


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Sounds pretty harrowing Dafla. The memory just lingers on, doesn't it yuk. Well, with the dollar in the cellar I won't be making any trips to Paris soon anyway--one has to look on the bright side LOL

...and Rafven KIng, I agree about the energy, that's what made me start doing it. I figured better to help the pilot fly than to worry that we were going to crash. Better positive vibes that negative ones dontchaknow.

Thanks to you both for commenting


Hanna 8 years ago

OH - I know the feeling!

who doesn´t? When I step onboard I sence the fear in the air. I´m sertain that everybody else is also expecting the last moments of life! But still we do it - WHY!

it takes me months to gather curage to buy a ticket, but after that I start to combat the fear,- with similar methodes. Crazy isn´t it!


pgrundy 8 years ago

Great Hub. Your suggestions are good advice for lots of other phobias too. Flying doesn't really bother me, but maybe it's because I hardly ever get a chance to do it. Thanks for another great article!


Lissie profile image

Lissie 8 years ago from New Zealand

Excellent hub - you've definitly taken the rational approach to deal with fear of flying. Repeating the experience is definitly the key: I used to be terrified of dancing in public - last weekend we did it again for the first time in a year - still cool with it - but that's after 10 years practice!

What should have been scary airline moment never happened for me - we had flowen , no stopover NZ-Singapore-London run from 1 terminal to another to just catch the connection to Ireland - we'd been flying or in airports for about 30 hours. We took off - were still in ascent and I was practically asleep - we did a steep turn - which felt wrong and the pilot came on and said we had to return to Heathrow because we had a mechanical problem - I distinctly remember thinking - I hope this won't take long - rather than are we going to die ROTFL!


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Still don't have your sangfroid, Lissie, but am workin on it:-) Can't imagine spending 30 hours in airports without ending up in a straightjacket. Guess its those pesky control and trust issues cropping up again for me LOL Thanks for the comment and btw I am an avid reader of your excellent hubs


Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

Great Hub Robie! I always find that if I decide to concer some fear it helps if I keep at it, and at it and at it...Now I'm an old boot at flying, at public speaking,....I loved your hub regards Zsuzsy


In The Doghouse profile image

In The Doghouse 8 years ago from California

robie

Great techniques for getting rid of all kinds of fears. I fly with a husband who manufactures airplane parts, every time we board he has to comment on the condition of the aircraft. I have never been afraid of flying, however this could be considered unnerving as such. I guess my fear of being mortal must be low, because I have the attitude, "Whatever will be will be." It drives my husband, the worrier, crazy! Great ideas for conquering any type of fear, thanks.


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks for reading suzsy and doghouse. I'm better at flying than I used to be--at least I'll do it-- but I'll never be one of those people who wants to get a pilots license LOL


sanssecret profile image

sanssecret 8 years ago from England

I didn't get to fly until I was in my forties. By then I'd managed to convince myself I was scared! Not quite sure how I did that?

But I loved it. It was only a short domestic flight, (in the uk so in the air less than an hour). And I was lucky it was sooooooo smooth. Much smoother than a bus or train.

Haven't had cause to do it again, but will be flying this year. Taking my grandkids to disneyland florida. Just hope the foreign air is as smooth as the home grown stuff!


Lili Dupré profile image

Lili Dupré 8 years ago from France

Dear Robie2: really enjoyed your writing! And I can totally relate to what you wrote about flying and the fear of dying- or rather, not being alive anymore. Carpe diem! Have a pleasant day.


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks for commenting, Sanssecret--have fun in the sun with your grandkids--And Lili, thanks for the compliment. I love your recipehubs. I like reading about food almost(but not quite)as much as eating it ;-0


WildwindE profile image

WildwindE 8 years ago from Western Slope of the Sierra Nevada, CA

Robie:

DITTTO! Excellent - I had to break from my sole control of the remote day to read my emails and found some comments that I just HAD to read. Which of course, as you know, led me to you. I had my husband's ear with your story, both of us laughing out loud; that's saying a lot because he is majorally A.D.D.

Kudos! Well done! Bravo - can you hear me applauding? Reminiscent of my own flying journeys.

Laurie B.


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks--glad you stopped by, Laurie. Always good to meet a fellow "aerophobe":-) Good we can laugh about it eh? Flattered that you read it to your husband. Hang on to that remote:-)


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 8 years ago

I've never been a fearful flyer until recently I've been taking Southwest Airlines flights that require me to change planes at Chicago Midway where the runways are too short. The landings there can be quite scary. Now that I think about it there were two other occasions. Once on a flight from Bogota into Ildewild about a half hour out of Idlewild the plane descended to a quite low altitude. No announcement was made as to why the plane had descended. I and other passengers became worried that the plane was losing altitiude. Finally, we learned that the plane's navigation equipment had failed and the pilot brought the plane down so that he could navigate visually. What a relief. On another occasion on a flight from Madrid to NYC with a stop in Lisbon, the flight was delayed for an extra hour or so without explanation. After we finally took of one of the flight attendants told us that the delay had been caused by an ETA bomb threat against the flight. We were delayed while the baggage was searched. We asked if they had found a bomb and were told no. Then we were treated to a flight to New York wondering whether the search had been thorough or had possibly missed something. Not a fun flight.


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

omygod Ralph--those are quite some travel tales. I admire your sangfroid. Thanks for sharing them.


Angela Harris profile image

Angela Harris 8 years ago from Around the USA

Robie, This brought back memories. Great hub idea and I really enjoy your writing style.

My second flight ever was on a tiny plane. We started to land, but the landing gear wouldn't come down. Because the plane was so small, we could hear all of the conversation between the pilot and the air controllers.

We kept circling and circling. I was looking down at ambulances and fire trucks racing toward the runway. We were being informed to get ready for an emergency landing when, bam, at the last minute the landing gear decides to operate properly.

Whew! But that was the only time I've had any true problems with flights, and that was many flights ago.


jooles01 8 years ago

This is a fantastic Hub Robie - and you're a great writer.

I didn't fly until I was 25 years old. Every time I fly I feel uncomfortable, but I manage.

A few years ago I took my son on a plane for the first time. I talked him through what was going to happen, what the experience is like etc. He usually reacts well if he knows what's happening - even with dentists, injections, the usulal stuff.

He suffered through his first flight with terrible back ache (he'd fallen on his back a few days before an hurt himself quite bad). There were three kids in the seats behind and they were jumping around, knocing the seat etc. They didn't stop when I asked them to. He'd also had a bad dose of flu that week so he suffered with his ears on the plane.

When we started the descent he was immediately aware of the 'falling stomach' which I'd explained about. he smiled as he knew what this was and recognised it. We descended into dense cloud over sunny Spain. It went on and on. We came out of the cloud just over rooftops on the edge of the runway. He screamed at the top of his voice 'we're going to crash, we're going to fast' and I did everything I could to reassure and calm him in those few seconds as we landed. Luckily everyone on the plane laughed and kindly reassured him too. If only I'd thought to tell him how fast we would travel when going in to land.

Despite all this his second trip abroand went really well. He's very comfortable in airports (he looks forward to mum setting off alarms, getting frisked etc - I'm just one of those people these things happen to) and I think he enjoys the flights somewhat too.

Here's to lots more safe journeys. Great article Robie. Well done.


Rey Marz 8 years ago

A fun article, very descriptive! Exposure therapy is a good way to triumph over fears. I'll fly when necessary (and I'll even use your tips for take-offs and landings) but I think I'll always have reservations.

I keep thinking, "If I'm in a car crash, my chances of survival are greater than if I'm in a plane crash."

I wish jetliners were equipped with parachutes the way drag racers are!


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

I'm with you all the way, Rey. Oh for a parachute:-) Thanks for reading and commenting.


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Jooles--thanks so much for reading and sharing your own flying stories. I'm so glad you liked this one--I'm really enjoying your hubs too. You are a great addition to Hubpages:-)


JazzRoc profile image

JazzRoc 8 years ago from El Medano, Tenerife, Canary Islands

Hi, this is a catchy hub - guaranteed to be a success in a world of aircraft packed full of eye-boggled freaked-out realists.

When the plane bumps up and down (that's when everyone's thoughts everywhere converge on their mortality) I've found the very best thing to imagine is that you're in a coach passing down a badly-made road just full of pot-holes.

Now, when was the last time you were in a coach that BROKE as a consequence of a pot-hole? Never? Good!

Now just imagine the aircraft's massive wing spars. They are designed to accept that constant pounding for forty thousand hours of flight - at least. And the specifications for construction are tightly controlled, tested and inspected by people who have been trained for years to do the job.

So, you're in a coach, bouncing down a road, and the coach is NEVER going to break.... Happy journeys!


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Ahhhhh if only iut were a matter of logic and not primative emotion LOL. Thanks for the explanationl. I think I will use that coach and pothole thing--a nice addition to my bag of self calming tips. Thanks :-)


VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 8 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

I will be flying soon, in August to FL as my sister is relocating from NY to Florida. I am not afraid of flying but I am of driving. As we know driving is not really needed in NY where I lived for most of my life, so I never drove; but being in the West Coast now, I have to take a deep breath and learn to drive. What frightens me is those huge, huge trucks and  goofy drivers.

Maybe, I can take your tip on doing what I fear the most, and just drive, even if its back and forth in our driveway. :)


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

I didn't grow up in NYC, but didn't drive for years after I moved there and my son, who grew up in Brooklyn, didn't loearn to drive until he was in his 20's--no need in a city with great public transportation. I don't blame you for being scared of freeways and big trucks.....trick is to start on the smaller roads and work up gradually as you build confidence. The trucks don't want to hit you any more than you want to hit them so it all usually works out fine. Good luck with the driving,VS, and enjoy your visit with your sister. Thanks for reading and commenting--always good to see you:-)


trish1048 profile image

trish1048 8 years ago

Hi Robie,

This brings to mind a flight I took a week after my hubby died. We had planned a trip to visit our best friends in Utah. In the midst of all the details, I asked the attorney what should I do with the tickets? He said, very kindly, take the trip. There is nothing more to be done here that can't wait a week.

So, off we flew, myself, 17 yr old son and 15 yr old daughter. We had to change planes in Houston, and we were going in for the landing. On the descent, not only was I losing my stomach, but the plane made these god-awful very loud noises. I had a death grip on my son's arm, and I was thinking, we're gonna die, we're gonna die,,,,,I was so shaken I called the stewardess over and said, what's wrong with this plane?? Well, she said, relax dear, that's just the engine doing what it has to do. We'll be fine.

We were, but it left a memory that has lasted over 20 years. I've only flown once since that time, and now choose to never fly again. I too would much rather drive 'imagining' that I am in control and nothing bad can happen to me. Odd, you think if you're going to fly, that, like you said, that plane, because you're on it, will be the one to crash, yet, when we think about driving, we think, we're invincible because we are in control.

A very good hub Robie with very useful tips. They'll be tucked away in my head should I ever have to or choose to fly again.

Trish


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Oh Trish-- what a lovely meaty comment. Thanks so much for this personal vignette. I identify totally with your experience--something about a sudden realization of mortality and lack of control. Of course it was there all the time, we just never knew, B.A (before airplane) Thanks for reading and commenting.


trish1048 profile image

trish1048 8 years ago

Hi Robie,

You're so right, we never knew. And thank goodness, I believe we were programmed that way, because who wants to think about that? In a way, we live in our own fairy tale, where we're supposed to live happily ever after. Hmm, maybe that's really what the 'ever after' meant? Some thoughts are better left alone. It's like the reality I had of my own mortality when I wrote victim of a crime, nothing like a gun at your head to show you just how mortal we really are.

I truly believe I have a guardian angel watching over me, so maybe I should keep that in mind as well should I decide to fly again :)

Trish


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi Trish-- I truly beieve we all have our guardian angels or whatever you want to call it--it's very useful to put my fate in their hands during take-off and landing. I recommend it highly LOL


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

I share the thoughts here of In The Doghouse when she says, "Whatever will be, will be."

Like Trish, I met my mortality at gunpoint. At that moment, my view of myself living forever was gone. The lesson I learned is that when it's time to go, it's time to go. And I have no control over that. This doesn't mean I do stupid things asking for it, it just means that whatever I do that isn't stupid doesn't guarantee an extra second of time spent on this earth.

I put my long-standing fear of flying to rest the moment I looked down the barrel of a Saturday Night Special. That was when I gave up the need to help the pilot fly, although I had been terrified of flying for the control reasons that you describe.

Nonetheless, I refuse to fly today. It's not because I'm afraid of taking off, being in the air, landing, and turning all control over to The Pilot, but because I refuse to have my privacy invaded by airport security guards. My Swiss Army knife is mine, it stays on my key chain, and I'm not putting it in my checked luggage. And my feet stay inside my shoes, unless I'm related to you.

Wonderful Hub, Robie2. You touched a lot of people with your honesty about the fear of flying.

Sally


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi Sally, and thanks for your very honest comments about fear of flying--very interesting. I must admit that between delays, cancellations, lost baggage, price increases and security issues flying has become about as attractive as going by cattle car. Oh for the days when I had only my own control issues to wrestle with LOL


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Hi Robie, I enjoyed reading your hub and your sharing about your fear of flying. I had to travel early in my life since I was sent away to a different city for schooling. I had to take the plane and the boat. The advice you have mentioned here are wonderful. May I share what I did when I got scared? I asked God to hold my hand. It worked for me many times. :-) Great hub!


robie2 profile image

robie2 7 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks for sharing, Ripplemaker. I too have asked God to hold my hand many times--and not just in airplanes or on ships LOL Like they say, "there are no aetheists in foxholes" Good advice and glad you liked the hub.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Until last Thursday, I used to breath a sigh of relief once the plane was off the ground.  Now I'll factor in flocks of birds hitting the engines right after take-off, and wait to relax until the seat belt sign goes off! (Also hope Sully or someone like him is at the controls.)  Other than that, I've never been scared to fly, altho one flight on (hopefully defunct) Frontier Airlines was pretty hairy.  So bumpy that when we *finally* landed safely at Albuquerque, every single passenger on this puddle jumper (me included) dropped to their knees and kissed the tarmac, then raised eyes and arms heavenward!  Not a single aetheist in that crowd either!


robie2 profile image

robie2 7 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

LOL jama-- just goes to show ya-- if God had meant us to fly he would have given us wings:-)

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