How to Overcome the Fear of Flying

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As a Pilot and Flight Instructor I have often been asked the same question: "Is flying safe?" After being asked many hundreds of times I sometimes feel like answering: "No it's terribly dangerous, you've got better chances if you try coal mining or fishing for crab off the Alaskan Coast, good luck with that!"

Now obviously I never actually say that, and as we all know flying commercial aircraft is one of the safest modes of transportation around but despite this many people have a fear of flying. Statistically speaking if you choose not fly because of the potential dangers than you would also have to give up walking, cycling, and driving. I know what you're going to say next: "But at least I'm safely on the ground when I do those things!" Well lets look at how planes fly (since I'm often asked that as well) to get a better understanding of what it means to be airborne.

In the discussions I have had with the many people who fear flying, I get the sense that the majority believe that an aircraft is always teetering on the brink of destruction, that any minor disturbance will send the whole thing plummeting to the earth. This is not the case at all. The wings of an aircraft are designed to fly through the air by the lift generated through a combination of;

Downwash: Air is deflected downward by the underside of the wing creating an equal and opposite reaction which pushes the wing upward and;

The Bernoulli Principle: Air rushing over the curved upper surface of the wing creates a low pressure area which causes a suction that pulls the wing upward. You can demonstrate this by holding a sheet of paper between your fingertips and bringing it up to your lips. The side that you are not grasping will droop downward until you blow over the upper side of the paper at which time you will notice the droopy end lift up.

Therefore, as long as there is air for the wings to fly through they will continue flying. This is even true for a worst case scenario where an aircraft loses all engine power. Gravity of course will cause the aircraft to begin to descend without the needed thrust, but the wings will still be producing enough lift for the aircraft to glide to earth in a controllable manner. There are several examples of aircraft landing without engine power, such as the occurrences at Gimli Manitoba, the Azores, and the Hudson River in New York City. These are three of the most dramatic events in aviation history and yet not a single life was lost! There were barely any injuries for that matter.

Another big fear that I have noticed affects many fliers is the fear experienced in turbulence. The thing to keep in mind is that what might feel like a terribly rough ride for the passengers is nowhere near what the aircraft itself is designed to handle. If you ever watch a stress test on a commercial airplane wing you will be amazed to see the wing be pulled to nearly vertical before the structure fails, it's absolutely incredible! Turbulence might feel uncomfortable but it's really nothing to be worried about.

As safe a mode of transportation as flying is, there still will always be accidents. The problem is that the media gets a hold of these stories and dramatizes them to the extreme until they are certain that everyone is sufficiently terrified. This grossly distorts reality and causes us to forget the tens of thousands of flights that safely take place everyday. It tricks us into believing that accidents are common events by constantly reminding us about the very few times that something went wrong. If they told you the story of every flight that took off and landed uneventfully you would probably be bored to tears and might feel safer in an airplane than you do on your couch, but their ratings would be horrible.

When it comes right down to it the world we live in is based on constant movement, and movement implies risk. So if you want to minimize your chances of getting hurt and maximize your chances for short term survival just don't move that much (ironically however this inactivity will lead to long term health problems). Remember even taking a shower is a relatively risky behavior. Now I know that all this rational thinking does not necessarily help someone overcome what they may very well know is an irrational fear. You can read me all the statistics you'd like about spiders and how 99% pose no danger to people and I'm still not going to like them all that much but I have learned that I don't have to smash them with a newspaper every time I see one on a wall. I now get them to climb on a broom and politely escort them outside. I'm not really sure where I was going with that analogy but I think you get my point. Happy flying!

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