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How to Get Over Your Fear of Flying
I'll freely admit to succumbing to the occasional turbulence-induced bout of white knuckles while flying. My fear, however, is a far cry from how debilitating and embarrassing it once was, largely thanks to an objective look at the physics and mechanics of modern-day aircraft and meteorology.
There is a flip-side to a no-nonsense look at flying, and that is that it does little to accommodate for the irrational. Not all cases of fear of flying stem from a misguided sense of danger. In many cases common phobias such as acrophobia and claustrophobia can catalyze and fuel panic. In these cases it can be difficult to separate pre-existing anxiety conditions that may need professional help (and I am certainly not up to the task) to resolve, from a rational root of anxiety. Getting over the fear of flying, therefore, may find it roots firmly on the ground.
This article is a personal attempt at retracing the steps that brought my uncontrolled fear back into a manageable state with the aid of statistics, facts and realities regarding the kingdom of the clouds.
Levels of Turbulence
Turbulence is generally classified into four types.
- Light Turbulence - In flight food and beverage services continue, slight tugging at the seat-belt.
- Moderate Turbulence - A solid strain at the seat belt, items can fall and become dislodged.
- Severe Turbulence - The strain becomes violent and painful, items are strewn around the aircraft. Ordinary in flight-services are rendered impossible.
- Extreme Turbulence - The airplane is being thrown around and is struggling for control.
Dispelling Air Travel Myths
Misconceptions about the relative danger of air travel has led to an epidemic of undue concern. In this section I will confront popular myths with reason and fact.
Turbulence can cause a plane to fall apart - Every commercial plane is built to withstand extremely severe turbulence, above and beyond your dreaded nightmare roller-coaster ride from hell. While turbulence can be dangerous, it isn't structural damage you should fear, rather, not having your seat-belts fastened!
According to the FAA, three in flight turbulence related deaths sustained from 1980 to 2008,(that's three deaths and close to 300 injuries in 28 years!) two resulted from passengers not having their seat-belts fastened. A sudden jolt can propel you headlong from your seat.
The vast majority of injuries were sustained by flight attendants due to their unrestrained movement inside the plane.
Air pockets - Perhaps the most bizarre myth is that of the air pocket. Commonly, and erroneously thought of as a patch of sky that a plane will fly into a quite literally "fall" into. Needless to say, there are no airless areas of the sky. The culprit of those feelings of "ups" and "downs" is quite simply turbulence.
When a downdraft or updraft (occasionally both together) buffet a plane, the feeling can be one of lifting or falling, giving passengers an alarming but ultimately false sensation of being trapped in a vacuum and tumbling out of control through the air.
The wings are wobbling, are they going to snap? - Watching an aircrafts wings flap always makes me a little nauseous. After-all, they do look so thin and flimsy.
The reason why wings flap is actually part of the design, so that they don't fracture. Airplane wings are stress tested at extreme pressures until they snap. The forces needed to snap an airplane's wing is not one that is encountered in your everyday trans-Atlantic trip (to put it mildly).
If you are concerned by the fact that your trip seems closer to that of a migrating goose rather than that of a regular flight, remember that things are proceeding exactly as they are functionally and mechanically supposed to. If the wing did not flap, the chances of "snapping" would be significantly higher.
Fear of engine failure - Part of a plane's certification requires it to fly safely (and even climb) with only a single engine working. Once again, these scenarios are tested, rehearsed and part of every plane's design parameters.
Bear in mind that even if the worst were to occur, that all the engines on a plane died at the same time, a plane is aerodynamically built to glide, and would not simply fall out of the sky! Pilots too, and not only planes, are trained to deal with these kind of scenarios both in simulators and in real planes.
If you would like to read about a real example of this kind of situation, refer to Air Transat Flight 236, one of many examples of planes successfully landing and coping with seemingly impossible scenarios.