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

Updated on October 8, 2015

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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