Eddie’s Pre-Holiday Special for Nervous Fliers
“Cabin crew, take your seats for take-off”. Here we go again.
I am writing this on a plane, somewhere over Northern Bohemia. In an hour, I will be catching my connection in Warsaw, and in two, I will be enjoying Artie’s special dinner back home, after what has become my almost weekly aerial commute. With projects in three different countries taking shape, and having been able to mix in a well-deserved holiday, by the end of this month I will have taken 10 flights around Europe, spending at least 40 hours in planes and airports. That’s a full working week’s time spent in transit! Not bad for someone who, until very recently, has been famously afraid of flying.
Several years ago, this would have been unthinkable. I only flew when necessary, and each trip would turn into an epic quest. Getting jumpy at least a week in advance, and trying to remedy my obsession by micromanaging every aspect of the trip, starting with a written manifest of all the things that had to be packed, and ending with a minute-by-minute schedule of things to do before leaving the house. Then – the airport; then – the plane. A compulsory drink to steady my nerves. Dread upon take-off and several hours of clutching the armrest. In a word, torture.
Then, work projects started revving up, and I knew my flying situation had to be addressed. I started reading tips and tricks for nervous fliers online, and even looked up a “fly without fear” class taught by experienced pilots at the Prague airport crew training centre. For most part, though, I chose to soldier on and fly as often as I had to, ignoring the ever-increasing stress. I was a grown woman after all, and irrational fears were… well, childish. Some breathing exercises and an extra glass of wine here and there would surely fix it.
As one might expect, my plan did not take long to backfire. I was usually fine on short, uneventful flights, although subconsciously, I was always counting the minutes. Then, one morning in early 2012, I hit rock bottom.
It was not a good day to be flying, by any standards. We were about to leave Rome, just days after a little snowfall literally paralysed all traffic in the area. A rather powerful earthquake had hit a nearby region that same morning, and all the screens at the airport were constantly looping footage of the rubble and the fire-fighters helping the wounded amidst general unease of the staff and the passengers. Our departure was delayed. I boarded the plane, grabbing Artie’s hand every five minutes, mentally preparing to get it over with and be home soon. But instead of the standard security drill, the senior attendant came on the intercom and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the delay in our flight today. We will have to wait a little while longer, though, since we seem to be having trouble starting one of the engines.”
Dear cabin crew who might be reading this: it’s a really, really bad idea to tell your passengers things like that before take-off.
The message was enough to knock me out of my fragile state and into a proper panic attack. I was so adamant about getting off board, Artie had to call a flight attendant, and have her pour me a full plastic cup of wine. After she saw me, she did not protest, and actually watched me down it. Then she sat with us for a while, reassuring me that the aircraft was airworthy and listing all the places they had flown it that day.
The effect was short-lived. We took off, and about an hour into the flight we were hit by some moderate turbulence over the Alps. The on-board service got discontinued as the pilot started descending to a lower altitude, and my adrenaline spiked again. This time, however, it was panic mixed with alcohol-fuelled paranoia. I was certain we were going down, but I had completely lost all sense of time. I just remember doing the breathing exercises I had taught myself, and frantically staring at the minute hand of my wristwatch, trying to overcome the conviction that it’s been hours, not minutes, in this state.
Shortly after landing, I landed in a therapist’s office.
I was lucky enough to meet a therapist whose husband was actually an airline pilot. She understood my concerns, and did a good job of getting to the underlying roots of the fear of flying: it is not about the measurable dangers that can be explained away by logic and statistics, but rather about the perceived loss of control over our situation. Although her general recommendations, such as “relax and let go of the things you cannot influence” did not do much for me, one discovery from that session did resonate: if ignored and bottled up, the unresolved fear and stress would amplify, and I would have another panic episode sooner or later. So if the standard methods of “sitting back and relaxing” were not going to cut it, I needed a plan that would work for me.
This is what I did.
Step one: if you can’t beat them, join them. When you know what triggers your fear, the intuitive response is to avoid it. Avoid reading or watching the news about aerial disasters. Pretend you are not on a plane (how???). Listen to music or watch movies to distract yourself. Problem is, for me, these strategies were exactly what made things worse. I have an analytical mind, and I don’t function well in an informational vacuum. I need to know what is going on around me. I need to understand the reasons behind everything. So I decided to embrace my fear, and exhaust it, until it could no longer sneak up on me.
Worried about a recent plane crash? Read everything about it, to the last detail. Understand why it happened, and why it will most probably not happen to you. Worried about your plane or airport being blown up? Choose smaller regional airports with tighter security. Won’t hurt. Unnerved by not hearing or seeing what is happening around you? Take a window seat, over the wing, so you can see the flaps at work during takeoff and landing. Ditch the earplugs and listen to the normal flight sounds. Plus, you get a bonus of sitting by the emergency exit. Oh wait, they don’t put panicky freaks like us by the exit, do they (we might get a sudden urge to take a walk outside at cruise altitude)? Well, I knew I would feel much safer in that seat, so I’d have to fake it ’till I make it.
Step two: regain control. After I’d taken the small but important steps towards making myself more comfortable on board an aircraft, I started working on my control issues, but instead of “letting go”, I firmly took charge. We were just getting serious about our sailing at that time, and the training in navigation, aerodynamics, and weather patterns has been invaluable. I still cannot fly a plane (though that is the ultimate goal), but I now have a pretty good idea what is happening at all times.
I now know that, as the safest place for a yacht is in the open sea, the safest place for an aircraft is in the sky. I understand through first hand experience that if a 10 ft wave will do nothing to a 36 ft fibreglass boat, the light turbulence of passing through the cloud cover or a gust of wind will certainly do nothing to an Airbus. Both of these things feel pretty similar on a yacht and on a plane, by the way. More importantly, I am familiar with the weather phenomena, and I can see and identify cloud formations from miles away. At night, close to airports, I can identify other aircraft by their navigational lights. I have also become much better at reading maps, and sometimes, when the weather is good, I can see and identify landmarks down below. It puts me at ease, and I no longer need to “distract myself” from flying, and I fly sober.
Sailing has been instrumental in conquering my fear of flying, and, as a cherry on top, soon after we passed our skippers’ exams, Artie and I went for a flight in a Cessna 172, with him co-piloting the aircraft. As scary as it was in the beginning, it was an even more reassuring experience.
Step three: reward yourself and enjoy. In the beginning, joining a frequent flier programme seems like a flawed-logic reward: I endure flights (which I don’t enjoy), to get more flights (which I still don’t enjoy). However, even if we don’t like to admit it, there is a little Pavlov’s dog in all of us, and soon you get hooked on collecting the little miles, and getting the little perks like complimentary upgrades and lounge access. And, of course, flights tend to be more enjoyable when they are free.
Finally, although I still can’t say I am a big fan of flying, and I still get worried at times, I have found aspects of it that I find rewarding. After the flight in the little Cessna, I became passionate about taking aerial photographs, even if it’s just a quick snap on my phone (I still love the window seats). You can see some of these here, and there are more to come from our upcoming holiday!