I’m what you’d call a nervous flier, but it wasn’t always this way.  Travels in my childhood and youth often involved air transport with nary a hint of trepidation that I can recall.  Later, in college here in the Midwest, I met a fellow student who was from Washington state.  He was so fearful of flying that he took the train every time he returned to the Evergreen State.  That’s 38 hours of travel one way, when a flight could have gotten him there in less than four.  I thought he was crazy.

Still, at some point, something changed.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when or why, but it did.  Now, I’m no B.A. Baracus. I don’t need to be drugged, hypnotized, or violently rendered unconscious to fly.  I simply get nervous, particularly during takeoff and landing, whenever there’s more than the tiniest shudder of turbulence, and anytime I allow myself to think about the fact that I’m six miles above the safety of terra firma in a hollowed-out bullet that’s hurtling along with no supportive strings attached from above and no safety net below.

On the Travel Architect Scale of Aviation Agitation®, I usually come in around a seven, though the scale can be misleading because the number can vary depending on several fluid factors.  The biggest of these by far is the severity and frequency of turbulence, but my angst is influenced by several other variables as well: the presence of anything other than perfect flying weather; the existence, intensity, and duration of strange engine noises; whether we’re flying over open ocean (freaky!); whether they had to fix any mechanical problems right before takeoff; the number of hijackings in the news in recent months; whether there are any shifty-looking Richard Reid types aboard; how young and inexperienced the captain looks; the distribution of overweight people across the plane; whether we’re flying on a Friday the 13th; what my horoscope said the week before; and so on.

Used for flight attendant empathy training worldwide.

As an aside, at some point, Delta® decided to use “rough air” in place of “turbulence” during its preflight safety demonstrations. (Yes, I pay rapt attention during those.)  More than likely, some study revealed that this terminology was less upsetting to passengers, but I for one am not mollified by this lexical switcheroo.  Bumping up and down in a metal tube shooting through the troposphere always elicits stark and vivid visions of out-of-control spinning and nose-diving to earth (terminating in a fiery explosion if I’m feeling particularly morbid), no matter what you call it.

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Anyway, I never like hearing about air disasters, but I especially don’t like to catch wind of them when I’m within spitting distance of my own plane ride. As luck would have it, this confluence of airplane malfunction (late last month!) and imminent air travel (later this month!) just happened. I’m talking about the recent United Airlines® flight in which the engine exploded, scattering important chunks of airplane over the greater Denver area like confetti at a surprise party—nah, too gentle—like unguided iron bombs during the Blitz.

Just another day in The Mile High City. Source: bloomberg.com

Yes, yes.  I know.  The emergency landing was successful and nobody got hurt—even on the ground.  As the husband pointed out on our recent podcast episode, the pilots stayed calm and some freakishly brave passengers even jumped on the next available flight.  (Yeah, ok, they were headed to Hawaii.  I can’t blame them.)

“Nice lawn ornament, Ted.” “Thanks. It’s from the SkyMall catalog.” Source: ksltv.com

Still, I can’t help but imagine all the what-ifs. What if they’d been over the middle of the ocean? What if the engine fire had engulfed the plane? What if the other engine had faltered? And most importantly, what if the same thing happens on my upcoming flight?!?!

Photo by Francisco Echevarria on Pexels.com

Fortunately, I have a few coping mechanisms I rely on which, while they don’t completely eradicate my anxiety, have at least enabled me to keep flying the friendly skies and avoid 38-hour train rides.

The first occurs in the weeks and months leading up to the flight: strict avoidance of any and all cinematic depictions of plane crashes.  Think Sully, Alive, and Castaway, among others.

Even if I were never to fly again, I would not watch this movie. Source: Prime Video

Next comes takeoff.  This fraught event, in which my heart rate and the engine noise increase in tandem, requires several things to keep me from hyperventilating.  First and foremost is music.  While I often go for my “Calming Music” playlist, I find that my “Ethereal Desert” catalog of ambient tunes also does the trick.  Next, I grab the hand of my traveling companion in a vice-like grip.  When traveling solo, I resist touching the stranger next to me and clutch the armrest instead.  In either case, both hands have fingers crossed for luck. (Fact: it’s not a superstition if it works. Pro ballers will back me on this one.)  For those intense seconds when the craft is at maximum speed on the ground and then lifts off, my eyes must either be closed or I must be gazing straight ahead, David Puddy style, at the back of the seat in front of me.  No looking out the window, which I’ve made sure is at least one, and preferably two seats away from where I’m sitting.  All of these self-soothing behaviors can cease the second the plane levels out and the captain turns off the fasten seatbelt sign, though sometimes the husband breaks free of my death grip before then in an effort to restore his circulation.

Source: youtube

After that it’s simply a matter of keeping my mind occupied for the duration of the flight, for which I carry a selection of entertaining books and appropriately challenging crosswords.

Required blurb so I don’t get sued: Bill Clinton does a crossword puzzle on a plane from Sioux City, Iowa to Chicago. (Photo by © Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images). But I’d like to add: great minds think alike!

But what of “rough air,” you ask?  Good question.  I find that at any level above mild shaking, even the most engaging book, the most satisfying crossword, the most soothing music are not enough to combat turbulence-induced terror.  Even a great movie is no use. It’s taken some trial and error, but I’ve discovered that what provides the most distraction is something I usually go to great lengths to avoid: math.  Specifically, two- and three-digit multiplication problems.  As such, I make sure to have blank paper at the ready—usually the backs of photocopied crossword puzzles.  Fourth grade math problems made up on the fly, it turns out, provide just the right amount of cortical stimulation and mental wrangling to keep me from fully noticing that the tin can I’m cruising in at 30,000 feet has turned into a bouncy castle.

Terror-busting computation

My most potent coping method, though, only works on overnight flights and is a wee bit controversial: prescription sleeping pills. I strictly avoid the insidious capsules every other day of the year, but won’t be without them on international air travel: Board your evening flight, eat dinner, popping your drugs with last few gulps, wrap that bizarrely-shaped support pillow around your neck, and you’re in dreamland—often until just before landing.  In fact, turbulence encountered during your hazy slumber will feel less like a pre-plummet death shake and more like a soft hand gently rocking you back to sleep.

Finally, for the descent to the airport, I just reengage my takeoff coping mechanisms, but the need is mitigated somewhat by the excited anticipation that comes from arriving at my destination.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get entirely comfortable with flying, but with a burgeoning Dust-Farm-Pail list of travel adventures just waiting to be had—not to mention scores of other places I want to see and experience around the world—I’m just going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  And if that fails?

Valium.


So where do you fall on the T.A. Scale of Aviation Agitation?  Do you have any other anti-anxiety tricks I could try?

Update: I Hereby Rescind My Earlier Post on Air Travel

51 thoughts

  1. I’m probably 0.5 or severely chilled about flying but maybe this is because I only fly on airlines which my previous employer(one of the world’s largest reinsurers) was prepared to reinsure.

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  2. On a scale of 10, I am somewhere along with single digits. Although, I was never anxious about stepping on the aeroplane that changed once we started travelling as a family and brought Ericeira on all the trips. Learning about aeroplanes and how they are designed to handle turbulence and other things helped me a little bit with “what if?” catastrophic thoughts. Take care xxx Aiva 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I’d say I’m maybe a 4-5. Like you, I’ve gotten more nervous in recent years, mainly during takeoff and landing. One flight in particular a few years ago made it worse… in which there was so much turbulence I felt like I was riding a jackhammer. It was awful.

    That engine explosion event was frightening, although I do find some comfort in knowing that planes can fly with 1 (or actually even 0) engines and that pilots are trained to handle such events. I have a friend who is a pilot and he once explained to me all the scenarios he had to train for in flight school. But I think, no matter how much I try to rationalize things, that some level of nervousness is probably normal.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Like a jackhammer. I like that. I’m going to use that the next time I describe our flight to NYC many years back. Scariest flight ever. Ever since then, when I’m flying to Europe and have several choices for which place to have a layover, I always avoid laying over in NYC or the surrounding area.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d say I’m a 4, it’s my stomach that doesn’t like the travel more than my nerves. My biggest fright though came on an Air Ethiopia flight. We went with them to save money, but when I got to my seat I recognized all of the 1970 media equipment and realized why the flight was so cheap, the plane was that old! It was New Year’s Eve and the plane was decorated in balloons. About 20 mintues into the flight a balloon exploded. I thought I was a goner, but it was just a balloon and a few hours later we safely landed. But I haven’t been on Air Ethiopia since! Maggie

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can imagine the fright. Popping balloons have the capacity to startle people (that is, me) on the ground! We’ve been on an Air France plane that was pretty old and decrepit, but it sounds like yours was much worse.
      I wouldn’t be too comfortable taking that landing into Nepal like Richard did, either.

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      1. It’s a very scary landing. Richard and I did it together in 2018. The rock wall at the end of the runway is very close to where the plane stops!! But the take off is crazy because the runway is downhill toward the edge of a cliff!!!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I have a fear of flying too, especially with takeoff. What I do is use lavendar essential oils and also distract myself with a book. My favourite things to read during take off are feminist poetry by Lang Leav and Rupi Kaur. If I can get an herbal tea to take on the plane, I do that too. Peppermint is my personal favourite

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  6. And what about riding in automobiles? Unless there is turbulence on a plane, I’m usually fine and Looove looking out the window. But sometimes it occurs to me while driving that a small tic of movement can tumble me into disaster, and try not to think about barreling down a road at breakneck speed. Doesn’t that bother you?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Honestly, I think it’s a case of experience trumping knowledge. I know the facts about airplane accidents vs car accidents, but even though I’m much more likely to get into a car crash, I have 35,000 crash-free car rides in my life (I’m guesstimating here) working against that knowledge.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This post made the Hubs and me laugh out loud! A lot. I can completely relate to this deep within my soul. I despise take off and also rely on the death grip. Typically, he puts his hand in front of me as a much appreciated sacrifice. Otherwise, the armrest is about to get crushed. Landing and I have a love/hate relationship… I know it’s almost over, but we still aren’t on the ground yet. Most evil pilots ever are the ones that make drastic drops on the descent. Yet somehow, rocketing through the air in a private plane that’s a fraction of the size didn’t phase me one iota. I suppose it helped that I was staring at the pilot as he offered me a mini bottle of wine.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you – that made my day! Bottles of wine surely help. I’ve only ever taken one small plane (in Belize) and I’m sure I was somewhat nervous, but looking down at the transparent azure water below us took my breath away and probably awed me out of white-knuckle fear. Still, safely on the ground at home, I always declare that I don’t like small planes because they seem to be the ones involved in the most accidents (by my own reckoning, that is, not by some official stat).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Too bad we can’t go back to the obliviousness from childhood… I remember floating above Asheville, NC with my grandfather piloting the tiny 4-seater plane, spinning around like a roller coaster without a care in the world!

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I’m at 2 or 2.5 on the scale you mentioned; I got so used to flying so much when I lived abroad in Europe and not only was I traveling frequently on planes from European country to country, but also back and forth between France and the US every winter and summer break that I didn’t think much of it– heck, jet-lag didn’t even faze me after a while! I can understand the turbulence, though, as I do get a bit nervous if the rocking becomes a lot more-violent than what I’m used to…but I tell myself that the pilots know what they’re doing and that if the flight attendants aren’t freaking out, then there’s no reason to be worried. Hope we can have (safe) flights to look forward to once the pandemic subsides!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Maybe that’s the key – I just need to fly more frequently. Desensitize myself. Yeah, I sometimes look at the flight attendants’ calm faces as a way to gauge how freaked I should be. But when they buckle in due to a captain’s order (no matter how calm they look) I always start to freak out. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thankfully I do not suffer from any flying anxiety, but I do look twice when the pilot welcomes us onto our little plane and he looks like he hasn’t even started shaving yet! But maybe that is just me getting old! 😉 Actually, pre-911 our daily flight to Sydney was in a little 8-seater plane and when it was fully-booked you had to sit next to the pilot!! His safety briefing was short and sweet – DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING! 🙂 😉 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I used to be a bit like you! Flying business class helps with anxiety and sitting near emergency exit and always an aisle seat ! Choose best airlines with modernist fleets. on take off recall that flight on Air Nepal flying into Lukla pilot on manual and breathe sigh of relief you are on Emirates A380 with 300 channels of entertainment!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. The “nah, too gentle – like unguided iron bombs during the Blitz” part is hilarious.
    It really sounds like you have hard times when you’re on board, but all these coping mechanisms and having “to get com

    Liked by 3 people

    1. comfortable with being uncomfortable” is another wisdom that I will consider.
      I, myself, prefer a 10 hr car ride over a 1 hr plane, and already did that more than one time before. But that’s because I don’t like to deal with flight attendants.
      On the other hand, I really enjoy take off and landing.
      Btw, the “What if” thoughts reminded me of a great movie that’s called Mr. Nobody. It can keep you busy next time on board better than math! But be ware as it may make you want to kill yourself at the first.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Great post! I’m about a 7 too. Takeoff makes me nervous, then I actually enjoy the flight. I actually WANT a window seat! It’s the airport beforehand that triggers my freakouts. I’ve been known to melt down at an airport even when things are going smooth and there’s no apparent reason. Due to my airport anxiety, I haven’t flown much in years.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. 😅 … Yes, I’m laughing … but not at you, at myself! You’ve just described myself 100% in your post!
    I’m a definite 7 (even an 8 on a good … or is that a bad day?) I’m normally the one that will ask if there is a train or bus before looking at a plane! And sitting right here at the bottom of Africa, we need to fly to get somewhere 😳.
    Great post and although a fearful topic (for me), it was really enjoyable!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I really enjoyed this post ! I can relate so much to this . I travelled quite frequently as a child and never had an issue until my early teens when I experienced some really bad turbulence . I avoided flying for a few years which made my anxiety even worse. I’d say I’m now usually between a 6 and a 7 on the scale. It really depends. I find myself to be calmer, the more frequently I fly.

    Liked by 1 person

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