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