Your heart is racing, the adrenaline pumping and your thoughts have gone into irrational overdrive – oh yes flight anxiety is surely messing with your mind. Yet despite this most of us will still get on that plane in order to get to our destination. Why is that? Because deep down we are rational people and rational people know that the chances of that plane going down is minuscule, yet we tend to focus on that remote chance like it’s a sure thing.
Anyone who has ever experienced flight anxiety knows that it is not a pleasant thing to endure and I have witnessed people within it’s grips – people shaking with all their being, sweating so profusely that they are in need of fluid resuscitation, clutching that paper bag for dear life and downing alcohol like nobodies business. I have to admit that even I was once a very nervous flyer and strangely for me, it was something that came out of the blue as I had always been fine with flying. These days and after many flights, I have learned to overcome my fears by getting myself familiar with planes and employing some distraction techniques.
So here are some tips for the nervous flyer that I have found very helpful for me. Firstly, lets get familiar with planes, pilots and plane noises, as once you understand these you will be in a much better frame of mind to be able to put some techniques into practice.
Is this plane safe?
Can I trust this plane? Is this plane safe to fly? I’m quite sure that these very questions have crossed the mind of every passenger at some point or another and these are fair questions to ask. So what is it that drives our fear? Put simply – a lack of knowledge – most of us can’t even get our heads around how a plane even works, it’s all a mystery as to how this flying contraption even gets into the air!
So how do we know a plane is safe to fly? Firstly planes go through an incredible amount of testing before they are deemed safe to fly the public anywhere and each plane must pass strict government standards. Without getting too involved with the technicalities, there are a few things you should know about planes that will make you feel a little more confident in flying.
- New jet airliners are required to have between 1300 to 3000 hours of air testing before it is even allowed to fly the public. So you are never going to fly with a plane on a true “maiden” flight – that plane has been tested in the air, over and over for anything that might go wrong.
- Jet airliners are tested for extreme weather conditions – temperatures that you are never likely to ever experience. When was the last time you went out and it was 120 degree celsius? Never? Or what about if the world suddenly plunges into another ice age? Could a plane fly safely through an extreme ice storm? Maybe they could, if those conditions were to actually happen, so the next best thing is simulation. New jet airliners have been subjected to these manufactured conditions (such as ‘icing’ the engines) and have shown to continue to function under such severity.
- The weight bearing load the wings can endure is 150% times more than is actually ever likely to be experienced by a plane in extreme conditions. The chances of wings coming apart during turbulence are extremely remote.
- Jet airliners are required to have regular scheduled maintenance. This is serious business, safety procedures are checked prior to scheduled flights and be rest assured that they will ground that flight if an issue is found. That plane will not fly until the issue is rectified, even if that means delaying your flight. As inconvenient as it is, if this happens to you then be confident that this airline will not compromise on safety.
Pilots are trained to deal with emergencies! Whilst you are boarding the plane, pilots are required to review emergency procedures prior to take off – that means trouble shooting anything that could possibly go wrong during take off and again at landing. These pilots are carefully assessing conditions throughout the flight. Pilots are trained to deal with any unexpected issue that may arise to ensure you land safely on the ground. That includes dealing with engines out or in rare cases of all four engines out. Think back to the Hudson River landing where the plane was successfully glided down by Captain Chesley Sullenberger after the plane struck a flock of Canadian Geese, which took all four engines out. Just to keep a little perspective here – having all four engines out is incredibly rare. A jet airliner will not suddenly fall from the sky or nose dive at great speed if it’s engines are out, instead pilots take manual control of the plane and glide it down to a suitable place to land. In fact it’s not solely the engine that keeps a plane in the air, that helps to gain altitude (called thrust) but what keeps a plane in the air is what is termed ‘lift’. Lift is the air that moves around the specially designed wings. As long as there is air moving around the wings and altitude the plane will stay airborne.
What’s that noise?
Planes make lot’s of strange noises, noises that we are unfamiliar with, this makes us feel unsure. These noises may sound different or a little confronting but bear in mind that they are in no way a sign of a planes inability to fly. No … that wrenching noise is not the sound of a wing about to fall off!
Here are some common noises you should expect to hear when flying.
- Testing the air-conditioning prior to the engine start up will have a whirling or windy sound.
- As you begin the taxi down the runway you will hear the wing flaps being extended.
- Upon start up you will hear the loud engine noise as it gains power from an idle position. Once it is in full throttle mode it will become increasingly louder as it gains speed.
- The overhead luggage compartment may rattle and shake on takeoff.
- There will be a constant engine hum throughout the flight until you have landed.
- When the plane is ready to land, the landing gear will be opened and once again the wing flaps extended – often this will be quite a loud thud or grating noise.
Turbulence is another aspect that puts fear into passengers, once again because we don’t understand it. At some point on the flight, you will experience some turbulence and this is normal. Going through different air currents (this is what people refer to as air pockets) will not cause the plane to suddenly fall from the sky. If a plane is moved out of position it will naturally try to return to that position. Most of the time the plane will only lose around 10 to 40 feet of altitude – I know it’s hard to believe as it does feel like it’s more. If the weather is a little more extreme, the plane can endure this, even lightening strikes. The wings have the ability to flex in order to cope with extreme conditions. Your pilot has been trained to deal with turbulence and does so on each and every flight that you wouldn’t even be aware of.
Pilots know when they will hit turbulence through studied weather reports, cockpit radar and from reports of planes in the area. As a result they will do their best to avoid the area. Pilots will switch on the “fasten seatbelt” sign for the slightest amount of turbulence for your safety inside the plane rather than what’s happening outside the plane.
So what do you do when you encounter turbulence – remember that you will be uncomfortable for a few minutes and that’s okay, it doesn’t mean you or the plane are in danger. Try a few of the following tricks to help calm your nerves.
Talk to the staff
It’s a good idea to tell one of the flight attendants that you are a nervous flyer and perhaps ask to be seated up the front or near the flight attendant station. If you have alerted a flight attendant onboard about your fears they may come and check on you throughout the flight or they may even sit with you when the flight takes off.
If take off’s are something that has you feeling a little unsettled then the use of distraction is good at this point. Read a book that you have already started that will have you engrossed. Listen to some music that relaxes you – put on the headphones and turn the music up. If you are travelling with friends maybe just talking with them as the plane takes off will help to distract you and they may even help to allay your fears. The use of imagery to shift your thoughts away from the flight such as imagining being at your destination. Looking at photos of your destination or even better – reading a travel guide and planning what you are going to do when you get off the plane. Most airlines offer in flight entertainment so watching movies, series or playing games is another way of taking your thoughts far away.
Shallow and rapid breathing are typical signs of stress or panic, causing hyperventilation. Just slowing down and controlling your breathing is a good technique for keeping your heart rate from racing, it reduces the release of the stress hormone and ultimately promotes relaxation. We are fortunate that we are able to deliberately control our breathing and the goal is to take deep, long controlled breaths from our abdomen rather than our upper chest. Close your eyes to promote a greater sense of relaxation whilst you are practising your deep breathing.
Pre-read or watch safety procedures
For those people who are in denial that they are even on a plane and for those who switch off during the safety demonstration because hearing the word “brace” sends your flight anxiety to another level, then you need to pre-read or watch safety procedures before your flight. Your safety is very important and you should know what to do if something were to happen, even if it’s a minor incident.
If you recognise yourself here then perhaps before you fly, check online for videos of your airlines safety procedures. You can watch these at home before your flight. This way you will be in comfortable surroundings and you will know what to do prior to flying.
Below is an awesome safety video from Virgin Atlantic that is presented in a fun way that will have you watching right to the end and of course you will be totally up to date with safety procedures.
If you don’t like watching the plane take off then perhaps request an aisle seat when you check in. There are a couple of schools of thought on where to sit. Some people will say that you will experience less turbulence if you sit up the front, while on many pilot forums they will tell you that if you sit near the wings you will have a smoother ride as the wings are the centres of lift and gravity.
Need to see a seat map? Click here for the Seat guru.
Give yourself a talking too! This actually works if you aren’t too worked up with fear and I do this myself on each flight I take.
Remind yourself of the reality. When you are cruising above 35,000 feet in the air there is little you can do about anything that might happen. Worrying is not going to make any difference to the flight that is underway. Tell yourself if something were to happen then you will deal with it at the time and not before. Then put your thoughts to the back of your mind, tell yourself to relax and employ your distraction techniques. For me it’s reading or watching the inflight entertainment, for others it may be listening to music, playing a game or just talking to the person next to you.
There are a number of natural remedies on the market that promote relaxation.
- Chamomile tea – chamomile binds to the same brain receptors as Valium.
- Valerian – a herbal supplement used for it’s sedative effect and this reduces anxiety.
- Ensure you have had a good meal prior to flying. Being hungry will more likely have you feeling anxious and irritable as your blood sugar takes a dive.
See your Doctor
If all else fails then as a last resort see your doctor. Explaining to your GP that you are nervous about flying and request a calmative. Anti-anxiety medications work in reducing your heart rate and promote relaxation. These should be taken 30 minutes before your departure for it to have a good effect.
There are many techniques for alleviating flight anxiety and these are just a few. Whilst it may not have you boldly watching air crash investigations prior to your flight, I do hope you have found comfort in knowing that planes are a very safe and reliable mode of transport and in fact it will be the safest part of your journey. What awaits on the ground is far more risky than the plane flight you just took. Taking a cab in New York city … now that is a whole other matter!
Please note that I am not an expert in planes and the information I have passed on is through my own personal experience and research on the subject over time.
If you would like to know how planes fly in simple terms then click here to find out more from the Nasa Website.
Got any tips you would like to share? Feel free to post them in the comments 🙂