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By Patrick Smith (@askthepilot)     7 Oct 2016

Pilot Patrick Smith dispels the myths and misconceptions that have made millions of people afraid of air travel

Any discussion about the fear of flying begins with an acknowledgment that everybody is, on some level, afraid to fly.

Maybe it’s not the kind of upfront reassurance you’d expect from an airline pilot. But it’s a simple truth. Whether you’re a habitually white-knuckled passenger, the hardiest frequent flyer or even a seasoned crew member, there’s something inherently unnatural, or even dangerous, about traveling hundreds of miles per hour, miles above the earth, in crazy metal machines.

The fact is, through a decades-long process of technological and human factor innovation, we’ve made flying the safest form of mass travel that exists. The past 20 years have been the safest in commercial aviation history, even as the number of planes in the sky, and the number of people flying, has doubled—globally, more than a billion people fly aboard commercial planes every year and the number injured or killed is statistically negligible. Empirically it’s pretty obvious: flying is safe.

So why, then, are there millions of people out there who remain terrified by the experience? Some endure it with varying measures of trepidation while others avoid it altogether. Understanding why requires us to divide these fears into two separate camps.

The first fear stems mostly from ignorance. Many people are afraid of flying simply because they don’t understand it; or, what they think they understand is incorrect. There’s so much bad information, much of it propagated and nurtured by the internet. The extent to which different myths, fallacies and conspiracy theories have become embedded in the prevailing wisdom is, to a pilot, distressing and disheartening.

Though perhaps it isn’t surprising. Air travel is a complex industry that relies on a technology—the airplane—that is pretty esoteric for most people. The average passenger lacks an accurate understanding of how a plane flies, or what its pilots actually do up there in the front end.

The workings of aviation are further concealed behind a wall of specialized jargon, corporate reticence and a highly irresponsible media. Airlines are terrible communicators and they rarely discuss safety except in the most general and often condescending tones. Journalists and broadcasters, for their part, sensationalize even the most innocuous mishap and neglect to check their facts, frequently trundling out supposed experts who have little idea what they’re talking about. For the passenger, it’s tough to know whom to trust or what to believe.

When I began fielding questions from the traveling public several years ago, I was amazed by how many people were frightened by rough air. Turbulence, it turns out, is far and away the number one concern of nervous passengers.

From a pilot’s perspective, turbulence is mainly seen as a discomfort and inconvenience, not a safety issue. Sure, in rare circumstances a plane’s occupants can be injured, but this is something even the most frequent flyer will not experience in a lifetime. Of the small number of passenger injuries each year, the vast majority are caused by people not fastening their seatbelts when they should have.

Further, people tend to vastly exaggerate sensations of flight. The altitudes, speeds and angles you perceive often aren’t close to the real thing. I call this the ‘passenger embellishment factor.’ During turbulence, for example, many people believe that an airplane is dropping hundreds of feet at a time, when in reality, even in relatively heavy turbulence, the displacement is seldom more than 20 feet or so.

It’s similar with angles of bank and climb. A typical turn is made with around 15 degrees of bank, and a steep one might be 25. A sharp climb is about 20 degrees nose-up; even a rapid descent is usually no more severe than five—yes, five—degrees nose-down. Yet people will feel as if their plane is climbing at 45 degrees or banking at 60.

The most effective remedy for this category of fearful flyers is usually an honest, straightforward explanation, free of jargon and airline-ese. Once people understand, they aren’t nearly as afraid.

Regrettably, this doesn’t work for everyone. For a lot of people, including many of the most phobic flyers, all the statistics and straight talk in the world won’t make a difference. This category of fear is impervious to reason and explanation. It’s more deeply rooted and, in some cases, can become a full-blown panic.

‘Statistics tell us the risk of crashing is one in several million flights,” says Tom Bunn, a retired 747 captain and licensed therapist who also runs the popular SOAR fear-of-flying counseling service. ‘But to the frightened flyer, whether it’s one in 10, one in a million or one in 100 million, they all mean the same thing. They all include the term ‘one.’ How does the individual know he or she will not be that ‘one’? Awareness of safety as relative, rather than absolute, produces intolerable distress.’

‘Until the cabin starts to bounce and sway, the flyer may perfectly understand aerodynamic theory, and what keeps an airplane aloft, and is comfortable with that. But theoretical understanding of this kind is abstract, left-brain logic. Meanwhile, the right brain, which uses visual-based, intuitive logic, ‘sees’ nothing holding the plane up,’ Bunn continues.

‘So far, the left brain is able to keep the right brain balanced. But then it happens: turbulence. Now, there is a feeling, a tangible sensation, that tips the balance. The person pictures the plane falling, and feels it falling.’

Of course, there are times when these fears can overlap, or be hard to differentiate. I sometimes get letters from formerly nervous flyers thanking me for the knowledge I provide. For others, my work has helped them, but only partly. And for the rest, nothing I could say or write would make any difference.

Thus the first step to curing your fear of flying is knowing—or not knowing—what you’re afraid of in the first place.

Photo: Alamy

Have you found a way to combat a fear or flying? Share your wisdom in the comments box below or using #momentumtravel.

Patrick Smith
Patrick Smith (@askthepilot)

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and the host of Ask the Pilot. He has appeared on over 200 radio and television outlets, including PBS, Discovery Channel, CNN, the BBC and National Public Radio, and his book, Cockpit Confidential, is a New York Times bestseller.

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