I’ve flown over 50 times this year, at times taking as many as 6 flights in 24 hours. You would think, after 50 check-ins, security queues, liftoffs, and landings, that I would be at least somewhat accustomed to it all. But when I tell people that I still can’t help but experience existential dread before and during each flight, they look at me puzzled.
And honestly, I'm as confused as them. With endless statistics backing up the merits of airtravel, it makes no logical sense to fear something literally safer than walking down the street. But in the air...all logic fades.
The wobble of the wings, the otherworldly roar of the rockets, the flashing injections of panic. Maybe we’ll hit a bird on our way up. Maybe that loud grinding sound is the engine failing. Does this pilot understand how to handle updrafts? Are we over water? Would they find us if we did a water landing before we all die of hypothermia? Is that turbulence or are the wings detaching?
Silly as they seem, in that moment, as the rockets scream and the reality of floating miles from any help sets in, fear feels…logical. Like I'd be insane to not worry.
But, if I’m lucky, after about an hour I’ll get absorbed in a good book for a bit. Until a small shake forces my subconscious to tap my panic sensors with a sledgehammer. Like a shock of ice water my heart rate goes from 62 to 101 in a matter of 50 seconds (yes I’ve tested this with my Apple Watch), and the entire panic cycle begins again. This is around when I get into what I call the death spiral.
The Death Spiral
It starts off imagining a crash. Step-by-step in glorious gory detail.
A violent shake, instantly recognized as being too strong to possibly be turbulence. The pilot’s voice comes on, trembling. The first sour panic spikes into my blood. “Ladies and Gentleman, we have engine failure. Brace for impact.”. Denial leads my face to the window, and it all happens at once.
Flames jutting from the engine
A choir of screaming passengers
Mothers pressing children into their chest
Old men yelling prayers
A harmony of panic with my fellow man as we all digest the indisputable fact of our impending death.
And then, the fall. The rapid descent causing a roller coaster-esque drop in my stomach.
An instinctively unnatural feeling.
Something man was never meant to feel.
Free falling in a 500-ton torpedo.
I scream but can’t even find my breath. I reach for my phone in a moment of reflexive panic.
I wonder, in the moment or regret, what my family will look like as they grow old. What my last words were to my girlfriend. What I was going to do and will now never do. The intimate logistics of what dying actually feels like.
The ground approaches. We beg for our lives, we yell at the crying stewardesses to do something. The wings are vibrating rapidly. The sour fear twists my guts. A fear so strong that it hurts. There is no logic, no thought. Only raw panic.
And then, without any warning, a fireball followed immediately by endless darkness.
This is the scenario I play through in my head at least 4 to 5 times on each flight. It plays out in slow motion and in different ways each time. Feel the wings shaking? Let’s imagine what kind of fall it would be like if the wings fell off. Notice the engine making a strange sound? Let’s ponder drowning during an emergency water landing.
My brain is my enemy in the air and there’s nothing I can do to shut it up. I’ve tried booze, pills and meditation. Nothing works to keep my mind away from fireballs and eternal black. I know all the statistics. I know there are over 100,000 flights per day and absolutely 0 crashes in Europe this year. I know that there have literally been zero fatal crashes while at maximum altitude. I know about fly-by-wire and how extensive pilot training can be. Like I said, there’s no logic when the wings start shaking.
I don’t know what the answer is but I do know I’ll keep flying. There’s too much to see in this world and if it just takes a few hours of panic to get there, it’s well worth it.
How to Fight the Fear
The one offer of hope I have for fellow flight fearing travelers is that it does get better with consistent repetition. I've found that flying after a long hiatus tends to be when I have the worst anxiety. The brain latches on to familiarity, so whenever I'd flown within a month or so it seemed to be much more manageable. Another trick I've learned over time is to distract yourself as much as humanly possible.
For me, writing tends to do the trick. It keeps the mind active and focused on a sole task. The less you let your thoughts wander, the better wr. Another strategy is to have multiple distractions at once. I've found myself playing games on my computer while also listening to podcasts can be a semi-reliable way to stay distracted.
Aside from distractions, I can offer some thought exercises as well:
Keep thoughts on the outcome, not the process. If you remind yourself that you've gone through this fear before and ended up safe at home it can help keep things in perspective. Fear doesn't help anything, it's 100% you hurting yourself with no positive outcome. Even if the plane were going down your fear wouldn't stop it from falling. You are at the whim of the piolet and your job while flying is to relax and trust the professionals to do what they've done every day of their professional lives. A fallback for me is to look at the stewardesses and understand that they've likely flown 1000's of times and have felt more turbulence than this. It helps to keep that sort of perspective, that a rocky flight is akin to a bus going over potholes.