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Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:50 am
Fear of flying

Although the disappearance of Air France flight 477 over the Atlantic is a rare and anomalous event, it confirms what people afraid of flying -- people like me -- have felt all along; for us, every flight which somehow reaches its destination intact is the anomaly. Here are my notes on fear of flying.

* I flew happily in my childhood, often as an unaccompanied minor on the airline then known as BEA. In fact, I was a bit of a plane-spotter, awed by Concorde and the Boeing 747. I also loved cars. Something happened in my 20s, though. My attitude to both cars and planes changed.

* I'm pretty sure I took no flights at all between 1975 (when my family flew back to Scotland from Montreal via Air Canada) and 1988, when I flew with Alan McGee and his band Biff Bang Pow to Spain on a dodgy charter flight operated by a company called Spantax. At 15, on the Air Canada flight, I wasn't nervous at all. But 28 year-old me flying to Spain was terrified. For the return flight, I wandered off alone in Madrid airport (flying always makes me broody and solitary), bought wax ear-plugs, and sat watching the planes taking off and landing, amazed that each of them succeeded. On the flight I had ear plugs stuffed into my ears and tissue filling my concave sunglasses. It was the next best thing to general anaesthetic. I vaguely heard McGee tell someone: "It's no great loss; he's not a big talker anyway." At one point I peeped out of the window and got an incredibly beautiful view of provincial France. Not a cloud was in the sky, and the plane was perfectly smooth.

* There's a scene in the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth where Newton is being tested by doctors in a spinning chair. He's telling them they can't take his lenses out, but they force him in an adamant, patronising "experts know best" way. This is how I feel about experts who tell me flying is perfectly safe. It may be safe for you, but it's not safe for me.

* My fear of flying is a combination of vertigo, claustrophobia and technological skepticism. Last week, when I had to check in at the Delta terminal at JFK to fly the Atlantic, I could only pray that the people flying the plane were more competent than the person checking me in, who asked me several times if I had luggage to check, denied for a while that my flight even existed, and failed to pose any security questions. I also prayed that the flying apparatus would be in better condition than the terminal, with its shabby carpets, malfunctioning computers, and haphazard queuing system.

* When I fly, I usually take a window seat at the rear of the economy cabin. I'm happy if nobody is sitting anywhere near. I never read or listen to music or watch the movie. All I do is gaze out of the window -- I find the landscapes, even the blandest ones, incredibly beautiful. This annoys people who want the cabin darkened, but I need to be completely aware of where I am and what I'm doing. I'm in this metal device, 35,000 feet above an amazingly desolate landscape I'll never see at ground level. I need to imagine myself into that landscape, intensely.

* I also need to monitor very, very closely all the sounds, motions and changes of the process of flying itself. The thing I'm always braced for is worsening turbulence. "Oh God, here it comes!" I usually say to myself as the plane begins to judder and bounce. "It" is generally some kind of catastrophic change in altitude, a plunge, an "event".

* Before a long flight (to Japan, or over the Atlantic) I often search Google News for "turbulence". The word usually appears in press reports in a metaphorical sense (there's "turbulence" in the financial markets, for instance), but there are also tales of injuries sustained on planes during rough weather. Last Thursday I read up about a woman who was recently paralyzed when her plane hit turbulence, throwing her against the roof of the bathroom. "You shouldn't be reading this before you fly," said my New York host. But somehow, knowing and believing the worst is obscurely comforting for me.

* One pilot describing the typical flight: "Two moments of panic with several hours of boredom in between".

* When I had to fly to Japan in 1992 -- my first trip on a 747, and my first long-haul flight of over ten hours -- I went to my doctor and asked for valium. He refused, saying that if I could conquer my fear of flying without drugs I'd be a stronger person. I actually think he was wise and right. In the event, the flight was fine, and I felt like I'd tamed the scared part of my brain by will power.

* The following year I flew again to Japan. This time I was helped by flying Hellcats Over The Pacific, a flying simulation game on my Apple Duo 230 laptop. Learning "how to fly" (the effect of flaps, the possibilities of landing when your engine is on fire) made flying feel more controllable, more survivable. I could see how things still worked even when they only half worked.

* I'm an avid consumer of YouTube videos of air disasters. I need to know the circumstances and actions which lead to air catastrophes: banking too steeply, "smoke in the cockpit", being too Swiss to dump fuel over land. I reconstruct the last moments of terrified passengers as if I'm really there with them: the Air France Concorde disaster is something I can replay as if I was aboard, and I know "subjectively" the sequence of events that brought AF477 down: the glimpse of the nocturnal tropical storm, the worsening, unbelievably severe turbulence, the sudden darkness, the oxygen masks dropping, the sinus-crushing descent, the screaming...

* I read Ask The Pilot on Salon.com, or browse sites which say things like "aircraft can suffer structural damage as a result of encountering severe clear air turbulence. In extreme cases this can lead to the break up of the aircraft."

* I can totally understand David Bowie's fear of flying. After an exceptionally stormy flight from Cyprus in the early 70s, he took boats and trains everywhere (including the Trans-Siberian Express to Japan). In the 80s he flew again, but after his heart attack and the birth of his daughter Lexi he's reportedly stopped flying again.

* I do know people who've died in aviation accidents. A kid at my school was killed in a helicopter crash. I've also witnessed a plane crash at first hand: I was watching from my roof when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Like all New Yorkers who were there, I know what a plane crash smells like. I breathed that acrid smoke for weeks.

* The worst flight of my life: on a late-90s US tour, a late-night flight from Atlanta to Houston, after a gig. We encounter a storm in Texas and make three wind- and rain-lashed attempts to land, two of them aborted at the last moment by the nervous captain. Expecting to die, we eventually touch down. At the airport I snap at Matt, who's organised the tour: "Don't you think this schedule is a bit arduous?" The weather isn't his fault, but I need someone to blame.

* Flying would be more dangerous if I were in control of the plane, but I'd assume the risks more happily. I'd rather die by my own mistake than someone else's.

* In some ways, I have become a calm and experienced "frequent flyer". But I can never find flying banal and bus-like, no matter how banal and bus-like it becomes. Being up there at the top of the climb is confronting mortality, facing God, or God's traumatic absence, and dicing with mankind's idiotic technological arrogance, his hollow assurances that "nothing can go wrong". Of course it can.

* My last flight: Sunday, London to Berlin. My next flight: a week on Wednesday, Berlin to Athens. Departure may be scheduled, but I never take arrival for granted.


Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 10:13 am (UTC)

Bachs seems to convert air nerves into a kind of mild high. A glass of wine plus Bachs equals mild air rage, e.g. trying to dance with a Swedish air hostess.

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 10:42 am (UTC)

So, what you'll be doing in Athens?

Anything public?


Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 11:01 am (UTC)

"I can totally understand David Bowie's fear of flying"

Yes David Bowie is responsible for countless vulnerable youths from the 70's fear of flying. Talk about impressionable,of course a real fear of flying means you would never fly.

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 11:27 am (UTC)

(Yesterday's crash spooked me a bit: I was on one of Air France's A330-200s only four weeks ago, quite possibly the very aircraft that went down ... and I'll be flying on another of them in August.)

I've had scary flying experiences, but usually it's something specific to a particular flight -- heavy turbulence, for example. I can usually cope with that: having a background that required me to study statistics gives me something for the primate brain to cling on to. We're notoriously bad at subjectively evaluating the probability of risks, probably because underestimating risks is not an evolutionarily successful strategy; so we tend to assign greater weight to drastic outcomes -- the plane crash -- than they actually deserve on the basis of probabilities. (Ho, ho, ho: and so much for that when you fly into turbulence at 32,000 feet and get a faceful of pinot noir as you reach for the sick-bag.)

But seriously? These days I'm way more scared of the fuckwitted security trolls at the airport; minimum wage rentacops who can not only block me from travelling but potentially shoot me, all in the name of a safe flying experience. I suspect if we totaled up the number of nervous passengers assaulted, tased, or shot by airport security guards and assessed it against the numbers killed or injured in actual plane crashes, the security menace would come out on top ...


Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 12:25 pm (UTC)

Don't indulge his self-indulgent hand-wringing. And Momus - Man up!
Planes don't drop from the sky and if they did, you are smart enough and mature enough to know that death is an unavoidable constant and not some lurking assassin (the wonderful "Final Destination 2" not withstandind)

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC)

Personally, I just hate flying because it's uncomfortable. The only thing that makes it my long-distance transport of choice is that it's much faster. So you get a maximum discomfort spread over a shorter timeframe. That's a situation I'm willing to live with.

But yeah, I'm roughly 6'2", so of course my knees are right up against the seat in front of me. And they always put their seat back. That's just become a cynical certainty in my mind. I can look around the entire plane and nobody else will have their seat back, except for the person sitting directly in front of me. I always get massive headaches while on planes, and one or the other of my eardrums usually ends up feeling like it's being pierced by a knitting needle, no matter how much gum I chew.

I hate flying. But if you want to travel a distance longer than, say, a 12 hour car drive in the US, it's easily the way to go.


Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)

i too am 6'2" or so and it's become an obsession of mine to note which are the best seat locations for us fellows on any type of commercial aircraft. i'm actually putting a spreadsheet together as a reference for other travelers.

as for the ear pain, i would suggest a product called "earplanes". they're these corkscrew shaped plugs that regulate the air pressure on your inner ear during descent and help immensely. unfortunately i always do something stupid like pack them on my checked luggage and never have them when i need them.

ReplyThread Parent

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC)

i used to live this double life of frequently flying yet becoming increasingly terrified of it; then recently i was on a flight from newark to pearson as the plane climbed to cruising altitude over the nyc region on the most beautiful, clear spring day i'd seen in ages. i had a sudden worried vision of an explosion and being hurtled out into the clear blue sky, to free fall to my demise from about 11,000 feet. and i realized that if that must be the way it ends, at least i'd be experiencing a death that so very few on this planet have or will ever experience. and it was kind of an exhilarating thought. i've also been in horrible car crashes and watched close family die slowly of debilitating diseases. after those experiences (and knowing their prevalence) i just can't muster a fear of the aircraft anymore. and while statistics do nothing to offset the worry, for me it's the sheer genius of it that keeps my mind settled most often. when i touch down on a thin strip of asphalt in the middle of a sprawling city like bombay knowing that human technology and thinking is all that got us here from another thin strip of asphalt half a world away, i find it impossible to feel anything but bursting happiness that i am alive at a time in history when such things are possible.

um so what i mean to say is "accentuate the positive". enjoy your travels!


(no subject) - (Anonymous)

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)

That's a wonderful website, Lord Whimsy.

ReplyThread Parent
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
nothing can go wrong" of course .

I share similar feelings occasionally, however I found the one lane bus ride to and from Lake Chuzenji most disturbing. It took several jars of Sake and a vehement argument on the erosion of cultural heritage with a Professor from Newcastle to distract myself from the imminent thought of blowing a tire and sliding down a mountain.

Just caught the Cherry Red spot and felt badly about missing you in Mass. and Aki.

Well constructed piece of work. Who put it all together?

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 07:55 pm (UTC)
Re: nothing can go wrong" of course .

You just caught the Cherry Red spot? Is it online?

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Snappy Verbal Dresser
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)

While I envy your Dutch friend who rides a bike mostly (I've a Dutch bike and I think I love Holland...although I've never been), and I cannot soothe your fears via a quippy response or writing, I do find it interesting you can cover so much of your fear and still be subject to it.

For me, if I delve into the sources of my fears that much, it sort of alleviates them. Letting fear run you like that is like being possessed by another entity. You are not your fears.

"Flying would be more dangerous if I were in control of the plane, but I'd assume the risks more happily. I'd rather die by my own mistake than someone else's."

I think this is part the root of it. You're really afraid of not being in control. Do you find that you always prefer control in potentially dangerous situations? Do you mitigate risk when out of control, but have no issue with it when you're the one holding the TNT?

How are you in taxi cabs? ...in Italy?

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 07:56 pm (UTC)

Yes, it is a control issue. I'd much rather control my own risks.

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Flight Control - (Anonymous) Expand

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
You've nailed it..

utterly. Those are the same reasons I am terrified to fly, to the extent that I actually do take xanex and a glass of wine (yes, yes, I know it's not recommended) when I fly. I don't take anxiety meds regularly - I keep them around only for plane flights.

I too have been a regular traveler since I was young, short and international flights. I've been to asia, europe, south america, and all over america. The problem really started for me, though, was in Peru when I have been taking Larium, an anti-malarial medicine which also causes anxiety, panic, hallucinations, and occasionally a psychotic breakdown. Of course they don't tell you this when they hand over the pills. while I'm not in the habit of asking people to work while they are on holiday, I broke down and asked a man who was a Doctor and traveling with us for some advice - because it felt as though I had been on a mild acid trip for several days. In the Amazon Jungle.

On his advice I stopped taking the meds, but the panic attacks continued every single time I boarded a plane - and we took a lot of flights on that trip. It was horrible, I was in the galapagos islands and obsessing over my fear of the flight home instead of enjoying myself.

I still fly, am going to NY, Seattle, and Savannah this year alone, but I am already dreading the flights!

And yes, I've tried to be very zen about it. I mediate and do yoga and can face my fears about life in general in healthier ways than dosing myself silly.. climbing on board an airplane triggers a physiological response which is as annoying as it is painful.


Wed, Jun. 3rd, 2009 08:11 am (UTC)
Re: You've nailed it..

"I don't take anxiety meds regularly - I keep them around only for plane flights."

Bingo. Flying to Japan again in a month and like yourself and a lot of other commenters, I grew up on planes and then the late 20's hit and all of a sudden, complete frozen terror/anxiety/OMGWTFOHNOOOOOOO every time I boarded one. What's that sound? Did we just dip? I'm staring out the window psychically willing the plane's wing to stay on.Are you there God? I'll behave from now on.

I asked my Dad about this late-onset flight-phobia and in true Dad-wisdom form, he nailed it: "Well, now that you're older, you've got a lot more to lose now, son"
(Love ya, Dad.)

So, yeah- I keep a bottle of Ativan as a security blanket in case I get a monster panic attack on the ground (hardly ever these days) but always pop one once the seatbelt sign is turned off when I fly. On a long-haul flight, what else am I going to do other than watch The Dark Knight and Train Man over & over & over so I don't fret too much like the last time I flew to and from Japan? Might as well snooze.

That said, Flying JAL from Vancouver to Tokyo was actually not the 10-1/2 hour terror-fest I was expecting. The 1-1/2 hour flight from Narita to Kansai, on the other hand...positively nerve-wracking,ugh--- beautiful view notwithstanding. But that's when I realized where alot of my flight terror comes from. Short flights that I'm more used to taking (Say, Vancouver to Calgary, Tokyo-Osaka) are in smaller craft and wayyyy bumpier. Going over the ocean in a big solid boat of a plane (with two floors no less!) = smoother ride and there's nothing to see outside anyway. Plus the service on JAL is lovely, compared to Air Canada which treats their passengers like cattle.

Anyways, I'll keep focussing on the positive next month and try not to think of Air France or fixate on things like JAL 123, which bucked around in the sky for an hour and finally crashed because there were one row of rivets on the tail when there should have been two.

ReplyThread Parent
Missing enough to feel alright
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)

I'm normally a fairly calm flyer, and I've made it SFO->Narita a couple times without much nervousness.

However, next week I get to try SFO->Arusha, Tanzania, and I'm finding myself in a similar mindset to what you describe above, inexplicably so given my lack of a propensity to worry about flying previously.

I guess I consider the risks per mile, and more miles means more risks. But that's probably just my rational brain forcing order on the irrational.


Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)


Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:04 pm (UTC)

That is the ultimate flying horror story. Post 9/11, cockpit doors were never again left open in that way.

ReplyThread Parent
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 06:31 pm (UTC)

"Flying would be more dangerous if I were in control of the plane, but I'd assume the risks more happily. I'd rather die by my own mistake than someone else's."

Same here. My problem with flying is the lack of control it involves, more specifically, the lack of friction between what I'm in and the ground. If I could, I'd take trains or cars everywhere, punctuated by brief sea passages. So, if I were going to, say, Aberdeen, I'd set off in a car from the East Coast of the US and drive to Alaska. Take a boat across the Bering Strait. Drive across Asia and Europe to the Channel. Another boat. Drive to Aberdeen. Sadly, I lack the kind of time and money that would require.

My worst flight ever was coming back from Wales. Lots of crashing and banging and panicked announcements by the pilot and flight attendants rushing about in fear to buckle themselves into their seats.


Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:03 pm (UTC)

I dont enjoy flying but I do think about dieing on a plane & I really dont think screaming is the way to go. Sure the G Forces of plummeting to your death would probably be the over-riding motivator to scream, but I think the time would be better spent thinking about the life you have been lucky enough to be gifted & about all the people you have known & loved. This is also true of normal living:

"The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day, when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai."

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)

I fly alot, mostly between London/Paris and New York. I like the whole process. finding the cheapest tickets, booking the best times and the right seats, packing up just right, having my ziploc bags ready. I am the girl who has her laptop out, shoes and jacket in the bucket and it more than happy to open all my stuff and let them go through it, because I usually give myself enough time. I feel bad for what another commenter calles" rentacop security guards" and try to be as nice to them as a I can .
If it's a night flight, I might take tylenol pm, put on my little eye cover thind and am out just after the first round of refreshments. If it's a day flight i look out the window for hours and watch really great movies . Flying is precious me-time. I relax, i work, i sleep. I wake up in another one of my homes and am completely thrilled to be alive and so damn portable.
But there is a twisted part to my love of flying. At take off and landing, I love to imagine the plane crashing. Instead of getting freaked out, it gives me some sense of power and excitement. Like, i know it's going to happen before it happens and so I am ready to die. Then I imagine people I love finding out, people saying how much I loved flying. A friend of mine told me this imagining and glorifying your own death thing is actually a common only child thing. Always wanting to feel special I guess. ..

The airfrance flight news was a blow because my weird daydreams became real for the families of those 233 people. How awful. but it probably wont keep me from having the same thoughts next time and enjoying my next flight.
as for this:

"Being up there at the top of the climb is confronting mortality, facing God, or God's traumatic absence, and dicing with mankind's idiotic technological arrogance, his hollow assurances that "nothing can go wrong". Of course it can."

I zone out because I don't care if the plane crashes or not. If it happens and I'm watching meerkat manner for 8 hours and loving it, and you are are tweaking out next to me, I am going to say that my exit strategy was a bit more attractive.

All that said, i can empathize with the irrational fear. Don't even try to come near me during a lighting storm. I have a pillow over my head and am reduced to tears with just one loud strike nearby. No one will ever be able to talk me out of that, and I will never understand people who enjoy storms, or live in New Mexico, just as people who are afraid of flying can't even reconect with their former-fly-loving selves. and who knows, after thinkig about this post some more, I may become a fly-phobic from here on out. I am after all in my very susceptible early twenties...

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:34 pm (UTC)

Ha, I love thunderstorms! Just not when I'm on a plane.

Actually, my flight from Berlin to London last month was late at night and flew over an active thunderstorm. I had a window seat and found it very beautiful. It was far below and a bit to the south, and the whole sky flickered as if there were a faulty fluorescent bulb hanging there. Oddly enough there was no turbulence at all, but I did find myself wondering whether lightning can fork up as well as down.

ReplyThread Parent