Discover more from Singal-Minded
How I Mostly Stopped Being Scared Of Flying
And started almost enjoying one of humanity's grandest achievements (unlocked 11/15/2023)
I was worried this was going to be the Nightmare Flight I had always feared.
JetBlue Flight #1497, JFK to Denver, September 29, 12:32 p.m.. As I got to my seat, I overheard a flight attendant complain that we hadn’t been warned, prior to boarding, that the flight wouldn’t have any streaming video or wifi (both of which are complimentary on JetBlue flights). Sure enough, all the screens were blank and there was no sign of any wifi. I settled into my window seat and started to wonder how I was going to maintain my sanity. When was the last time I had flown alone (for four and a half hours) without the sort of mind-numbing distraction only DirecTV or compulsive web surfing on my phone can provide? And what if things got turbulent? I wouldn’t be able to watch the altimeter.
Making matters worse, it was a pretty rough climb out of New York — rather bumpy, and not just during the initial ascent, but for maybe half an hour or so as the plane started toward the Midwest. The two women next to me were relatives, and I quickly picked up a lot about their lives. They were stereotypical “white ethnic” types from (if I’m remembering correctly) Bensonhurst. They were off to visit one of their kids, who was getting a master’s in environmental something or other at UC–Boulder. I was amused by the culture shock they’d likely encounter there, and was curious about the kid’s Bensonhurst-to-Boulder trajectory.
Maybe I was projecting, but it seemed like they were nervous as a result of the turbulence. I started talking to them — maybe babbling, slightly? — about aviation. I told myself I could maybe make them feel a little bit better by explaining to them stuff I wish I had known earlier. I basically explained that I always had trouble with turbulence, too, but that even relatively violent bumps were nothing from the plane’s perspective. Planes are designed to get knocked around a tiny bit. I further explained/babbled: If you watch the altimeter (sigh — I missed that little number so badly), you’ll see that the plane can buck and heave in a manner that feels downright dangerous from a human perspective, but that amounts to almost no change in altitude.
I’d like to think my explanation helped. But whether or not it did — whether or not they were even that nervous to begin with (I bet they were both 20 years older than I was, and had been on plenty of rough flights) — it was strange to find myself in this role. I was always the guy who was afraid of flying, not the guy who could explain how irrational this phobia was.
I don’t want to do a stolen valor type of thing here. It’s always been a relatively mild phobia. But “relatively mild,” when it comes to flying, can mean some decisions that seem abjectly absurd to non-phobic-flyers. This silly fear has caused me some grief.
Two wince-worthy examples from my early twenties: My first real job was at the Center for American Progress, where I helped edit an online publication called Campus Progress. Sometimes we got to do cool travel stuff. For instance, there was an opportunity to go to the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver to see Barack Obama accept the presidential nomination. It was a pretty historic speech! And I would have been a 25-year-old on a work trip with colleagues who I had a lot of fun hanging out with. There is a chance I could be misremembering, but I recall that I was offered a slot but turned it down because it would have involved flying. I simply didn’t want to fly unless it was totally necessary.
On another, even more embarrassing occasion, I skipped a high school friend’s wedding because of my fear of flying. He was the very first high school friend of ours to get married, and he was marrying an evangelical girl from the South — a dry wedding. I didn’t go because it was a flight that felt optional, even though it wasn’t, really.1
I think that in both cases I probably came up with some explanation for my behavior that backgrounded the flight issue. It wasn’t that I pretended not to be fearful of flying, but I imagine my excuse to myself was a bit more complicated than that. “Oh, there’s that party I want to go to that weekend,” and so on.
So how did I (mostly) get over my fear of flying? Weirdly, it helped a ton simply to read a lot about it. Mostly a guy named Patrick Smith, a longtime professional pilot who used to write a column for Salon called “Ask The Pilot.” Smith is awesome if you’re scared of flying, or interested in it, or both.
I’m skeptical of self-help. Perhaps too much. I just don’t really buy the idea that reading something that is an attempt to get you to change your perspective works most of the time, at least not durably, when it comes to things that matter. But Smith’s primer on turbulence really did change my understanding of the subject forever.
I think you’ll see why I enjoy his style just from reading its intro:
Turbulence: spiller of coffee, jostler of luggage, filler of barf bags, rattler of nerves. But is it a crasher of planes? Judging by the reactions of many airline passengers, one would assume so; turbulence is far and away the number one concern of anxious flyers. Intuitively, this makes sense. Everybody who steps on a plane is uneasy on some level, and there’s no more poignant reminder of flying’s innate precariousness than a good walloping at 37,000 feet. It’s easy to picture the airplane as a helpless dinghy in a stormy sea. Boats are occasionally swamped, capsized, or dashed into reefs by swells, so the same must hold true for airplanes. So much about it seems dangerous.
And this is the part that really got me to change my thinking, and the reason I always try to keep this column on my Kindle when I’m flying, even if I don’t think I’ve ever had to reference it mid-flight:
In the worst of it, you’re liable to imagine the pilots in a sweaty lather: the captain barking orders, hands tight on the wheel as the ship lists from one side to another. Nothing could be further from the truth. The crew is not wrestling with the beast so much as merely riding things out; it’s surprisingly hands-off. Indeed, one of the worst things a pilot could do during strong turbulence is try to fight it. Some autopilots have a special mode for these situations. Rather than increasing the number of corrective inputs, it does the opposite, desensitizing the system.
Up front, you can imagine a conversation going like this:
Pilot 1: “Well, why don’t we slow it down?”
Pilot 2: “Ah, man, this is spilling my orange juice all down inside this cup holder.”
Pilot 1: “Let’s see if we can get any new reports from those guys up ahead.”
Pilot 2: “Do you have any napkins over there?”
You know what? That’s exactly what I pictured back before I knew a little bit about this stuff. Or something like it, at least. I really did imagine pilots nervously fighting turbulence. Again, I’m sure this sounds silly if you’re not a fearful flyer, but for those of us who are, the whole thing does always feels so precarious.
This column also taught me how useful it can be to keep an eye on the altimeter, when you’re lucky enough to be on a plane with one of those Flight Tracker features. Smith notes that “Altitude, bank, and pitch will change only slightly during turbulence — in the cockpit we see just a twitch on the altimeter,” and goes on to relate one of his own encounters: “I remember one night, headed to Europe, hitting some unusually rough air about halfway across the Atlantic. It was the kind of turbulence people tell their friends about. Fewer than forty feet of altitude change, either way, is what I saw. Ten or twenty feet, if that, most of the time.” And that’s during turbulence so rough a seasoned pilot remembered it — so everyday turbulence, you’re talking even less of an altitude shift.
Over time, from reading Patrick Smith, and a bit more about the bare basics of aviation, and, weirdly, from listening to a lot of air traffic control broadcasts, my fear of aviation came to be mixed with a bit of awe. It’s easy to forget given that flying can be an extremely uncomfortable experience (especially for those of us blessed/cursed with height), but the worldwide aviation system is genuinely one of humanity’s crowning achievements. At any given moment, there are around 8,000 commercial planes in the sky, and the number of crashes is very, very close to zero, especially when it comes to the biggest carriers and aircraft.
Intuitively, it doesn’t make sense that aviation is this safe. Flight is such a short, pretty, easily pronounced word. But think about what every one of those flights represents: A giant bird-shaped thing that can weigh 50 tons or more is propelled, via the combustion of fuel, to a height of perhaps 35,000 feet, at which point it flies for hours and proceeds to touch down safely at an airport hundreds or thousands of miles away. The vast majority of the time, not only does the thing not crash, but literally nothing dangerous happens. It has become routine! That’s totally crazy, and we should acknowledge the craziness.
So reading a lot about it helped. I found it hard to argue with the statistics. Fear of flying is unusual in that it concerns something that 1) you will, or can, do routinely if you’re middle class or higher, and 2) is incredibly safe, as far as mortal danger is concerned. There aren’t a lot of fears like this — ones that sit far in the upper right-hand corner of the Phobia Chart with “frequency of occurrence” on the x axis and “safety” on the y. Like, if you’re afraid of venomous snakes, it’s not irrational, per se, given that close encounters with some of them are quite dangerous. It’s just that you are unlikely to have a close encounter with a venomous snake, in most circumstances.
So familiarizing myself with the numbers and the mechanics helped. But at the end of the day, it really was exposure that sealed the deal and allowed me to become a routine flyer. There are many aspects of flying that are weird or threatening when you haven’t flown that much — the noises, the turbulence, all sorts of other details about what it’s like to ride on a plane. While reading definitely helps, it has diminishing returns after a while. But by the fiftieth time you’ve done it, the routine sets in. You know that bumps are pretty common during the climb, but less so during cruise, especially on a day without a lot of clouds. You know that if things get bumpy, it usually won’t last that long. You know a lot of stuff that only experience can teach.
The twenty-first century also allows for a useful vicarious form of exposure: YouTube videos. Weirdly, watching videos of bad turbulence made me feel better. First, because I’ve never encountered turbulence anywhere close to the worst stuff you can find on YouTube, meaning it’s unusual. Second, because you know what all those videos have in common? Whoever took them survived the flight and was able to upload the videos to YouTube.2 (One funny, very human aspect of these videos is that usually, at least one commenter feels obligated to say something like That doesn’t seem very turbulent to me — I’ve been on planes that were much worse.)
None of this means my phobia has abated entirely. As much as I’ve come to kinda-sorta understand certain aspects of flying, I still haven’t internalized the safety of takeoffs. Like, I get that once a plane is at 35,000 feet, it can stay airborne for a long time, even if a lifetime’s worth of stuff goes wrong all at once. But during those first few moments, when the plane is hundreds, rather than thousands, of feet in the air? I still get a bit nervous. I still wish for the initial ascent to be over. There’s some unclenching when the 10,000-feet chime sounds.
I also still have a bit of trouble with superstitious — or, if I’m not going to sugarcoat it, magical — thinking when it comes to flying. There’s one strange secret little ritual I do as I board that I just can’t let go of. It isn’t a big deal or particularly obtrusive or noticeable or anything, but I feel like a weirdo. It also feels a bit risky to have an article online, with my name attached, touting the safety of flying. Like I’m just asking for trouble. But you just have to know your own brain, and realize that what goes on in there doesn’t always reflect reality.
One of the most valuable things I’ve learned as I’ve become a better flyer has to do with the mind-body connection. It’s not just that you get anxious about something in particular, and then your body reacts with a ramped-up heartbeat, sweat, and so on — the opposite can occur as well. So these days, when the turbulence starts, I experience this weird residual thing where my body starts freaking out a little (less so than it used to), particularly with an accelerated heartbeat, and then my brain starts to follow suit — Oh man what if this means the plane is going to crash — for a few seconds, until the saner, more organized part of my brain can jump in and calm everything down: This is the 500th time you’ve experienced turbulence. Remember the Patrick Smith column. It’ll be fine.
Anyway, I highly recommend that if you’re a nervous flyer, you dig into Patrick Smith and the statistics, though I acknowledge that for folks whose phobia is worse than mine, stronger measures may be necessary. If you’re otherwise in a position where you could fly regularly, you’re missing out on a lot. For example, I’m writing this from Tel Aviv, on a trip I’ll share more about soon. I didn’t have to come here, but I had an opportunity to. Maybe at 22 I would have turned it down, but I didn’t even consider that for a moment.
Questions? Comments? Stories about the time you accidentally hit the “WINGS FALL OFF” button? I’m at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Image: Cape Cod as viewed from my seat during the first part of my flight from JFK to Ben Gurion.
I know how crazy this will sound to people. You don’t skip a friend’s wedding unless you really can’t go! But, believe it or not, I somehow didn’t understand how big a deal this was, because in my early- to mid-20s I knew almost no peers who were getting married, coming as I do from a group that gets married relatively late in life, and in some cases not at all. Certain basic norms about weddings and etiquette just hadn’t sunk in yet, and/or I’m an idiot.
I guess at some point, as in-flight wifi gets better, we will have an instance in which someone takes footage of a turbulent flight, uploads it, and the flight subsequently crashes. That will be… creepy.