And started almost enjoying one of humanity's grandest achievements (unlocked 11/15/2023)
I'm a small-plane pilot, and admit that I find fear of flying hard to understand. It's just so far outside of my experience. (I have, admittedly, scared the crap out of myself while flying -- all pilots do, on occasion -- but that's just turbulence on the learning curve. A different thing.) Thanks for giving me a peek inside your head, to help me comprehend a thing that's so utterly alien to me.
Turbulence, even in a tiny plane, is simply a reminder to me that the air, though invisible, is actually *there.* It's almost reassuring when it makes itself known and felt. Dealing with it, in a plane of any size, is usually as easy as slowing to the best maneuvering speed and finding a more congenial altitude to cruise at.
Turbulence during take-off and descent is almost always due to windshear -- the interface zone where you ascend above a low layer of air blowing one speed or direction, and pass into a higher layer moving a different speed or direction. It's to be expected around mountains and shifting weather fronts, but happens other places, too.
We've usually got data on our iPads that will tell us approximately what altitudes we're likely to encounter this, so it's seldom a surprise. The same data tells us where we can find a less turbulent altitude when the current flight level is giving the plane a bumpy ride. Usually, just taking it up or down a thousand feet (or three) will fix everything.
It's just part of the journey. The upside is that I get to hop into my pretty red-and-silver bird and fly off anywhere I want, any day the weather's good enough, which brings me more joy than a mere wingless primate should probably be allowed to have. The day I can't do that any more is going to be one of the saddest days of my life.
I developed a fear of flying sort of out of the blue in my early 20's. It escalated to the point where it was pretty severe over the course of a year. I got so bad I skipped a trip back home because I couldn't bring myself to get on the plane. For me, I would get pretty bad anxiety in the airport and during takeoff that would tapper off over the course of the flight. My solution was to have enough drinks at the airport before my flight to get tipsy and dampen my anxiety response. That got me through take off and then I was fine. Interestingly after doing this 2 or 3 times my anxiety about flying subsided and I didn't even need the drinks anymore. It was kind of like 'drug assisted exposure therapy' or something.
I’m a longtime lover of flying, and I still remember reading that orange juice quote! (Didn’t recall where or from whom I’d read it.) I tell it to relatives/friends whenever they get nervous. (Hope you enjoyed Tel Aviv—was just there in September :) )
> 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.
Totally unrelated (and kind of TMI) bitter rant. I thought this would be the story for childbirth in the modern age. I was scared of it so I looked up statistics to soothe myself…and it certainly is reassuring in terms of mortality…but in terms of long term morbidity risks, not so acceptable to me…so I went with an elective c-section. I’d always compared it to flying as an irrational fear—was disappointed to see there was still some rationality to it. Onward with the technological improvements and research!
Great article. There’s much that I can relate to here. I think, consistent with what you’ve observed, that exposure is probably the best treatment for this and most other phobias. A few other things that have helped me:
1) Looking at the view. I find the looking down at the landscape very calming, albeit in an odd way; it doesn’t reduce my expectation of death, but it reduces my fear of death.
2) Looking at the wing. It sounds odd, but watching the wing wobble during turbulence reassures me. It reminds me that the plane isn’t a rigid, brittle structure that’s at risk of flying apart. It’s flexible because it’s designed for turbulence.
4) Mindfulness. During a turbulent patch, I remind myself at every moment that the turbulence which has already happened - even a few seconds ago - doesn’t matter and can’t hurt me. This interrupts the process of anxiety accumulating over time; I don’t let what’s already happened freak me out.
Anyway, hope this helps someone.
You know you're traveling a lot when you pull out the old comedian's go-to of talking about planes and airports. :D
About ATC. There was a spate of media about a decade ago that were called "competence porn". Programs of powerful people executing at their craft. House of Cards, Breaking Bad, The Martian, The Big Short, Margin Call. YouTube one day decided I should hear an ATC recording of a crisis being averted and suddenly I'm down that rabbit hole. Since I was working from a building that literally overlooked and airport runway I started to listen to live feeds on the internet of the ATC towers there our of curiosity and then as white noise.
Despite airlines being correctly pegged as trash due to near monopolies and government intervention, Aviation is actually a very competent and compelling industry. There's a great read called "Black Box Thinking" which uses the methods of improvement and crisis management that the aviation industry employs to draw broader insights into how you can conduct your professional and personal life. I recommend!
Struggled with agoraphobia for a while (this is before the Pandemic degraded my social boundaries to the point I became basically Italian) and the only thing that helped me with it was flooding.
I couldn’t work up the nerve to walk into Costco and sign up for a membership. I once fled a lecture hall and threw up in a garbage can right outside. Used to go to a 24 hour grocery store and shop at like 2am.
I made a lot of really bad choices to just avoid having to be around people.
Eventually broke down and went to therapy and as uncomfortable as it was, I eventually got to a place where I can hardly even believe I felt that way.
I used to be a great flyer. Loved it. Takeoffs a little anxious but outside of that (very mild anxiety) all good. Then...I was coming home from a work trip to NY and our plane either flew into, or very close to, a massive thunderstorm. Sky was black at 3 pm in June. It tossed the plane around as bad as many of the videos on YouTube. Weird thing is I was the ONLY person on the plane who seems to care. I literally almost yelled “stop the plane I want to get off.” I didn’t fly for a couple years, then started taking Xanax to help when I had to. Slowly getting okay with flying again but still not back to how it used to be.
I hate, hate, hate flying--it's a scary hassle--but reading this will hopefully make my next experience less scary. (It'll still be a hassle, though.)
This was actually very helpful for me to read as a fellow nervous flyer! I do fly ~1-3 times per year for conferences or to visit family overseas, and while it's worth it to get where the whole experience is physically and emotionally draining due to the level of accompanying anxiety. After a particularly bad bout of turbulence that nearly resulted in an mid-flight dramatic breakdown on my part (narrowly avoided due to the kindness of the men I was sitting next to, who talked me through it), I was pretty determined to avoid flying for the foreseeable future. Now I'll be checking out Patrick Smith instead, so thank you!
I have two things to say.
1) You forgot the value of alcohol to help with this (I'm kidding).
2) There is a small but good contingent of Denver BARpod fans and we'll happily buy you a drink next time you're in town. I've now heard of both you and Katie being in Colorado recently without even reaching out and it's deeply offensive. As paid subscribers we have a right, A RIGHT, to your time. (Okay, kidding again, but we *would* be happy to buy you a drink).
My Dad was an aircraft engineer and latterly an aircraft safety inspector (military then civil). Growing up I heard so much about how planes fly (and the detailed safety checks he did) that it just never occurred to me that anyone would be scared of flying. On my very first international flight I was laughing like a kid during turbulence (it's like being on a fairground ride) and then realised everyone around me was grim/crying quietly. I started to talk to scared people on flights after that, explaining what my Dad had taught me about the safety features. It seems to help.
I love flying. It’s one of my favorite things in the world and I’m annoyed I’ve only flown ~50k miles this year (I’ll get another 10k in my EOY, I hope), so I cannot relate to your fear at all, but I’m glad you’ve found some coping mechanisms.
Weirdly — and perhaps perversely — when I was flying the most I’ve ever flown (180k miles in 2019 alone and I got up to 60k in 2020 before I was grounded on March 11), I used to spend much of my time on planes reading books about aviation history and also about famous plane crashes. I read the whole 9/11 Report on an 11-hour flight to Europe once. And on a 17 hour flight back from Dubai, I read a ton of old reports and books about the hijackings in the 70s and stuff. The lack of even basic security at airports and on runways is fascinating, in retrospect (even though TSA is a complete theatrical production). For whatever reason, reading about the stuff that can go wrong has never made me feel less secure, but if anything, made me appreciate the miracle of commercial flight as it exists that much more. And even though I almost always fly alone, there has always been something perversely comforting in known that if the plane does go down, I'll be going down with at least one hundred other people (usually more on the flights I tend to take).
I will say, for nervous flyers, if you’re able to upgrade yourself to a higher class of service, do it. I almost always domestic fly first or international business because of the amount I fly, but it wasn’t always this way. I enjoyed flying when I was young and broke and slumming it in economy, but I really enjoy it now, even with the airline cutbacks to the experience. I’ve flown with enough nervous flying colleagues on both methods to know there is a difference, especially for a long haul flight. The JFK to TLV flight is 12 or 13 hours, depending on wind direction. Way easier to digest for a nervous flyer in a lay flat seat than upright crammed next to a few people.
This was a great personal piece overall, Jesse, but I've got to nitpick one thing: it's "CU Boulder" rather than "UC Boulder." (For some reason the letters are reversed for the University of Colorado ("CU") and the University of Denver ("DU"); I've heard different explanations for that, none of them compelling.)
I will also express surprise that you don't bring a book when you fly. Maybe I'm just too old such that having electronic entertainment on a flight seems like an exception rather than a rule, but I always carry a book with at least 300 unread pages with me when starting a trip that includes flying.
I cherish all flight attendants who stay chatty during turbulence. I was on a really rocky flight where they all had to buckle down, and the looks on their faces sent me into even more of a panic.
This is one of those little oddities that those of us in teeny-weeny countries like the UK can’t relate to. Any domestic flight could easily be replaced by a train journey, if you don’t mind a journey that is five times longer and at a similar multiple of the cost. Wouldn’t work for Tel Aviv though.
I used to be a worry-free flyer.
Then my plane tried to land at Manchester, and got blown sideways off the runway and had to try it all again.
That wasn’t nice.
If it makes you feel any better, I missed my cousin’s wedding because my aunt was pressing me to stay at her house and it gave me bad social anxiety. I don’t know why staying with her or even saying “thanks, but I’ll get a hotel” seemed so difficult. To make things worse he’s my only cousin on that side, so the number of big family events is limited.