Flying Is Terrifying


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A British Airways flight en route from London to Gibraltar was diverted to the Spanish city of Malaga on Monday after strong winds prevented the aircraft from landing safely. The footage is absolutely terrifying.

In a video shot by a man on the ground, you can clearly see the plane sharply swaying back and forth like it was a toy controlled by a toddler:

The passengers are all fine (though thoroughly shaken up) and in a statement, British Airways assured that “At no point was there a risk to safety.” Still, as someone who is afraid of flying, this makes me want to—for lack of a better phrase—fucking barf.

I suspect that my fear of flying either started or intensified with 9/11; seeing footage of planes flying into buildings on loop as a 10-year-old was bound to have a negative impression on me, an anxious child who already mulled over death constantly. But while I’ve lugged my fear of flying around for nearly two decades now, the specificities of my fear have morphed with time. What began as a fear of terrorist hijackings or bombs turned into a fear of crashing into the mountains, oceans, and lakes mid-flight. Now, when I’m not worrying about suicidal pilots or watching Air Disasters like a masochist, I’m fretting over the two biggies: Take off and landing.

Most plane accidents occur at take-off and landing; according to Travel and Leisure, Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club — The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life estimated that, “80 percent of all plane crashes happen within the first three minutes of a flight or in the last eight minutes before landing.” Yes, statistics also show that my chances of dying in a plane crash are one in however many million—or that my chance of dying on the car ride to the airport are far higher—but it’s hard to be rational when you have an irrational fear. It’s in the name!

Still, I have to fly. My parents live on the other side of the country and I like to travel. I flew approximately 15 times last year alone, so until we find a way to teleport, I’m stuck doing this shit: gripping my seat’s armrests like I’m about to go into labor whenever we’re taking off or experiencing a bumpy descent, only allowing myself to breathe normally once at cruising altitude.

My fear of flying is moderately controlled by a set of (absurd) rituals that do little to ease my fear but help provide a very temporary sense of control.

First, if I’m lucky enough to have extra Klonopin—or, in a pinch, Benadryl—I take a tablet about an hour before my flight. This barely works, but whatever.

I then board the plane, ideally set to sit in a window seat. A window seat provides a sense of security that a center or aisle seat does not: From there, I imagine that I can at least see if a gaggle of geese get caught in the engine, or if another plane is about to T-bone ours, or if there’s a monster on the wing. In a twisted way, I figure I’d prefer to see what terrible gruesome incident seals my fate than to be ignorant of it.

From there, I frantically pull up a few pages on my phone’s browser prior to take off. A quick Google of “how to be less afraid of take off” and I’m off, opening a number of links into new browser tabs to read like mantras prior to take off; I always end up at this random Metafilter discussion, and find it deeply comforting… for a moment.

As soon as the plane starts gaining speed on the runway, I forget all of those nice, comforting articles and prepare for the worst. My lizard brain takes over and reminds me of how fucked up this entire experience is: preparing to take to the skies in a metal box that’s making weird noises, emitting a faint smell of fuel, rattling away thousands of feet in the air. In those first few minutes I tell myself that I’ve had a nice, fulfilling life and just in case the worst happens, that at least it’ll be a quick, painless death that I probably won’t even register. I blast music to help ease what could be my impending death, and then… nothing.

Nothing. I’m always fine. And even the roughest landing has left me unscathed.

So, why can’t I get over this shit already?

It’s because all the facts in the world, and all my largely pleasant in-flight experiences can’t shake off the one thought that pokes and prods in the back of my mind. Unfortunately, it is best summed up in this grim Quora question:

Even if the chances of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million, what if my plane is the 1 that is going to crash from the 11 million? The people who died in plane crashes also told themselves that the chances of a plane crash are very slim.

If anyone has any tips for being less of a neurotic maniac on flights, I’m all ears. But for the foreseeable future, I’m likely to board every plane as if it’s my last.


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