• 2018-08-21


Fear of flying comes in many different forms and shapes, and the way it manifests itself in practice heavily depends on age, gender and background amongst many other factors. Meditation, tutorials or even simulator training can be arranged for tackling issues related to fear of flying, however, most of the time the root cause of the anxiety experienced by the individual has nothing to do with flying or aircrafts. Stress induced elsewhere can suddenly break loose in physical form when confined in an area not exposed to so often. Unfamiliar noise, smell, or even perception of the events occurring around you in the aircraft can create an uncomfortable environment of its own. One of the most striking facts is that the great majority of fliers frequently experience some form of anxiety not apparent to others. They are better able to cope with such mental and bodily challenges than others would cope and consequently don’t show any symptoms of agitation. Fear is clearly an inherent biological feeling which cannot be eliminated out of our system since thanks to this natural instinct we can identify hazards and evaluate whether we should fight or flee.

An interesting note about some people with anxiety during flight is that observing the comfort of those sitting next to them makes them feel lonely about their anxiety, being the odd one out, causing them to do more self criticism which doesn’t help at all at times of such discomfort. For the remaining majority, however, calm, relaxed body language and chattering of others acts as reassurance and a catalyst in keeping them calm and relaxed too. The trick is hidden behind how much you dare to question what happens around you. Desire to understand even the most trivial event on board can pave the way to consideration of all the negative eventualities, causing increased breathing rate and other physical effects that stops you from concentrating on normal actions you would otherwise carry out if you were on the ground.

So, what’s the cure? The cure is to feel the remedy in your mind and body, to believe that you are strong and can potentially enjoy the flight as much as others do, despite all the external factors such as turbulence, noise, smell, frowning passengers or flight crew. It surely is easier said than done, but trying this in your next flight is free of charge. Choose to be happy and try to discover something new each time you fly. Speak to the person next to you, make personal judgements of the food you’ve just been served and so on. Get your mind off all the negatives and plan your actions for the duration of the flight as if you were locked in your bedroom or living room. If you were in any one of the latter options, your mind decides to remain calm because you consider these areas to be your safe zones. You can easily make the passenger cabin you are stuck in to be as one of your happy zones too if you decide to treat it just like your living room as well. This is one of the ways pilots try to remain calm in what is known to be one of the most stressful working environments on the planet, not because flying is unsafe, but rather because they have some serious responsibility hidden under their flashy golden stripes. Pilots tend to remain calm because they know the limits of their aircraft, atmosphere within which they fly, and their personal well being. They are well aware that as long as the aircraft is kept to within the three limitations mentioned above, the external factors only create nuisance rather than concern, and you will be pleased to hear that there are many control mechanisms in place which significantly increases redundancy and reduces the likelihood of any one of these limitations being exceeded.

Trying to make sense of everything that happens on board would be naive. Variations in engine noise due to power adjustments, alterations in pitch attitude due to route planning, turbulence due to atmospheric variations in temperature, pressure and wind are simple examples of routine flow of events in different phases of flight. The fact is the mind focuses solely on these events and cannot shift its concentration elsewhere. One of the troubling realities of turbulence is whether the flight crew briefs the passengers on the likelihood of experiencing turbulence or not prior to the actual event. A group of passengers may feel the comfort of being informed in advance and it won’t be a shock to the system. On the contrary, some may start experiencing expectation anxiety, whereas the third group may not be bothered at all about being informed or not. It’s difficult to address the mental state of everyone on board at the best of times, let alone when there are delays and technical matters of concern.

As an example, an aircraft flying across the Atlantic Ocean experiences sudden turbulence of almost severe intensity. Although turbulence is a subjective measurement and depends on aircraft weight/size and speed, severe turbulence in general means large abrupt changes in altitude, attitude and speed with momentary loss of aircraft control. The Captain goes on to inform the passengers that they had just experienced ‘’unexpected’’ turbulence and that the rest of the flight should be smooth. The immediate reaction of one of the passengers was; “how do you know if we are not to have another one when the first one was unexpected too’’. Endless arguments can arise, but it’s essential to concentrate on the overall picture and avoid jumping into hot blooded conclusions for the sake of having an enjoyable journey.

Quite often you can spot people reading books or listening to music to avoid the irritation, but in actual fact reading or listening is not their number one priority in their conscious minds.

Having some basic knowledge on aircraft design and technology can perhaps provide some rest and comfort about most of the fundamental series of events you should expect. The aim here isn’t to bring engineers and pilots out of those who has fear of flying. Essentially, it’s the urge to realise why flying is now a safe mode of transportation compared to other forms of transportation. It takes at least 5 years to bring an aircraft from the design board into the manufacturing stage. Hundreds, if not thousands of engineers combine their know-how together with state of the art technological tools to collectively bring an idea into reality. Each single component of an aircraft gets tested to their design limits based on regulatory restrictions which then enable the aircraft to evolve into the final testing stage of the aircraft in one piece. At this stage, several prototypes are manufactured which are then exposed to thousands of flight test hours including structural, aerodynamics, flight controls, environmental (hot and cold weather), high altitude and performance tests. Scrutiny would be an underestimate as regulatory obligations must be met without exception.

On the age issue, a youngster would potentially possess very little experience of life in relative terms compared to an older peer on board. The exploration mood which youngsters hold in their blood creates divided attention, something they benefit from subconsciously. This allows them to change their priorities in quick succession compared to an older person. As long as obsession is not present, a youngster will soon find himself another area of interest he could concentrate on. There may be exceptions, but observe the behaviour of relatively younger passengers on your next flight to note how they will be more dynamic and creative in switching between different tasks.

Let’s also face the blunt reality that if a person only flies once a year during which he doesn’t have any good memories, his expectations for the next flight will not be very bright either. This brings about the expectation anxiety which we have briefly touched on earlier, literally creating difficult times for the person even though everything is perfectly fine. Confronting your fear with reality and desire to find a lasting solution is of paramount importance even before you step foot in the airport.


Aerospace Engineer, Captain, Type Rating Instructor (B737NG),

English Language Proficiency Examiner