Tuesday conversation: flying.

I’m flying to South Carolina today, which is a decent little hop from Kansas City.  Still, eight hours of time spent traveling in order to get to the East Coast is a pretty sweet deal.

I fly a lot, and have done so for the last couple of years.  I’m still scared shitless to fly.  Every single bump of turbulence makes me stop breathing, and I’ve even been known to quietly scream in bad turbulence.  I know the statistics.  I know the physics of air travel.  I’m still scared (though, I imagine I’d be less scared without those pieces of knowledge).

The most successful way I’ve found to conquer my fear of flying will seem unorthodox: I watch documentaries of airplane crashes.  You’d think that would make matters worse, but it doesn’t.  I’ve learned that people often survive crashes on the rare occasion they do occur, and I’ve also learned the myriad of things that have to go wrong in unison for a plane to crash because of a mechanical failure.

The rule of thumb for airplanes is that every system must be redundant, so a single mechanical failure cannot cause a plane to crash.  But even without that, think about when cars break down.  Well-maintained cars are generally incredibly reliable.  It’s the ones that have had the check engine light on for the last hundred miles that wind up breaking down.  Well, when a plane has the equivalent of a “check engine” light come on, they ground that shiz and fix immediately.  Imagine if we did that with cars.

The reason planes actually tend to crash is because of pilot error, which is still extremely rare.

Still, catastrophic failures do happen, which is why you should always wear your seat belt.

Are you afraid of flying?  Did you ever get over it?  How?

Have you never flown?  Do you want to?

FAITH: Jesus is not the answer to this question.
PERSONAL: Cancer sucks.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • ajb47

    Scared of it, even though, like you, I understand the safety numbers and the physics. It probably doesn’t help that I’m afraid of heights. Strangely, or not, my fear has gotten worse the more I fly. I’ve taken to using dramamine since the time I got extremely nauseous on approach to Charlotte during a rainstorm.

    I am now saving up my courage for a trip to Europe because I really want to go, but it’s going to have to be along trip because I don’t think I’ll be able to manage another one, so I want to see just everything.

  • iknklast

    I’ve never been afraid of flying; I am, however, afraid of riding in a car. Perhaps because I’ve flown often without incident, and it’s fun to look down and see the clouds below me. I’ve had instances when driving where the other car on the road near me is ignoring red lights, driving too fast, talking on the phone with one hand while holding a cup of coffee in the other (probably steering his Hummer with his knees in rush-hour Dallas traffic!), or just plain incompetent. I also know the statistics.

    Frankly, I’d rather be on a train anytime, but it’s more for comfort than safety reasons.

    I wish I could help you get over your fear of flying, but if the statistics don’t do it, I don’t have any tricks to help you.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      I’ve never been on a train, though I’d like to have that experience. Maybe if I ever get hauled over to Europe to speak. :P

      • iknklast

        I recommend taking a train tour across our own country. I take Amtrak to visit my son in Sacramento (I live in Nebraska, so it’s a long trip) and there is no prettier journey you could make. You go through the Rocky Mountains, and since you’re not driving, you get to enjoy the scenery.

        Of course, I can’t do that when I only have a weekend. It has to be a longer trip, because it takes as long to get there by train as to drive there. I always look at that for a vacation trip, not a working jaunt.

        • Stogoe

          I would love to take the Chicago to Sacramento line sometime. I took the Empire Builder from the Twin Cities to Glacier several years ago and enjoyed it immensely.

          I don’t fly often, but when I do I always have a general queasiness and unease. Just a general off-kilter-ness. I’d much rather take the train.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    I’m not afraid to fly, but I’ll tell you how I overcame my fear of heights…

    I’m a classical music recording engineer, and I often have to hang microphones in theaters and concert halls. Once, long ago, I had to go out on a catwalk — and it was just a steel grid, from which I could look straight down between my feet, a hundred feet down to the theater seats. I had no choice, I had to go. I couldn’t change the situation, but I was able to change my ~thoughts~. I decided that this wasn’t going to be terrifying, it was going to be ~exciting~. And it was — and I did it!

    This trick has served me well ever since, when I have had to confront a scary situation.

  • https://www.facebook.com/anwilliams618 Ashley

    I’m no stranger to flying. I’ve made five trans-Atlantic flights and countless ones across North America.

    I’ve only become recently terrified of flying, though I’ve never let it stop me. On a day of travel like the one you’re facing, I’ll usually have at least one panic attack. During every flight, I try to “get okay” with the outcome of the plane going down. I find it to be extremely emotionally taxing.

    • neatospiderplant

      “During every flight, I try to “get okay” with the outcome of the plane going down. I find it to be extremely emotionally taxing.”

      I do the same thing!

      When I was a teenager, lightning hit our house while I was on the phone and I got a bit of a zap.

      About a month later, our venture group (Boy-scout type program for 14-17 year olds, but co-ed) was on a 4 day canoe trip and it started to storm. I freaked out and they ‘pulled over’ to the nearest shore, but after letting me freak out for a few minutes, insisted we had to cross the lake to our campsite for the evening. I was terrified of being on the open water in a storm, but they insisted we had to cross. I got back in the canoe thinking “This is it. I am going to get hit by lightning and die in this canoe.” It ‘worked’ (in that I calmed down enough to not tip the canoe). It’s not fun though to psyche yourself up for that.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      Ditto! I know that feeling of coming to grips with dying in a crash every five minutes…

  • invivoMark

    I’ve been flying since I was a baby, so it’s never bothered me in the least.

    On the other hand, I love airports! Unusual, I know. But think about it – you’ve got people from all walks of life, from all places, sharing a common experience. You’ve got wide-open spaces, tons of walking room, stuff to see, smells and sounds and windows everywhere. And best of all, you don’t have to do anything. The only obligation you have in an airport is to travel forward through time – literally the most effortless thing in the world. Nothing you say or do or think in an airport will change anything in your life. Whatever you do, (within reason, of course) you will still be in the exact same place, at the exact same time, with the exact same people, on a different side of the freaking planet.

    Of course, that changes somewhat with WiFi, or if you have work to do en route, etc. Still, I find airports to be some of the most liberating and relaxing places in the world. Maybe I’m just weird. Probably.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      I freaking love airports! It’s time to myself when I can work and chill. :)

  • John

    @Peter N – That trick works for my generalized anxiety disorder too. I realized I can’t tell the physiological signs between excitement and fear apart, and that most of the time I’d just been assuming they were fear. I tried to assume they were excitement, and most of the time it works. Funny how the mind works.

    As for flying – flying is AWESOME. I want to yell wahoo every time the burst of speed for takeoff hits and the screaming jets hurl me into the sky.

  • http://atheistlogic.wordpress.com OmniZ

    I am *so* terrified of flying. For my flight to Skepticon this year, I paid way more money than I really needed to just so that I could take the one flight that would cut my flight time in half (6 hours instead of 12).

    This is what’s happening in my head when I’m on an airplane: “Holy fuck holy fuck holy fuck no you’re okay the plane isn’t going to crash think about anything else no literally think about anything else remember that scene in Lost when the plane breaks apart midair? no what the fuck are you doing don’t think about that you’re going to be fine you’re going to be fine you’re going to be fine it’s alright don’t worry stop panicking oh god what was that bump i don’t want to die no stop it’ll be fine you know the statistics stop thinking about it you’re going to be fine think of something else remember that scene in Superman returns when the plane starts falling out of the sky? no stop it think about something other than airplane crashes in moves you’re going to be fine oh god i’m going to die”

    For six. Fucking. Hours. (or more)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      I’ll give you a big hug at Skepticon. :)

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

    With flying, I think about the pilot and flight crew. They do this every day, through all kinds of flight conditions, and here they are, calm, cool and collected. This flight is less stressful for them than my drive to work is for me (I hate driving). If they can do thousands of hours in the air with no problem, I can manage three or four.

    Plus, from time spent flying around the southwest in a 4-seater, when you are in a plane the ground is not your friend. Being up high seems scary, but being up high means the pilot has lots and lots of time to adjust for anything that might happen.

  • neatospiderplant

    I would say I am nervous of flying. I just have a lot more experience being on solid ground. I will fly somewhere, but only if I can’t realistically drive there, and if I deem the purpose of the trip worth it. I’m lucky that although my husband likes flying (he eventually wants to get his pilot’s license), he agrees to drive with me for longer distance trips.

    One thing I love about driving long distances is watching the scenery change in a way that doesn’t happen in a plane. Hubby and I went on a long driving trip a couple years back from Ontario to Alberta to California and back to Ontario, and it was neat to see the geographical transition from Canadian shield to flat prairies to the Rockies. Then the climate difference from “my thickest winter coat warm” Edmonton to “T-shirt weather warm” California.

  • Baal

    I hate flying but don’t fear it. It’s noisy and I have to smell other people and be allergic to their cats and catch their colds and keep them from pushing my son (seriously, I almost attacked a lady after she push him three times when we were deplaning (I did get in her face(politely))) and and and. It’s just unpleasant.
    On a different note, It might be helpful were I generally more fearful. I don’t seem to have it in me to have physiological fear and I’m an anti-fear based reasoning (mental fear?) activist.

  • Joe T

    Flying doesn’t bother me in the least, and not only that, skydiving doesn’t bother me much either. I’ve gone twice and if it wasn’t for the cost I’d probably go every week.

    My mother is terrified of flying and just about everything else including; cats, birds, horses, bugs, long car rides, foreign travel, physical exertion, exotic foods, roller coasters, I think you get the idea. Sometimes it’s very trying being her son but I love her anyway.

  • otocump

    As a former AME-S (Fixer of aircraft stricture) I know very intimately how and why planes fall out of the sky. What and how things go wrong, why all sorts of nasty things can happen. Just how little aluminium there is between comfy passengers and stark raving terror and certain death. (Hint: Not much) And…knowing all that, I’d fly just about any airlines in north america without a second glance. No problem at all. Its incredibly safe, and there is a certain knowledge that if…IF…something goes wrong, whatever happens is going to get studied the hell out of and fixed for other people to hopefully NOT die because of that. I honestly find that more comforting then a car. A car crashes and it takes decades for things to get fixed or modified or realized how broken certain ‘saftey’ features are. Aviation industry is much quicker. Small comfort when I’d be dead, I realize, but still its the grander picture that reassures me about the industry.
    Not flawless, but in the end it reacts to changes and problems better then any other transportation industry ever has or had to. That makes me feel perfectly comfortable jumping on the newest airliner or the older 737′s without a worry.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      Bingo. :)

      That’s the whole point of these documentaries I watch. Half of it depicts the crash, the other half chronicles the investigation team that goes in and figures out what happened, along with what changes were made to the air industry after that. :)

      • otocump

        It might also be that I held a Gliders Licence at 17. Flying without an engine and only the most basics of instruments for hours on end gives a different perspective on how reliable and safe flying is, in the hands of the trained and knowledgeable of course.
        I’d recommend a Mayday episode describing the ‘Gimli Glider’. An excellent example of something going horribly wrong yet skill and training bringing everyone home safe.
        Another example immediately recognisable…Apollo 13.

        What DOES scare me though, hot air balloons. Those things are scary. Very VERY limited control of flight, and there are less then two dozen properly licensed balloon mechanics in North America (last I checked) Don’t fly in those. Chances are they weren’t maintained/overhauled on schedule.

  • Silent Service

    I love flying.

  • Docchilie

    A couple Xanax usually does the trick.

  • Compuholic

    I simply love flying, at least if the flight itself is rather short (a couple hours is fine). If the flight gets too long I get bored. Although I don’t have a fear of flying my mother has. As a kid I was a real asshole and made fun of it all the time.

    I now understand that people with a fear of flying (or any phobia) usually know perfectly well that their fear is irrational but can’t do anything about it, like a panic reaction. What I never really understood is how that is possible.

    The closest I’ve come to a panic was while diving: I had the subjective feeling I was not getting enough air although the regulator was working perfectly fine. But since I learned that this can be caused by stress I just settled down a little and after a couple of seconds the sensation went away as fast as it appeared. So I don’t really understand the whole uncontrollable thing.

  • Highlander

    Fear of flying is irrational just like religion is irrational. However, over coming that fear is much more difficult than overcoming faith. I don’t know why, perhaps because fear originates in a more primitive and unconsious part of the brain than faith. Maybe Frank Herbert can help:


    • Kodie

      The only reason not to be afraid of flying is statistics and technology. Planes work and don’t crash a lot. When they do, they interrupt The Price is Right. Is there anything to being at that altitude (other than not being close to the ground) that might cause a dread or fear reaction? I mean, similar to how people get seasick.

      People don’t usually feel as panicked in a boat about things that could go wrong in the middle of the ocean and I’m not sure if that’s all the lifeboats or most people know how to swim so they at least have a chance to save themselves for a little while. Car fatalities are more common, but spread out and then accidents aren’t always fatal. You feel like you could go out in your car but even if you get into an accident, you probably won’t die. They don’t interrupt the TV shows when someone has a car crash unless it’s a school bus. They show crashes on the news later on but often enough, nobody dies. They are not reporting car fatalities nationally every day or people would know about it.

      I think there may be something to fear of flying being related to fear of knowing other people aren’t crazy about flying either and go nuts sometimes. When a plane goes down, everyone goes down, but that hardly ever happens. The news is always talking about air traffic controllers who fall asleep, pilots who drink, how germy planes are, how expensive it is to fly, how early you have to get to the airport, the pervy TSA gauntlet, and you know if you had your way, you would be alone in your car, only faster, not up in the sky in a bus full of … other people. Besides that, being the person who has to drive and hates being a passenger, even in a car, flying doesn’t have enough good things to say about it. It’s faster. That’s about it.

  • Karen

    I despise flying, just because of the discomfort; after three or four hours at a time in the air, every damn joint goes stiff and it takes days to unstiffen. I used to fly frequently on business, and had far more headcolds than I did before and after that stretch of time. Turbulence doesn’t scare me, but it’s hard on my stomach; I remember one flight where I got out the barf bag (though I didn’t ultimately end up using it) while the lady in the seat beside me was *reading*! Finally, I almost always get a nasty in-flight headache.

    Flying is not for me.

  • Azkyroth

    I am only mildly disconcerted by flying, but I find Security Theater to be so utterly intolerable and airplanes to be so cramped and their climate control to be such a crapshoot (at best) that I go to significant lengths to avoid it.

  • Amyc

    I’ve only ever flown once, and that was because I was in a car accident. In the boonies of Texas, if you have a head injury, they medi-lift you out and take you to the nearest hospital that can handle those injuries. It’s super expensive, and really scary.

  • J*

    I love the flying part of flying. Once the wheels lift off I’m gold. But the rest of makes me incredibly nervous. I’m afraid I’m gonna miss the flight, it’s gonna be cancelled, it’s gonna be delayed, I’m gonna be picked for extra screening. Not stuff that matters in the grand scheme of things. But there’s a visceral reaction happening when I’m enroute to the airport. Even if I’m way early.

    I think it has to do with never getting to travel anywhere as a kid. The first few times I flew I was certain something would go wrong because “this is too cool to happen to me.” it’s gotten better over the years but the remnants are still there.

  • Gilraen

    I used to love flying. But the older I’ve gotten, the worse my fear is. The best advice I ever heard is:

    If the flight attendants aren’t worried, you don’t need to be worried. When they look scared, then it’s time to panic.

  • RuQu

    I found this thread astounding.

    There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. You are safer than you are almost anywhere else, and you have no control over the outcome so the only rational response is acceptance.

    I do, however, fly far less often now than I used to. I can’t stand the illusion of safety that is the massive inconvenience of airport safety, combined with the indignity of a 6foot tall 205lb man strapped into a chair clearly designed for someone no larger than 5’6″ and 135lbs. The combination of being cramped, uncomfortable and highly inconvenienced and being told I should be grateful for the experience is highly off-putting. I will typically drive anywhere within 14 hours of driving time just to avoid it.

  • D-Dave

    Riding in an airplane is flying as much as riding on a boat is swimming :P

    I’m actually the opposite of you in the flight regard, JT – if at the end of a flight there WASN’T at least a little bit of turbulence, I’m slightly disappointed*. It’s that unexpected, temporary bit of air movement that reminds you that you ARE in this big, metal bird of mankind’s devising, which is squillions of times cooler than being in yet another landbound commuter vehicle.

    *And no, I can’t easily reconcile this with my strong distaste of most roller coasters or other amusement park rides.