Assuage fear of flying on a small plane
November 25, 2004 8:59 PM   Subscribe

I had a terrifying flight on a small 50-seater plane today. Heavy turbulence, people screaming, lights dimming... I am supposed to fly home on Sunday and although I know it's ridiculous, I just don't think I can step back on a plane so soon. I am planning to rent a car (to drive about 8 hours v. one-hour flight), but am finding this really embarassing (not to mention a waste of time and money). Can anyone offer any advice or online resources that may be of aid and reassurance? [mi]

I did see a similar question posted on AskMeFI but I was hoping for some fresh insight, since most of the answers involved alcohol (flight is at 10 am, and drinking would just make me feel ill anyway), prescription drugs (even if I thought they'd work I am away from home and only have a few days, not sure I could get anything) or longer-term treatments.
posted by amro to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh yeah, and I'm well aware (on an intellectual level) of how my chances of encountering disaster on the 8 hour drive are much greater...
posted by amro at 9:10 PM on November 25, 2004

If you want to assauge your fears, you are FAR, FAR, FAR more likely to die not only just standing there typing this, but so much more driving back home, you could scare yourself out of driving anymore.

Automobile accidents are the leading cause of non-medically-related (there's got to be a better term for this) death in the first world.

Here's the facts for the USA:

Motorized vehicle caused deaths (including airplanes): 47,288 yearly (1 in 78 over a lifetime).
Of which, airplane accidents: 918 yearly (1 in 4023 over a lifetime).

And that airplane stat is extremely high because of 9/11.

Try this site out.
posted by shepd at 9:13 PM on November 25, 2004

Oh yeah, and I'm well aware (on an intellectual level) of how my chances of encountering disaster on the 8 hour drive are much greater...

Argh. Next time type faster! :-P
posted by shepd at 9:24 PM on November 25, 2004

When I fly, I take along a couple mg of Ativan or Xanax, just in case I get it into my head that I'd rather be somewhere else than on that particular plane at that particular instant.

I once started to have some anxiety on a plane, I think. Apparently I took some Xanax - the next thing I remember the nice flight attendant was shaking me awake on an empty plane to tell me that it was time to get off. No memory of anything else related to that flight - it didn't even feel like I'd been asleep.

It's the only way to fly.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:27 PM on November 25, 2004

Eight hours on the road would scare me a lot more than an hour in the air. At least in an airplane you don't have to worry about some other guy falling asleep/driving drunk/being reckless at your expense.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:42 PM on November 25, 2004

I AM NOT A DOCTOR...but in that situation, I would likely take three Benadryl tablets (75 mg) -- maybe four. Sleep your troubles away.
posted by davidmsc at 9:57 PM on November 25, 2004

This might be too simplistic, but it's pretty rare to have two awful flights in a row. Most flights are smooth, except for the occasional rocky one you experienced. So, just from a statistical standpoint, you could comfort yourself with those particular facts. Good luck! I'm an uneasy flyer myself, and I empathize.
posted by Zosia Blue at 10:14 PM on November 25, 2004

Single-malt scotch. Repeat as often as required.

Remember this when you get back on the plane. Lift. Propulsion. As long as you have those two things all the bumpiness amounts to not a whole heck of a lot. Easy for me to say, not having been on your flight, but I've had my fair share of turbulence. And I'd choose it gladly over trying to drive home.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 10:16 PM on November 25, 2004

At least in an airplane you don't have to worry about some other guy falling asleep/driving drunk/being reckless at your expense.

Except, you know, the pilot.

Take some miniscule comfort in this- the odds of being in a plane crash are very, very small. The odds of being in an actually scary flight situation are not much higher. Now, think of the odds of one person being in both statistics. You've had your bad airline mojo.
posted by mkultra at 10:26 PM on November 25, 2004

And don't forget to carry a gun on the plane.

Because, you know, there's not much chance of a gun being on the plane in the first place. So what are the odds of there being two guns on board? Miniscule.

apos to L.A.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:35 PM on November 25, 2004

The last flight I was on was a small 80-or-so-person jet, and there was really bad weather going into Baton Rouge. Nothing like not being able to see anything but grey outside the windows, and then have your stomach lurch as you feel the plane drop, oh, at least 100' in a second or two, along with all the requisite bumps and knocks and high-pitched screams being emitted (by everyone else on the flight, of course). I actually started to pray, but you know what they say about bad habits...

Two things helped me in that situation: the extremely effiminate air steward, who stood up and spoke the words, "The captain requests that everyone remain seated and keep your safety belts fastened," as he did his best human pinball impersonation; and the Army guy next to me, who said, "You call this turbulence? Try going over the mountains in a cargo plane with no seats in preparation of a jump. Hell, we're only about 1000 feet up. We could survive a crash at this height."

When we landed I uttered an emphatic "Terra firma!" and the Army guy laughed. Then I thanked the captain for the ride as I disembarked.

Ok, I guess this post isn't very helpful so far. Anyway, I'm flying to Portland, OR and Baton Rouge next month, and I've got all sorts of trepidation built up. But I'm getting on those planes because I've already survived the worst flight of my life. Every other flight I've been on has been nothing like that. The chances of the next flight being the same or worse are next to nothing.

Hell everything in life is a risk, we just do most things so often we forget about their risks. You'll be fine.
posted by m0nm0n at 10:47 PM on November 25, 2004

Hell, we're only about 1000 feet up. We could survive a crash at this height.

Now, THAT is what I call positive thinking!
posted by jmd82 at 11:34 PM on November 25, 2004 [1 favorite]

You survived your scary flight -- which means there was no reason to actually be scared, right? There won't be any reason to be scared on your next flight, either.
posted by kindall at 12:04 AM on November 26, 2004

In dangerous weather, the pilot should either not take off, fly around the weather, or fly above it. A pilot who flies through dangerous weather either didn't know about it (incompitence on the part of the pilot or airline) or didn't care.

I'm not sure that's fair. Turbulence happens, and it is more likely to happen to a 50-seater as you point out. A turboprop pilot is less likely to be able to get the altitude to avoid it or have the extra fuel to go around it.

And you can request another kind of equipment but I think if the airline already offered it you would be unlikely to be on a turboprop in the first place.
posted by grouse at 1:50 AM on November 26, 2004

A few months back I was on a twin propeller 50 seater and it was the worst, scariest flight I ever experienced. We took off from Atlanta, Georgia to North Carolina.

When we got in the plane and got ready to take off, the plane stood in the runway for about an hour. Then when we started to take off, the plane started swaying HARD to the left and right of the runway to the point where I looked out the window and couldn't see the asphalt anymore, just the grass. Then when the plan finally took off, we were about 1000 feet high and the plane was at a climbing angle but we were dropping fast. Then the engines got turned up and we straightened out. I was so pissed at the flight crew for that.

Finally near the destination, the stewards were walking the rows when the damn pilots decided it would be kind of cool to suddenly jerk the plane into a deep dive, probably beyond flight spec for commercial flight. The stewards were holding on for dear life. It was a good thing the plane landed only 3/4's as poorly as it took off.
posted by Keyser Soze at 3:03 AM on November 26, 2004

posted by thinkpiece at 5:37 AM on November 26, 2004

RunningDog nailed it. Planes are designed to handle extreme stress loads and turbulance is the aerial equivilant of driving on a road with lots of potholes. Just have confidence that the pilots know what they are doing and are working hard to make sure the plane lands safely.

That being said, it is nice when the pilot explains what's going on. It goes a long way to relieving the passengers' anxiety. On two occasions while flying into Toronto, I've been subjected to an aborted landing. You've never had a "holy shit" moment until seconds before touchdown the engines wind up to full power, the nose pulls up to some ridiculous angle and the plane veers hard right or left. The first time it happened to me the Pilot never said anything about it. The second time the Pilot got on the intercom as soon as he could and explained how a business jet hadn't gotten off the runway in time.
posted by smcniven at 6:22 AM on November 26, 2004

*In dangerous weather, the pilot should either not take off, fly around the weather, or fly above it. ....

What feels rough to the pasengers is usually not dangerous for the plane or the pilot. Planes are built to take a lot and pilots are trained to fly in it. Although a pilot is ultimatly responsible for the safety of an aircraft, commercial pilots fly when their company says it's ok to fly, and stay on the ground when their company says it's not safe to fly, based on ATC and weather advisories.

If you landed safely after a rough flight and approach it means the pilot is VERY competent.
posted by bondcliff at 6:32 AM on November 26, 2004

I just returned from a 14 flight adventure through Asia. My doctor gave me XANAX to help me sleep on the long hauls. I highly recommend getting some if you need to sleep or have anxiety. They completely chill you out without any nasty after-effects. I would take one about 15 minutes before boarding. I don't even remember taking off from Tokyo. Like ikkyu2 said, it's the only way to fly.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:50 AM on November 26, 2004

Response by poster: That being said, it is nice when the pilot explains what's going on.

Absolutely... Our pilot never said anything, and I wish he would have.
posted by amro at 7:08 AM on November 26, 2004

Can you find a more circuitous route home on bigger planes?
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:18 AM on November 26, 2004

Are you travelling with others? Just talk to people for as long as possible. Get yourself engaged in a passionate political debate, you won't even think about it until it is all over.

Okay, okay, it doesn't have to be politics, just something you are able to really get lost in (well, hopefully the person you are talking with is that interested too).
posted by Chuckles at 7:33 AM on November 26, 2004

If you landed safely after a rough flight and approach it means the pilot is VERY competent.

you mean the majority of flights through such conditions would have ended in disaster? or that all pilots are above average?
posted by andrew cooke at 8:36 AM on November 26, 2004

you mean the majority of flights through such conditions would have ended in disaster? or that all pilots are above average?

I think he means the standard of practice among pilots is exemplary.
posted by Chuckles at 9:12 AM on November 26, 2004

The best way to conquer fear is to face it. In other words, if you don't want a long-term (or permanent) fear of flying, get back on a plane as soon as possible. One or two uneventful flights are all you need to get back to normal.
It's tough to do, but it works.
posted by rocket88 at 9:14 AM on November 26, 2004

Salon has a great ongoing series called Ask the Pilot, which occasionally delves into situations like this, as well as crash analysis, airplane models, airport quality, and other interesting stuff. It probably won't help you in this instance, but reading it delivers a good sanity check against a lot of popular perceptions.
posted by mkultra at 10:01 AM on November 26, 2004

I haven't flown in ten years. I enjoyed flying, but I hated airports. Too many people waiting in disorderly lines for stupid reasons. The airlines that overbook every flight are happy to take my money, but they won't guarantee that I'll be allowed to board. They won't guarantee the plane will depart or arrive on time, or even that it will land where they planned. And they solve financial losses by cutting meals, pillows, movies, magazines, and frequent-flier miles. I respond, as a consumer, by taking my business elsewhere.

I enjoy driving. I control my trip. I can coast along highways or wind through back roads. I can stop for lunch whenever and wherever I choose. I risk the same problems -- traffic, weather, accidents -- but I'm not dependent on a pilot to solve them. I can spend a week driving to Florida, stopping to visit Washington and North Carolina on the way; and I can make the return trip in 19 hours and 54 minutes.

Memories of driving through the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, the open land of Ohio, the Colorado mountains, the California coast...memories of driving are far more vivid, and have contributed more to my life, than memories of airline seats and baggage carousels. My two cents? Spend the eight hours.
posted by cribcage at 10:06 AM on November 26, 2004

amro -

As an alternative (or addition) to drugs and/or alcohol, you might try talking to other people about this. Online isn't interactive enough, I think, to help you much with the irrationality part of the problem.

It's probably best to limit such conversations to those who you think will be sympathetic, and it's also probably best if these conversations are one-on-one (if you can). My experience is that fears are strongest when they're bottled up inside; when you examine them in detail, they can look a bit less intimidating.

For these conversations, you might start by saying what you did in your first posting. Just consider to whom you'd be comfortable saying "I think it might help if I talked more about this. Would you mind telling me what you think?" You can also ask whomever you're talking to about whether he or she has ever had a similar experience (driving through a narrow tunnel or over a bridge with narrow lanes, elevators or heights, snakes, whatever), because what you're facing is as much or more a general problem (irrational fear) well as a specific one (unique characteristics of airline flying).

I also suggest that you acknowledge, to yourself as well as outloud, that if/when you do fly again, you're going to feel (to some extent) afraid, and that is perfectly normal and natural. Your goal isn't to be unafraid; it's to manage the fear that will naturally arise when you next fly, and probably for at least a few more times.

Finally, I'm not sure if going over the details of the flight, and/or discussing hard facts (likelihood of dying in a car versus in a plane), is where you're going to find relief. Talking about how you feel, rather than how you should rationally think, is probably better (informal) therapy.

I wish you all the best.
posted by WestCoaster at 10:12 AM on November 26, 2004

1. The airplane WILL NOT fall apart. You wouldn't belive the amount of work that goes into desining one, and the stresses they are built to handle. (Yes, I am a Engineer.)

2. The turbulence you felt.. though bad to you, used to be very very normal in the 1920's and 1930's. Why do you think they have barf bags? If those planes could survive the horrible weather, you have nothing to worry about in a modern one, where unsafe weather is spotted on radar, reported by other flights ahead of you etc..

3. It's common to be scared of flying. There is nothing holding you up, you don't have the feeling that you can just get out if something goes wrong, like a car or train. The curious part is that it's one of the safest ways to travel, bar none.. yet is is the method of transportation most feared. Rational thought has nothing to do with it, I know.

4. If you really can't stand the thought of flying, travel by ground transportation. If you can find a direct route, the bus isn't that bad (and cheap!) or the train even, which is quite a lot of fun.
posted by defcom1 at 12:00 PM on November 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

To be honest, despite my attempts at being very rational and knowledge of all the comments like defcom1's, I haven't been able to fly on anything smaller than a 737-ish aircraft in years. Although a few years ago I had no choice as my Newark-Rome flight was so late the original connector to Palermo was long gone and we were forced onto some older 60 seater, fortunately the up and down was really quick (and smooth).
posted by billsaysthis at 2:26 PM on November 26, 2004

Apparently I took some Xanax - the next thing I remember the nice flight attendant was shaking me awake on an empty plane to tell me that it was time to get off.

I've never had trouble with being nervous on flights, but.... Whoa! What do I have to do to get some Xanax?! =)
posted by idontlikewords at 4:08 PM on November 26, 2004

I like flying United because you can listen in on the air traffic control frequency and you can hear the pilot discussing turbulence and routing with the control towers. If I'm nervous during a flight, it really helps.
posted by SpecialK at 5:37 PM on November 26, 2004

The overall logistics of modern air travel give me the screaming wibblies.

I've only flown once, though. And the whole thing is just understandably and absolutely terrifying on a grand scale. Pop Will Eat Itself has a great song from (I think) Cure From Sanity about flying on airlines.

But it's also a swift kick in the pants in a fun rollercoaster sort of way, and that's how I try to think of it, and just try to get the most out of it. (Yeah, I like rollercoasters. A lot. I'd ride shotgun in a high performance trainer/combat jet in a fraction of a heartbeat, as well.)

On my one and only flight I flew out of Burbank to Portland on a mostly empty MD-11. The captain warned us we had thunderheads over the deserts, and he was going to try to climb over them, but we had to punch through a major portion of it.

I'd already had my laptop out and belt unbuckled and such, and when we hit the heavy turbulance my first reaction was to literally go "Whooo!" and put my hands in the air like I was on a coaster, meanwhile my laptop is intermittently floating in front of me as I float partially in and out of my seat.

It was just that instinctive, and I pretty thoroughly enjoyed the whole low to negative g-forces thing despite all the odd looks of the passengers, obviously thinking "Uhh, that's not supposed to be fun!".

And I learned that it's a pretty good idea to get used to being buckled in for as much of the flight as you can. It keeps you from hitting your head on the ceiling, or possibly landing in your neighbor's lap three rows away. It'll keep you in the plane if it depressurizes or has a hull malfunction or whatever, however unlikely.
posted by loquacious at 6:02 PM on November 26, 2004

Even though there are many well reasoned responses above as to why no one should fear flying, they really do nothing to help those of us who suffer this extreme fear. Intellectually it is reasonable that aircraft are safe and there is a sound scientific explanation as to exactly what stops the aircraft from plummeting to the ground. The fear itself is unreasonable, thus a reasonable explanation doesn't combat it.

Before I discovered the wonders of Xanax (you can probably get a prescription by calling your doctor's office and having it called into a local pharmacy), I would simply talk to whomever was unlucky enough to be stuck sitting next to me on a flight. I've had a lot of interesting conversations with people.

If you don't feel comfortable talking to a stranger, take some melatonin (available over the counter) or benedryl. Both will help you sleep. However, they will not help you relax unless you take them well in advance to boarding. The downside is that these products tend to make one groggy and you run the risk of not being clear thinking upon landing if you're taking a short flight.

The most basic way to combat the fear is to concentrate on something, anything else other than flying. Try concentrating on the lyrics of a song or make a grocery list in your head. Just anything to get your mind off of being in a plane.
posted by Juicylicious at 7:59 AM on November 27, 2004

I second the roller coaster, and I've never been on one in my life, so apparently experience isn't required. With a few minutes practice, you can consciously change your intitial reaction to a "Whee!" in your head, and it becomes easier every time you make the substitution.

If you can get a window seat, one good distraction is to shoot digital pictures of the clouds out the window, and you can use the results for wallpaper on your computer.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 10:05 AM on November 27, 2004

Here's one more vote for the 'treat it like a rollercoaster' idea.

I don't think anybody finds a turbulent ride on a CRJ-100 to be as relaxing as a smooth one on a 747-400, but it's not that dangerous.

Given the choice of bouncing through the sky through pouring rain, or squinting through my windshield, I'd always prefer the plane, even though it means giving up the comfortable feeling of a steering wheel in my own hands.
posted by mosch at 10:41 AM on November 27, 2004

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