Fear of Flying

Something strange is happening to me and I can’t stop it. I seem to be developing, after about 20 years of regular plane journeys, a fear of flying.

It gets worse every time I fly. So saying that I’ll get used to it or learn to deal with it is simply wasted on me. However, no matter how bad the fear gets I have never not flown, and I never will give into it, but it does make flying a tad more difficult.

I used to be carefree flyer, but it all went wrong three years ago when I was flying from Hong Kong to New Zealand. We hit a bad patch of turbulence, which I usually enjoy because the bumpiness sends me to sleep. But this wasn’t just bumpiness this was full on, dice in a cup situation. I was shaken like a rag doll, up, down and side to side. And to top off 30 minutes of turbulent torture the plane dropped out of the sky for quite a few feet which felt like an alarming version of a drop ride at Alton Towers. My stomach was in my mouth and my brain was scrambled eggs and I didn’t recover until we had landed.

I began researching and asking advice on how to cope with a fear of flying but after a few dud methods I came up with my own, very simple way of coping.

But first, the methods that don’t work for me.


The facts method

‘You are far more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash.’ Thank you for reminding me of death while I am waiting for this hunk of metal to take off and thank you for reminding me how terrifying the motorway can be. This has no way alleviated my stress. In fact I’m now imagining horrific car accidents.

People think that by giving you the facts, that your plane is very unlikely to crash, they will reassure you and assuage any worry. Well it doesn’t work. Because even mentioning the idea of a plane crash makes me feel like I will puke on the woman’s head in front. The rate of plane crashes has no effect on me, for one, I could be in the damn unlucky plane, and two it isn’t so much the fact of a grisly plane crash that makes me feel ill, it’s just the entire flying procedure. It feels wrong to be 20,000 feet up in the air, it feels wrong to hurtle into the sky in a tin full of people and it feels very wrong when the plane encounters turbulence.

That exact method is what had me almost running off the plane on a flight to Edinburgh. I was sat at the window seat jammed in by two other passengers; the ceiling felt too low, the floor too high and the beautiful English weather was blowing a ferocious gale outside which was shaking the stationary plane. I began to feel increasingly on edge. My friend next to me gave me the spiel about the statistics of plane crashes. I thought, I’m on that one in million plane that crashes, I know I am, for sure. I shot up out of my seat and gingerly waved the air hostess over to me and meekly whispered that I need to get off the plane. We had already begun to move so that was pretty much that. As we took off into the lashing rain and rumbling wind I knew, this is it. It wasn’t, obviously, but if you’re ever on a plane with a nervous flyer do try your utmost not to mention the words crash or plane in the same sentence.


The medication method

Getting high before you get high is the go-to method for many of the flight adverse. But this comes with its own set of problems. Yes it knocks you out for the flight but you may also not be too with it when you land. Or if you do crash good luck getting out of a plane when you’re high on sedatives and your limbs are made of jelly.

When you land in a foreign country it is probably best to have your head screwed on right. So if in doubt take the smallest amount or do a test run a week before to see how long the effects last. I did neither of these things. Taking what was (I now believe) strong enough to have smacked a stallion to the floor, I merrily took off for New Zealand one year and unsurprisingly was not conscious for the flight. Excellent. But the catch came when I landed. Tottering out of the plane, all smiles and sleepy eyes, I lined up in the mammoth queue for customs. It was not my friendly manner that had me pulled aside but I can only suppose my confused, dribbling responses to their loud, direct and very serious questions. In the scrupulously clean interrogation room a towering, pissed off man and burly, uncharmable woman set about questioning me some more. On my second ‘OK’ the man boom ‘it’s not OK it’s YES MAM’. Alrighty then. When they said they needed to take swabs I braced myself for the worst but it turns out they meant my hands and shoes. They broke me and I admitted my sins: a bag of dried fruit I had forgotten about and having taken something to relax me, which might explain my odd demeanour. I was detained for only about half an hour or so but I had the fear of god shot into me and my clouded brain and hazy grasp on the situation did not help. This was not the best introduction into New Zealand.


The taking flying lessons method

Someone recommended I take flying lessons. Really? Flying lessons? I’m barely a passable driver. This might work very well for some people but if I was taught how to fly I would probably want to sit in the cockpit to oversee the pilot. And my only experience of a small plane (similar to one you would learn in) was a catastrophe.

I made the questionable decision to fly from Nelson to Wellington. I figured that I either had to fly or sail across the Cook Strait and seeing as I always spend boat journeys gagging into a toilet or over the side of the boat, flying was best for me. Wrong. I arrived at Nelson airport as chirpy as ever and completely innocent of the fate that awaited me in the smallest plane I have ever seen. After an hour delay we were led out onto the tarmac to a plane that seated eight bloody people. I didn’t want to go but I didn’t have a choice. My seat was just fabulous as I was practically sitting in the pilot’s lap with a 360 degree view of all the colourful buttons and levers. I decided at this point the way to deal with this impending doom was to be super positive. So in my best I am not afraid voice, asked the pilot when the second pilot would be arriving. Turns out he would not be. We were flying with one pilot. Flashing through my mind was images of a burning plane and me, ineffectively, pressing buttons. She then announced it would be ‘a bit of a bumpy ride’ as there was storm in Wellington. That was the understatement of the year. Please note if you are ever told this by a pilot it actually means ‘you will be thrown around mid air like a skittle, until your insides are liquid’. The flight was as expected. Petrifying. Monstrous black clouds gathered as we were 15 minutes into our journey and the next hour or so felt like our toy plane was being played with by an over-sized, disgruntled toddler. Streaks of lightening ripped though the sky, as the plane felt and sounded like it was falling a part. I came close to praying for my life. On the second attempt we landed and I have never loved the ground more.


The therapy method

I have heard hypnotherapy can work for a fear of flying. I have never tried this, although I do kind of try and hypnotise myself when I’m on a plane. This could be the way to go, hell if it works for smokers why not flyers?


My method

The following is what just about works for me.

Organise all flight details before you get to the airport so you aren’t running round like a skittish Bambi which will only elevate your heart rate and have you hyperventilating before you even see a plane. Trick yourself. Don’t think about flying, in fact, thinking about the flight is banned. Instead distract yourself with a book, counting sheep, music, the in-flight magazine, anything. This rule can be briefly ignored when you listen to, while accepting that you are on a plane, the safety briefing.

Turn the air-con on full and blast it at your face. If you close your eyes you might believe you are just getting some fresh air in the countryside, but it will also cool and calm you.

Lie to yourself: ‘I am on a bus. I am on a bus.’ This makes light turbulence a lot easier to cope with. Take off for me is the worst, so I close my eyes, grip my seat, and breathe in and out so I know I am still alive. I used to hold my breath during take off which clearly doesn’t help an already dizzy flyer. My sister once got me to pretend I was on a flight simulator and to compare notes with a real flight, this was both distracting and remarkably entertaining.

I continue with the vain hope that my fear of flying will reach saturation point and then decrease. But in truth, I know I will have to cope with heart palpitations, numb limbs, a fizzy head and gut wrenching fear every time I board a plane. Terrific.


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