Help for the Nervous Flyer


One thing I kept telling myself when we started flying as a family of three was, ‘at least we’re used to flying as a family of two.’  The experience is daunting enough without the added stress of feeling out of place, uneasy, or downright scared of flying itself.

While I have never really suffered from anxiety while flying, at least over the act of cruising along at 38,000ft in an aluminum tube (or composite, as is more and more common), Mrs. CruisingAltitude still has her fair share of worries about it.  She’s no big fan of turbulence, the specter of bad weather, or take-off and landing phases, generally.

I completely empathize with her feelings, I really do, even if I do tease her on occasion that after averaging 50,000 flight miles each year, she really should have sorted this out by now.  But fear of flying is a human instinct.

If you also get nervous to fly, these stresses may only be enhanced by now having to deal with them while holding your new baby.  This is fully understandable, every new parent is pre-programmed to think the worst may happen, and the instinct to protect goes into overdrive.

As in many things, the solution, least I hope, is knowledge.  I’m a fairly logical and science-based person, so for me a little research can help assure.  It seems to work for Mrs. CrusisingAltitude as well, when she goes as far as to listen to my mini-lectures on the topic.

The truth of the matter is that the safety and design of commercial aircraft is extremely regulated in every way possible.  They are also highly automated, and have layers of redundancy in their safety systems.  The reason it seems like there are ‘so many crashes’ is that when they happen, they are so rare that the media treats them as a BIG deal.  Not to say they’re not important, but statistically speaking, given the number of people who board commercial flights each day, they’re extremely unlikely.

Aircraft design is also highly regulated, and is rigorously overseen by layers of government authority.  A plane is one of the most tested and scrutinized products ‘on the market.’  A manufacturer must prove the design capable of safe flight in any operating condition, as well as showing that it has wide safety margins, and can withstand heavy turbulence, wind, hail, lightning strikes, hard landings, and even warn its pilots when improper flight conditions are being approached.

While we’re on the issue of turbulence- it’s likely the most common condition a passenger will experience in flight that may cause them to grab for the armrest for dear life.  However, on average, even an experienced flyer has only ever experienced ‘light to moderate’ turbulence on any of their flights. These conditions, though uncomfortable, do not really mean the plane is moving more than 10 to 20 feet vertically.  This is not even approaching a structural or control issue for the plane.

One of the best stories from a pilot that’s helped Mrs. CruisingAltitude on bumpy flights comes from an essay by a pilot, who described the reaction in the cockpit when encountering turbulence.  As he put it, ‘you may imagine the scene as the pilot fighting for control of the bounding aircraft, but really, that’s not the case.  In fact, aside from making a small adjustment to the forward speed to reduce the forces on the airfame over time, the discussion might go something like this:

Pilot: “It’s getting a little bumpy, I’m going to turn on the seatbelt sign.”

First Officer: “Okay.”

Pilot: “Oh man, some of my orange just spilled, do you have any spare napkins over there?”

First Officer: “Sure, here you go.”

Now, whenever things get bumpy, she just ‘thinks about orange juice’ and she says it helps.  Just about any turbulence that you may encounter in your flying is more or less a nuisance, rather than a safety issue.  Even extreme turbulence, the kind most people will never experience, is a hazard, not because it causes any damage to the plane, but because people don’t have their seatbelts on, and hit the top or sides of the cabin.

The most basic fact about air travel, is that it’s statistically orders of magnitude safer than driving your car to work each day, or walking across the street.  If you need a real life microcosm of this- I once spent a weekend flying over 10,000 miles domestically, in the winter, with snow, completely safely…only to get hit by a distracted driver on the 405 freeway on the way home from the airport!

Overall, familiarity with flying, and taking the experience one step at a time will go a long way to ease anxiety about the process.  Do your research before you go, try to plan some fun activities and treats for the flight time & take a deep breath.  You’ll be fine!