I used to tell myself that flying makes me anxious. I’m talking “grab the hand of the stranger sitting next to me, cry, hyperventilate, desire to fling open the plane door and jump” anxious. This is the story of how all that changed…
After most of my adult life being an anxious flyer, I started to see the anxiety level creep up. The stories I told were based in anxiety and fear. They had no factual grounding. The Lorazepam I’d been taking wasn’t always able to cut through the anxiety. I was still having anxiety attacks on airplanes. So it was time to change the story. After a lot of research, I signed up for a Fear of Flying Clinic in Seattle.
During the course of three full weekend classroom days followed by a flying Seattle to Sacramento to Seattle day, I learned more about flying than I ever hoped to know. The staff — a retired pilot, a flight attendant, a therapist who used to be a flight attendant, an air traffic controller, the head of maintenance at a local airline, and two graduates of the program — all spent countless hours answering our questions over and over. And over. They gave me the facts to create stories that are based in science and math rather than fear. And the story began to change.
I went from “I hate flying, I don’t feel safe. I’m never getting on a plane again.” To “I might be willing to fly, it seems like it might be safe.” To, at last, successfully flying and feeling just fine. Here are a few of the stories I learned to tell…
“Delay is your friend”
If something is “wrong” with the aircraft or the flight path, you will be delayed. This is, ultimately, a good thing. It means that the airline staff is using an abundance of caution to get you to your destination safely.
On my “graduation” flight from the Fear of Flying clinic, there was a wind storm in Seattle. Our return flight was delayed initially an hour, but then shortened to 10 minutes, due to a ground hold at SEATAC. This was to spread out the landing planes and make sure there was a safe distance between them for landing. This is good. Delay is my friend. It helped me return safely to Seattle.
When we visited the SEATAC control tower as part of the clinic, we saw the forecast for planes coming in for the next three hours. We could see that there was one 15 min block that was forecast to have 20 planes land. The rest all had six or seven. The air traffic controller told us that some of those planes would be pushed back, into other time slots, to keep traffic regular and safe at the airport. Most passengers would never even know their plane was pushed to another slot. This was what was happening to us, but we did know. The wind meant for an abundance of caution we needed longer intervals between landing planes and therefore we got pushed back.
“There is a doctor aboard every plane”
This is not a physical doctor, but a virtual one. I didn’t know prior to the Fear of Flying clinic that every commercial carrier in the US has a contract with a company like MedLink, to serve their passengers. This company provides direct access to a Level One trauma center doctor for the flight attendants to consult when needed. The flight staff and the doctor can then consult on the situation, treat the patient and make an educated decision about diversion of the plane. On my “graduation” flight the woman sitting behind us passed out. MedLink was called, and she was attended to.
“Turbulence might be uncomfortable, but it is not dangerous”
This is probably the key one for me. Turbulence was a major part of my anxiety. But it is safe. It may be uncomfortable, but it is perfectly safe. The pilots in our clinic spent hours talking to us about turbulence, what causes it, how they train for it, when they avoid it (they fly around or over thunderstorms, not through them), and when they choose to fly through it (entering the Jet Stream can be turbulent but get you there a lot faster). Ultimately, the plane can take a lot more stress than you get in just a few minutes of turbulence. And turbulence is naturally occurring — like around mountains or the jet stream — and of no concern at all. My former story about planes falling out of the sky due to turbulence got replaced by this mantra.
As I said earlier, our “graduation” flight was during a wind storm in Seattle. One that caused the 520 floating bridge to be closed, a semi to overturn on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and about 200,000 people to lose power. I was uncomfortable during that landing as it was bumpy. I also know, I was perfectly safe.
The Clinic staff, including our Behavioral Counselor, helped me create a new story, one of safe flying. The story now is that I can fly and be just fine. Delays, I’m fine. Medical issues, I’m fine. Turbulence, yep, still fine.
Any other people with massive fears of flying? What are your stories?