In August 2005, I was a passenger on Air France flight 358, a flight from Paris, France, to Toronto, Ontario. Upon arriving over Toronto, our plane flew into a sudden storm, landed too far down the runway, and slid right off the end, bursting into flame. We had to evacuate down the emergency slides, and all of our luggage burned to ashes along with the plane.
I remember when the plane was approaching the runway, I thought that we were coming in quicker than most landings I’ve experienced. There was lightning in the sky, and a passenger behind me turned to his partner and joked, “Well, nice knowing you.” When we landed, a few people in the cabin began to clap, congratulating the pilot on a tough landing in tougher weather. Then, when we thought it was all over, we hit a tremendous bump. I remember flying a few inches off of my seat despite still wearing my seat belt, and some of the yellow oxygen masks falling out of the ceiling. When we came to a stop, I still thought that it was just a very very rough landing… then I looked out my window on the left side, and saw flames.
That’s when everything in my memory starts to move in slow motion.
That’s also when I got the fuck out.
I undid my seat belt and jumped up at the sight of the flames. The flight attendant at the exit nearest me was opening the emergency door. We had fallen into a valley designed to catch planes before they hit Highway 401, the busiest highway in North America. We had to run up a hill in the still-pouring rain to get away from the crash. The police arrived on scene, and we made it back to the terminal and were treated for shock. I phoned my parents from someone else’s cell (the line was busy — they were being bombarded with phone calls from relatives who were watching the news).
That was when everything hit me, my adrenaline dropped, and I freaked the fuck out. I was alone, and although some other passengers offered to console me, I stayed alone while I waited for my dad to make the two-hour drive to pick me up. (I had missed my connection — can you believe it?)
Miraculously, no one died as a result of the crash, but there were many severe injuries. My only complaints were some scratches as a result of sliding down the emergency slide in a skirt. I wear leggings on planes, now!
Right after the crash, I was asked by many reporters if I think I’d have trouble getting back on a plane. I said that I can’t know for sure if I’d have trouble, but I definitely won’t rule out flying for the rest of my life — I love to travel way too much. In my recovery process, I’ve identified some ways to cope with my newfound anxiety…
Know what to expect
My next plane ride didn’t come until 2008, and part of me wishes I had purposely flown closer to the plane crash. That flight, to Los Angeles, was a particularly turbulent one. I find, now, that despite having no problem with flying before the crash, I definitely have trouble with it now. Interestingly, it’s not take-offs or landings that I find most alarming — it’s turbulence.
Knowing that certain routes have more turbulence than others, and that the turbulence on your flight is normal, is very helpful when dealing with it in-flight.
Another tip I learned from my friend who is a flight attendant is to watch the flight attendants. They’ve been through so many types of flights, they know when something is a-miss or not. If you feel as though the turbulence means certain peril, look to see if your flight attendant is happily chatting with a passenger or expertly pouring coffee. If he or she is, you have nothing to worry about — and thankfully, most times, that’s the case.
Talk to a professional
I flew to Punta Cana later in 2008, and the flight was much easier than the flight to California. But when I planned my trip to South Africa, involving a six-hour flight to Europe and a 12-hour flight to Johannesburg, I began to worry that my mental preparedness wasn’t enough.
I spoke with my pharmacist. He recommended that I go to a doctor and request an anti-anxiety drug that is common for people with a flying phobia. If you think that your phobia is prohibiting you from traveling, speak to your doctor and/or pharmacist. You may find a similar method to be helpful; you may not.
For me, I found it helpful in getting me to sleep through the long flight from Europe to South Africa. I knew that if I had to be awake the whole time, I’d white-knuckle it for 12 straight hours. Drugs worked for me, but you and your medical professional might decide that there are other methods to help. Herbal remedies? Meditation? Therapy? Flight anxiety is common, and there are lots of coping strategies out there.
Know that your safety really is a priority
Because of the competent, fantastic crew on Air France 358, I and all other 297 passengers escaped death. If I’m ever nervous, I think about how, even in this treacherous scenario, we were able to survive because the safety system worked.
Since the plane crash, I’ve been on dozens of flights (over 30 in the last two years alone). I read the manuals on safety procedures, and I listen to the safety demonstrations at the beginning of the flight. Remember that the chances of anything going wrong are slim, but even if something does go wrong, the possibility of survival is a real one. Anyone from flight 358 can tell you that.