Am I the only person in the aviation world who has ever gone through, and still goes through, periods of apprehension when it comes to flying? I can even go so far as to say that I’m maybe even a little afraid. In my case, I don’t mean ready-to-soil-myself scared. I mean, I’ll be chugging along at about 4,000 feet, and for the briefest of moments and for absolutely no reason, a little twinge of fear sneaks a quick jab to my confidence. Then, it’s gone.
I can look back at periods when I was flying so little that I’d find reasons not to fly, e.g., the wind is too high, the ceiling isn’t quite 4,000 feet, and Gilligan’s Island is on television. You know the drill. Your confidence has slipped because you haven’t flown enough. And then you soon find reasons not to fly, which means that you fly even less. So your confidence goes downhill even more while your ability to make excuses expands exponentially.
One hundred percent of the time, the cure is both obvious and easy: Grit your teeth, strap it on, and go flying. If it’s been a really long time, book an hour with your local CFI. You probably need a BFR anyway.
But what about those folks who really are afraid to fly? What’s in their heads and what’s the cure? I’ll save you time by telling you right up front that I don’t know. I say this even though I’m up close and personal with a serious case of aerophobia—my daughter, Jennifer, is deathly afraid of flying.
How afraid is she? Well, she’s afraid enough that she drove from California to New Jersey in a Honda for Christmas rather than taking a plane. She’s afraid enough that she took the bus from Los Angeles to Orlando, Fla., to be with her mother for a week (that’s two-and-a-half days each way with no showers—yuck!).
Her fear of flying has even gotten to the point where it could be a real problem when it comes to her blossoming professional career. So, what can she do about it? We’ve talked about it and, in the course of doing so, touched on some basic fears that inhabit us all. They may even explain my little twinges.
If pressed, Jennifer will say that it isn’t the dead part of dying that bothers her. It’s the process. It’s the image of what she’d have to go through during that long, drawn-out plunge downward to eternity. She says, “I just can’t imagine the terror,” when actually, that’s not true. She doesn’t realize it, but she can imagine it and so can the rest of us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be so scared.
I think that at least some of the blame for many folks’ fear of flying can be laid at Tinsel Town’s glittering doorstep because it’s impossible to channel-surf for an evening without witnessing at least one airliner falling out of control with people onboard screaming, flight attendants tumbling and Leslie Nielsen saying, “Don’t call me Surely.” We see it so often that it’s easy for someone like Jennifer to forget how seldom it actually happens.
The National Safety Council, in fact, released some statistics in which the argument is made that you’re at least 50 times more likely to get killed in a car than in an airplane. If you take little airplanes out of the mix and look only at airliners, the odds are so low that they aren’t even worth discussing. But to people like Jennifer, the fact that they’re more likely to be struck by lightning than die in an airliner crash doesn’t mean a thing. Just the fact that at least one person has died in an airliner is enough to prove her case. And that’s the kind of negative thinking that causes my own little twinges of fear. At least one little airplane has fallen from the air. So will I be next?
Central to my concerns is that I have a basic distrust of mechanical stuff. This is especially true of a whirling mechanism that must harness thousands of explosions an hour and turn them into the power that’s required to keep me aloft. It’s only logical that sooner or later, some microscopic crack, a nut that’s not on quite tight enough or some other minor detail will bring the frantic dance of death that typifies a reciprocating engine to a grinding halt. And there I am, with no propulsion. It has happened to me before, so what’s to stop it from happening again?
The foregoing is only common sense; things wear out, things break. This, however, is half empty thinking. Rather than saying that the glass is half-full and thinking how miraculous it is that aircraft engines seldom fail, the fact that they do occasionally fail keeps popping up in my mind. Even though I’m an engineer and know that the odds of the engine quitting at any given moment are astronomical, the pessimist in me won’t put any trust in that thought.
Fortunately, 99% of the time, my more rational self keeps Mr. Gloomy in check. The rational me knows that bad things almost never happen. The pessimist me, however, sits in the corner, preparing to leap out and set things right when bad stuff happens. And that may be the difference between Jennifer and me: I have some control over my aerial destiny, and she doesn’t. I know that most of the time, when I’m in the air, I can reach out and make a difference.
Maybe the cure for Jennifer is for me to teach her to fly and buy her a Cirrus so she doesn’t have to mess with airliners. Yeah, right!
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.