I picked the wrong week to be scared of flying
Why do so many people have this irrational fear?
I arrived at Stansted early last Saturday morning, my heart rate dropping instantly as the plane touched down, and did what I always do upon returning to safe, dry earth – turned off flight mode and looked at Twitter. The first image I saw made me glad I was back at zero altitude.
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‘More than 170 passengers were “minutes from tragedy” after a large hole was blown in a Boeing 737 Max 9 in mid-air. About six minutes after take-off, the Alaska Airlines flight was at 16,325ft and still gaining altitude when there was a loud bang and a window and the surrounding panel peeled away from the side of the plane.
According to the BBC, ‘Evan Smith, one of the 171 passengers on board, said: “There was a really loud bang towards the left rear of the plane and a woosh noise - and all the air masks dropped… They said there was a kid in that row who had his shirt was sucked off him and out of the plane and his mother was holding onto him to make sure he didn't go with it.”’ Mobile phones were also sucked out of what was described as a gap ‘as wide as a refrigerator’.
One passenger described it as a ‘trip from hell’ but it could have been worse. The plane was at 16,000 ft and climbing, and had the accident happened just two or three minutes later the air pressure would have been strong enough to suck out some of the passengers, many of whom would have been unbuckled by then.
I’m not sure I can imagine many things more terrifying, or how I’d react. I think the phrase ‘Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue’ would spring to mind.
Just a few days earlier a Japan Airlines Airbus caught fire on the runway at Tokyo Haneda Airport, after a collision with a Coast Guard plane engaged in earthquake relief. Tragically, five of the six personnel on board the Coast Guard aircraft died, but everyone on the passenger flight survived, despite the enormous damage. This, in itself, is proof of how safety design has improved, as have evacuation procedures. Everyone exited calmly and quickly, in a scenario where people often inexplicably go to get their luggage first. (Dominic Lawson also attributed this miracle to Japanese culture.)
All in all, it hasn’t been a good week for those of us scared of flying.
I first became aware of my aviophobia in my early 20s. I don’t remember being bothered as a child, although we didn’t travel by air that much, but it suddenly grew quite extreme and terror-inducing around that time. Apparently, it’s quite common to develop the fear around that age, when many of us become more neurotic generally.
I start to get anxious in the days leading up to a flight and by the morning of the ordeal I’m plagued by a sense of doom. If I’m flying alone, I’ll tearfully say goodbye to my children like I was off to the Western Front, even though my risk of dying is comically, indeed cosmically improbable. Flying with the kids is even worse, because I imagine their terror as the plane goes down, which is both unimaginably horrific and totally improbable.
There have been moments when I’ve come close to fleeing before take-off, convinced the plane will crash, but only another fear, the British terror of causing a scene, has stopped me. When the ordeal of flying is over, I’ve often sworn to myself that I would never do it again and stick to trains (and I love trains).
But there are some fears you can avoid, and some you can’t. I find horse-riding terrifying but I’m pretty confident I can get through life without confronting that problem (and horses are genuinely dangerous). But limiting yourself to trains or boats effectively rules out huge swathes of the earth; and besides which, I don’t like sailing much either, so the thought of spending days stuck in high winds on the Atlantic while Céline Dion plays in the background is not exactly an enticing prospect.
Rationally, I know how safe it is, that the probability of a fatal accident in the developed world is now something like 1 in 16 million. And I know that the terror is in part because of media attention to rare air disasters compared to everyday, indeed almost every minute, road tragedies. But the rational mind is not at its strongest in its struggle with the irrational when you’re five miles up in the air, in a metal box moving at 600 mph.
I find some phobias strange to understand – many people are scared of even small dogs, for instance, and while I’m not going to laugh at them, and I appreciate the terror is genuine, what can a cockapoo do to you?
But fear of heights is completely rational. Humans are extremely fragile – at just 48 feet your chances of dying from a fall are already 50% - so being scared because you’re 30,000 ft above the ground, travelling at mind-boggling speeds in a confined space that weighs 180 tonnes yet manages to stay airborne: that’s totally sane, and I struggle to understand why everyone doesn’t find it terrifying.
Apparently about 40% of Americans have some anxiety about flying, while between 2.5% and 6.5% have an actual ‘phobia’, which presumably maps onto populations elsewhere.
This can end up having a hugely negative impact on your life. Stanley Kubrick’s career was famously ruled by his aviation fears, although the true extent is somewhat debated. Then there is Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp, the so-called Non-Flying Dutchman because of his refusal to go in the air, after an engine cut out while he was travelling back from the 1994 World Cup. Bergkamp would have to go on long car and train journeys on the continent when the Gunners were away in Europe.
In the build-up to flights – the worst part – I often find myself looking around at the faces to see who is similarly anxious, and I can usually spot the signs. Unfortunately, while doing this, I can’t help but picture their faces in tabloid spreads about the victims of ‘doomed Flight such and such’ below the headline ‘terror at 30,000 ft’. Similarly, if anyone is taking pictures of the runway or enjoying happy pre-holiday snaps, I can’t help but recall similar images posted on social media by victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 or the Metrojet in Egypt.
Part of this is just generic neurosis, and worst-case scenario syndrome. That once I picture a particular catastrophic scene, I find it very hard to get it out of my head. This was also shaped by the stories I read and saw as a child, at a time when plane crashes were far more common. Air-based terror was also a big theme in film, in particular the Airport series, which inspired the much-loved spoof Airplane.
The earliest tragedy I was conscious of was the 1985 Manchester airport disaster, and although I was too young to remember the event, it was regularly discussed in news and documentaries in the years afterwards because of the safety reports (which subsequently made it far less likely to reoccur).
The tragedy most etched into my memory is probably Lockerbie, which I distinctly remember watching as a breaking news story on the television just before Christmas 1988. Lockerbie has a particular haunting fascination because of the tales of those who missed it, including John Lydon and Kim Cattrall. According to the Daily Mail, Lydon had been due to fly with his wife but she took so long to pack that they rebooked for the next day, while Cattrall changed her mind last minute in order to go shopping (both of these stories too much play into hilarious women-on-holiday stereotypes for me to check their accuracy).
Less remembered is that just a couple of weeks later came the Kegworth air disaster. Two air crashes in Britain within a fortnight would be unthinkable now; indeed there hasn’t been a passenger fatality on British soil since.
Of the others that stick in my mind, there was the 2000 Paris Concorde crash, caused by runway debris, which I often think about as we take off. Yet the thing about all these tragedies is that they could not happen now, since they resulted in accident inquiries which ensured that new safety features and protocols were installed.
The most morbid, of course, was Germanwings, an incident so horrific I think there is an unconscious agreement to never discuss it in public. Having said that, large-scale disasters generally tend to be forgotten, despite air tragedies attracting so much attention. I don’t think I was aware of the deadliest accident in aviation history, the Tenerife air disaster, until it was referenced in Breaking Bad.
Who would have heard of the Stockport air disaster of 1967, in which 72 people were killed? Or the Staines air disaster in 1972, when all 118 passengers died? The only air tragedies remembered are the rare cases involving terrorism or celebrities, such as Munich.
Air crashes are terrifying, but also morbidly fascinating; there is something almost supernatural about stories of people who missed doomed flights, as if they were marked by fate or blessed by the gods. More remarkable are those rare occasions when only person survived a crash, such as the Blackbushe Viking accident in Hampshire, Aeroflot Flight 15, or Northwest Airlines Flight 255, which crashed in Detroit in 1987, killing 154 people; four-year-old Cecelia Cichan, alone among those on board, survived.
Perhaps the most famous case was Yugoslav Airlines Flight 367, which was blown up by Croatian nationalists in 1972 and from which stewardess Vesna Vulović survived a drop of 33,000 feet. I also find miracle flight stories fascinating, or incredible tales of survival, such as the British Airways captain sucked out of the plane (and who went back to work a few weeks later!)
Then there is the big one for aerophobes. Airline terrorism had been a frequent problem in the 1960s and 1970s, although the aim had been hijacking; I only learned relatively recently that in one year alone in the Sixties there had been seven incidents in which the hijacker demanded to go to Havana (I never knew that ‘take me to Cuba’ was a real thing) while in the 70s Palestinian groups were regularly taking over planes. But Osama Bin Laden understood both the ballistic potential of aeroplanes and also the psychological terror it would create.
This inspired numerous, thankfully less-successful, imitators, such as the gigantic plot in 2006, which is the reason you can’t bring liquids on board, and the more comical underwear bomber, not to mention the Al Shabab plot where the attacker blew a hole in the side of the plane, killing just one person (himself).
Flying anxiety is heightened by the whole palaver of travelling, of going through security, surrounded by noise and people, and the sheer time it takes, not to mention the general stress of being in a crowded, noisy and cramped environment (buying noise-cancellation AirPods made a big difference).
The least anxious journey I ever had came about after a friend who worked for an airline company had me bumped up to business class for a transatlantic flight – drinking a glass of champagne before the plane had even taken off, it all felt just so luxurious that I thought ‘surely nothing bad can happen to me? I’m a master of the universe’ (even if apparently people in the front are the most vulnerable).
I hate the safety announcements, and the fact that on some budget airlines I’m forced to spend the entire flight literally looking at illustrations of an air disaster. Even the phrase ‘Have a safe flight’ can trigger me a bit; what do you mean by that? Surely, they’re all safe?
The tension normally peaks with take-off, and after 20 minutes in the air, and we’ve got past the bumpiest part of the journey, I start to ease up. Sometimes it is almost pleasant. Orson Welles famously said ‘There are only two emotions on a plane: boredom and terror’ but he was wrong. It’s awe-inspiring being up above the clouds, to experience something that our great-grandparents would have found mind-blowing; yet this view of the gods, thanks to the modern economy, is available to people on modest incomes (even if, yes, the environmental impact is not great).
Turbulence is still terrifying but I’ve found it a lot easier since it was explained to me as being like a speedboat jumping up and down on gentle waves. (Sometimes turbulence can cause problems but it’s incredibly rare).
The pathetic thing about this is that I have never even had a really bad experience, nothing worse than an aborted landing in high winds - in contrast to my neurosis, Vesna Vulović was perfectly happy to fly afterwards, which I find extraordinary. But the fact that I’ve never actually had a flying nightmare just makes me think I’m due one.
What is scary is not the thought of a crash itself – car crashes are frightening – but the idea that, if it happens, there is no chance of surviving it. Yet, in reality, even in the event of a crash 60% of passengers do survive.
I have a friend who suffered from a similar fear and went to a general phobia course, where you meet people with other forms of neurosis. You can’t just hang around fellow aviophobes because that would only reinforce the fear, but if you’re sat next to someone with a, say, fear of pigeons you at least get a better sense of how irrational your terror is. This was helpful, he said, but what really cured him was exposure, starting with short flights and repeatedly making himself do it.
That’s the route I took, and it has eased a great deal, largely because I fly much more than I used to. I no longer assume that the plane is going to crash in some horrific ‘terror at 30,000 ft’ scenario, I just find it unpleasant and unnerving.
I’ve also found reading about safety procedures and statistics reassuring. The analogy that stuck with me from one book was of a huge stretch of Swiss cheese lined up for miles, and for the plane to crash, you would need to find a continual gap along that vast distance. The sophisticated safety check system means that everything has to go wrong at the same time, and this is just incredibly unlikely; every time there is an accident, a thorough investigation is made and, unlike in almost any other area of life, there is no reputational protection, no egos spared or cover-up, because the entire industry suffers in the event of accidents.
That is why flying continues to get safer, becoming three times less dangerous just in the 2010s. Indeed air travel is now ten times safer than it was in the late 1970s and twenty times safer than the 1960s.
The modern world is remarkably impressive at making our lives safer, something even neurotics and pessimists have to concede, and it’s not just with aeroplanes. Imagine living in the 19th century, when every one in five bridges collapsed, or attending a theatre in Regency London where fires regularly killed huge numbers of the audience. I keep repeating this in my head, and it helps, even if I still find myself sweating and shaking during turbulence, muttering to myself ‘but Steven Pinker says it’s going to be alright, Pinker says it’s going to be fine’.
Such is the marvel of modern technology that one of the iPhones sucked out of the Alaska Airlines plane was found on the ground, intact. It is when I’m up in the air that I feel truly blessed to live in the 21st century; even if, when I turn off flight mode and look at Twitter again, the feeling soon fades.
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