Fear of Flying


I bet you thought this post might be some sort of reflection on success and how it can change you, how sometimes we seek mediocrity because we aren’t brave enough to shine our light on the world or something like that 🙂

But it’s not. It actually is about flying. Because I really don’t like doing it. Yet I love to travel and visit friends and family all around the world, so I see it as something I have to put up with to get to all the wonderful places I want to see.

I’ve flown a lot, starting with a family trip when I was two to the Canary Islands. Apparently the plane before ours crashed on the runway and was still there when our plane landed, causing panic for family back in England who, for a brief time, thought the crashed plane was ours. Maybe this was a sign that, for me, flying would never be an entirely smooth journey.

The longest flight I’ve been on is fourteen straight hours from Melbourne to Dubai. Even the pilot sighed when he made his announcement at the start of the flight. The smallest plane I’ve been on is a four seater, with my father at the controls and my mother sitting next to him, me sitting in the back looking out the tiny window and wondering at the fact that a thin skin of metal was all that stood between me and eternity. I’ve flown business class a few times, including one time when I received the mythical free upgrade, and apparently I’ve flown first class once, though it was back in the eighties before they had all the reclining beds and doodads they have now, so I have no memory of it whatsoever, sadly. I do remember flying when there was a bar in economy class, a flight attendant standing there serving drinks to three businessmen who stayed there most of the flight, suit flaps spilling over the edges of the red leatherette stools. I also remember when you could smoke on planes – the smoking section was at the back with a haze hanging over it, and if you were seated just a row or two up from them, as my brother and I were on one flight, you left the plane feeling and smelling as though you’d just smoked a pack with them.

Me in the back of the four-seater plane - note the slightly panicked expression.

Me in the back of the four-seater plane – note the slightly panicked expression.

I’ve been on a flight where the pilot has pulled up just short of the runway, shooting back into the sky as passengers squealed, then coming on the intercom to apologise because he couldn’t see the runway due to a sea mist. When we did land, it was hard and fast and he shouted ‘Yeehah!’ I kid you not. On another flight we circled for a while above Sydney Airport, several other planes visible through our windows doing the same. Smoke from bushfires was obscuring the pilots’ view of the airport and there was talk of diverting to Canberra. Then the pilot came on. ‘We’re going to give it a try,’ he said, hardly reassuring words. So down we went, the cabin filling with the scent of burning eucalypt as we descended through billowing grey clouds, eventually landing safely, though not without me almost digging holes in the seat arms, I was gripping them so tightly.

The toughest flight I ever took was another long one, twelve hours or so from Melbourne to Dubai, flying through the night. We hit a large storm as we crossed the Equator and as the seatbelt light came on the pilot barked over the intercom. ‘Flight attendants to your seats now!’ That was the last we heard from him for eight hours as we bounced around the dark sky, all of us strapped into our seats and bracing ourselves as yet another bang buffeted the plane. The gorgeous child, four at the time, slept through it, but my husband and I gripped each others hands tightly, holding on, for there was nothing else to do. We landed, of course, the pilots coming on to apologise for our being twenty minutes late, as they had thought it best to fly around the storm, rather than through it. We all were happy to have landed safely.

I’ve had great flights as well, seeing the snow covered peak of Mount Rainier poking through clouds, the gleaming red Australian desert as the pilot flew above Uluru,  circling around so both sides of the plane could see it. Palm fringed beaches golden with sand as we flew over blue ocean, northern lakes gleaming silver in a frozen patchwork below. On a flight from Vancouver to Los Angeles I watched coastal mountains stream away, the undulating landscape beneath me keeping me occupied as we flew south, green giving way to brown. I’ve also had, for the most part, great experiences with flight attendants including one who, on my most recent flight, modified a pair of first class headphones for me to use, as the earbuds they gave us in sardine class were too uncomfortable to wear. He didn’t have to do that, and I really appreciated it.

Apparently it’s a control thing, if you don’t like flying. For me it’s a ‘don’t think about where you are right now,’ kind of thing. Because, screw the laws of physics, it just seems unnatural to be in a metal tube several miles above the earth with nothing holding you up except some equation to do with weight x ground speed = lift or whatever it is that gets planes off the ground. Intellectually I get it, I know the statistics, that the drive to the airport is potentially more dangerous than the flight itself. So this is just something I need to overcome, rather than sitting through another flight with my heart lurching in my chest and popping Rescue Remedy pastilles like they’re going out of style. (I’ve been recommended to take something stronger but I personally think drugging yourself to the eyeballs while travelling with a child isn’t the best thing – however, to each their own, whatever gets you through).

Whew! This is a longer post than usual – however, this is something I’ve been struggling with for a while. I think perhaps I might try and write my way through it, a story about my worst fears while flying, exploring the emotions and everything that happens. I probably won’t share it with anyone – it will just be my own little piece of writing therapy, forcing me to confront my fears.

So how do you guys feel about flying? Any stories you’d like to share? For me, I’m glad to have my feet on solid earth for the next little while, that’s for sure.




28 thoughts on “Fear of Flying

  1. Generally I’m ok with flying though I have my moments! Coming into Melbourne in a storm buffeted by almost hurricane winds we all applauded wildly when the plane landed. Landing on a tiny strip in the Maldives was heart stopping to say the least. And I remember years ago we went on a joy flight in a Cessna over North Queensland when my husband was invited to take the controls!! Have to say I’m happiest when my feet are on terra firma.

  2. I’ve never been afraid of flying…not even the time when the engine decided to stop working and we ended up waiting one Christmas Eve out at Charles de Gaulle. But.. I don’t like it one little bit. Fine once I’m up there… it’s the getting up and down and the feeling of being squeezed through the pores of the seat I object to! That and the run-up to Figari airport from Paris… I prefer being the right way up.

    • Yes, while I’m always happy to be landing, I find that feeling of descent to be quite stressful. Sometimes I can look out the window, depending on where we are, but most times I read my book and try to ignore what’s happening as best I can! And spending Christmas Eve at the airport doesn’t sound like fun at all…

  3. Great one, Helen. I seem to have encountered a lot of those same events over the years, the best flight was definitely skimming in really low over the Himalaya coming into land at Leh. The scariest was leaving 2 weeks later, after 2 aborted takeoffs at high speed due to ‘technical problems’.

    Sadine Class – I like it. Chortle.

  4. I quite like flying itself, especially the take off and looking out of the window part. I dislike the faff at the airport and the time it takes to finally get herded aboard. I hate being shoe-horned into seats that are far too small for a comfortable journey and because of that aspect I probably wouldn’t choose to fly again.

    • Oh, I so agree about the faff at the airport – it does seem to take forever, everyone queuing up as if we aren’t all going to get on board. It’s almost as bad as the flight, as far as I’m concerned. And the seats seem to be getting smaller and smaller, the space inside them narrower. At 5’11’ and 6’4′ respectively, I and my husband really struggle with the lack of space, especially if there’s a ‘recliner’ in front.

  5. I dislike it so, so, so very much. I am not afraid of flying, but the entire process is so very stressful for me. Way too little control of your own destiny involved.

  6. I’ll join you in the seat of fear!

    I’ve got worse as the years progressed; I’m sure I never used to mind it at all. Indeed, when I was about eight I went on a class trip to Manchester airport – and flying seemed such a glamorous, exciting thing to do. I even followed it up with a project on female aviators (teacher’s pet saddo that I was).

    The reality of my first flight a few years later wasn’t quite as thrilling as I’d expected but I wasn’t frightened. Quite the reverse. It seemed a little….pedestrian (and, yep, I see the irony in that). For many years I flew a lot – as much travelling as I could pack in and then also for work. All was fine until I was due to fly to Delhi two days after 9/11. I love India but I really hoped the flight would be cancelled. It wasn’t but I spent the entire 8 hours eyeing just about everyone on that plane with varying levels of suspicion and then most of the ensuing trip calculating just how close my homeward plane might get to the U.S. airstrikes on Afghanistan.

    I think I’ve got worse ever since but I must be a half-decent actress because my children haven’t the first clue about how I feel.

    Oh, and , like you, being handed the controls of a light aircraft (a Piper Cherokee in Mozambique) did absolutely nothing to help and probably irreversibly traumatised at least one of the other two passengers on the plane (the other was my husband who had to pretend all was cool)…..

    Sorry: essay!

    • Oh Louise, I’m just the same – I also think I’ve got worse as I’ve gotten older, plus I always try to hide it from the gorgeous child (and I think I’m doing okay with that). I used to love flying when I was younger – it always meant I was going somewhere new and, like you, I thought it very glamorous. Then, on a night flight between Vancouver and Hawaii about fifteen years ago, I felt the plane start to descend. We weren’t anywhere near landing and I knew we were over the ocean, so I freaked out. Quietly, but a freakout nonetheless. I called a flight attendant and she was great, going to check with the captain. She came back and told me he was descending to avoid some bad weather, and would I like to go up to the cockpit and they would show me around. I didn’t take her up on it, but I kind of wish I had, only because that would never happen in these current troubled times. Since then I’ve found flying to be anywhere from fingernail biting nervousness to full blown ‘can’t get on the plane’ kind of fear. Oh, and I can’t believe you got given the controls of an aircraft! Poor you, and poor husband as well…

  7. Not really scared; occasionally apprehensive. Incidents? Malaga airport circa 1981 – pilot ‘left engine is a bit sticky; we’re going to potter down the runway and see if we can’t give it a kick – bit like a bump start’ Peru circa 1987 Fawcett airlines between Cusco and Iquitos over the Amazon jungle, coming into land at a refuelling stop and the trees getting closer and closer until a thin green strip of shiny grass appeared and we landed. 100 seater too. Having breathed a sigh of relief we were then confronted with crates of guinea pigs being loaded into the gangway because they couldn’t open the hold. Geneva 1994, waiting six hours because by the time they de-iced the left wing the other had refrozen; so much for Swiss efficiency. I loathe arseholes who recline their seats; it should not be allowed. I am with everyone who begrudges the waste of my life spent in airports but I’m my own worst enemy because I hate being late even more so spend an unconscionable amount of time there.

    • Those are some crazy stories – certainly flying has become a lot safer since the eighties, but I didn’t mind flying back then! 🙂 And I think seat reclining shouldn’t be allowed – just pitch the seats at the best angle. There is little enough space as it is, so the small amount you can recline makes hardly any difference, yet is infuriating to the person behind as their space gets even smaller. And the time spent in airports is just an absolute waste – I recently got a Lounge Membership so at least we can go and sit somewhere quiet, but all the waiting just makes my nerves worse.

  8. Yo, something about this blog made me laugh. The part that particularly tickled me was when you said something about it being “unnatural” to be in a metal tube in the sky. I think about that often, especially now that I’m a flight attendant, and I thought I was the only one that would think like this! In all honesty, I’ve never been afraid to fly. Thankfully, even though I’ve had flights that included turbulence, it’s never been truly awful. I feel like I was somewhat enchanted by the fact that I was in the air in a metal can in the sky. I will say that after going through training, I do think a lot more about the things that could go wrong… but it still doesn’t scare me.

    The one quip about the pilot shouting “yeehah!” also made me laugh out loud. I’ve never heard that on any flight, and I think I would burst out laughing if I ever did.

    • Ha, I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I’ve been reading about you becoming a flight attendant and it’s nice to hear about how you feel about flying, especially as it’s your job. I do think flight attendants are some of the hardest working people around. I love how you describe yourself as ‘enchanted by being in a metal can in the sky’ – it’s obvious you love your job, which is a rare thing. And yes, the pilot really did say ‘Yeehah!’ I couldn’t believe it either LOL.

      • It does have it’s rough times, especially as it pertains to getting up early. I was up VERY early this morning, and will be up at at around the same time tomorrow! But I really do love my job despite the things about it that aren’t so enchanting. I was always nice to flight attendants, but I’m a lot nicer now that I personally know what the job entails.

      • Oh, yes, very early starts are never fun, especially when you have to be ‘on’ from the get go. I’m always nice to flight attendants too, I think it must be a very tiring job, up and down the aisles all the time! I have a friend who worked for Gulf Air, then Virgin, and she used to tell me some funny stories 🙂

      • I’m sure I’ll eventually have stories of my own to tell. Not so much yet. The thing about it is feeling like you’re bouncing all the time, even when you aren’t physically moving. That takes getting used to. Good thing I don’t get motion sickness. 😛

      • That’s really interesting, about the bouncing. I suppose it could be like getting your ‘air legs’ similar to getting your ‘sea legs’ on a boat? I remember being on a cruise and feeling as though I was rolling all the time, even when I wasn’t. Luckily I didn’t get sick then either! Looking forward to hearing those stories when you have them to tell – I can sense some interesting blog posts coming up 🙂

  9. This is a great post, Helen, and it resonates! I’m exactly like you prior to flying, and I don’t sleep the night before (also because we’re usually on a 6am flight and I’m worried we’ll sleep through the 3am alarm). I haven’t had any hair-raising experiences on board, but I never sit by the window and at take-off and landing, I just don’t look out. I remember the days of on board smoking, too—hard to believe now. Like you, I just can’t fathom how those giants stay in the air. I know it’s physics and it obviously works, but you’re right, it’s just not natural. We always fly QANTAS, not just because they’re Australian, but because they’re the only airline not to have had a fatal crash—I remember that from Rainman! At one stage, my son said he wanted to be a pilot and I told him I wouldn’t let him—there are two jobs my kids are not allowed to do: join the defence forces (I don’t want them going to war), or become a pilot or flight attendant. They can do whatever else they please—used car salesman, rubbish collector, even a mountaineer, just not a pilot.

    I must warn you that one day in the future, you’ll watch one of those giant monoliths take-off and ascend, circle and change direction, and disappear into the clouds. You’ll stand and watch it even after it’s gone, and you’ll pray, even if you’re not religious, because on board will be your daughter, without you, and it’s one of the most heart-wrenching, frightening, and saddest feelings ever.

    • Oh, Louise, your last sentence broke my heart – I remember your post about your daughter going to Melbourne and at the time I tried to imagine how it would feel when my daughter does the same. I did it to my parents as well – only now can I appreciate how tough it must have been for them to watch me go. And I never sit by the window either, if I can help it – the only recent exception was the flight from Vancouver to LA, which was actually fascinating, watching the landscape change beneath me. But that is a rare occurrence in what is usually a stressful, uncomfortable experience.

  10. Pingback: Around The World and Back Again | Journey To Ambeth

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