Danger Zone: Fear of Flight


My husband and I have just finalized our trip to Machu Picchu, realizing a dream I have held for quite some time. At the end of August it finally comes true: 10 days in Peru, complete with a four-day trek, hot spring soaks, Amazon River boat rides. Sparkling green mountains, ancient ruins, weaving cultures. Guinea pigs for dinner.

It sounds fantastic in every detail but one: I am deathly afraid of flying.

Nor am I alone here. The VALK Foundation, a collaboration between the University of Leiden, KLM Airlines and Schipol Airport devoted to conquering this fear, estimates that “between 20 and 40 percent of people experience some level of anxiety regarding air travel.”

And yet if I want to get to Machu Picchu in the next century, my options are limited.  We don’t live in 1900 and I can’t take six weeks off of school, so sea travel is out.  Driving is unthinkable, and thus far my attempts at psychic teleportation have met with failure.  Alas, if I want to see the world, then I must make my peace with flying.

It’s not as though I haven’t tried.  Meditation, willpower, breathing exercises and various substances have all made their appearance.  Flying to Seoul, it seemed like a personal mantra was the ticket.  Somewhere over the Dominican Republic, I decided I’d just keep taking Ativan forever.  I have prayed to many gods.

Needless to say, none of these solutions has worked.

What really irks me is the irrationality of the fear.  It’s not as if I don’t understand that I have a better chance of dying from falling down the stairs or bad spinach – I do.  I’m aware I’m in more danger every time I drive; I know there’s a greater chance of getting attacked by a sewer rat than dying in a plane crash.  But I drive carefully, and I stay out of the sewers.

In other words, I avoid situations that scare me, and I do my best to remain in control of everything else.

This is the crux of the issue, says SOAR, an organization developed by Tom Bunn, an airline captain and licensed therapist.  When we climb on planes – and in doing so expose ourselves to an unnatural, sensory-rich, dangerous-seeming environment – we are forced to rely on something fundamental.

That something, says SOAR, is self-calming, based on what our caregivers taught us as children and with which our adult adeptness varies widely.  Those who self-calm well tend not to fear flying, while those who do not compensate for daily anxieties in one of two ways: control, or escape.

Control is out.  I am not a member of the crew: I cannot be in the cockpit, I cannot conduct a pre-flight inspection, I cannot ensure that proper safety protocol is followed.

Escape is impossible.  Once airborne, in fact, escape becomes even less inviting than the status quo.

The human mind, lacking the ability to self-calm, has only one other option: total freak-out.

This is where programs – SOAR among them, though there are many others – come in.  Generally they have two components: a crash course in aeronautics and several rounds of therapy.  The first is intended to help fliers understand what is going on around them: turbulence, weird noises, holding patterns.  The second usually involves sessions in which patient and shrink discuss in-flight self-soothing, tailored to the individual.

Again, neither works for me.  Understanding why a plane could go down but probably won’t fails to comfort. (An engineer who found me staring out the window and quietly sobbing on a Transatlantic once kindly explained that airplane wings undergo stress tests that bend them up to eight feet in either direction along a vertical axis. I almost fainted.)

Breathing exercises, self-talk and distraction are equally without effect.  And so the years have passed, with one notion slowly crystallizing from all the failed attempts: I will always be afraid.

Strangely, this helps.  When I think about it this way, I feel a bit heroic, like a Neolithic hunter who fears the mammoth and hunts it anyway.  I might not like it, but I’ll do it.

Machu Picchu, here I come.



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