Fear of Flying

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I think I started to fear flying when I was about 10 or 11. I didn’t tell my parents or anyone. It didn’t occur to me and I didn’t think it would change anything to do so. I was probably also too embarrassed to share those feelings and I didn’t know telling others would have helped me deal with my fear.

One of the jobs I had when I was in college was driving a taxi and I would often pick up the airline crews from the airport to take them to their hotel. One time a couple of flight attendants said I should get some professional help and made it clear the fear I had was not normal. Looking at some of the statistics of how many thousands of flights there are up in the air every day and how many people die from airplane crashes per year, one may realize that the fear of flying is absurd; as absurd as fearing having a car accident every time you drive. In addition, thousands of flight attendants and flight personnel fly every day, probably without any fear whatsoever. When you see them aboard the airplanes, they go about their jobs nonchalantly making flying seem the most normal thing in the world.

Sometimes when I look at airplanes flying they terrify me. The noise they make, their speed and magnitude are overwhelming. It’s hard to wrap my head around the concept of a tube with wings with people inside, flying at hundreds of miles per hour through the air . Looking down from the stratosphere while inside an airplane has given me high anxiety. I’ve had mini panic attacks when I fly and rushing thoughts of what if the airplane suddenly disintegrated, or plunged into a dive. I’ve only been able to overcome these feelings with prayer. Saying the Serenity Prayer, or the Hail Mary in my head, over and over again has calmed my mind and heart. During these episodes of panic, my heart beats so fast I’ve often thought I might die of cardiac arrest before there even would be an airplane crash. Quite frankly, my emotions during some flights have been almost out of control.

My worst experience in the air was on one flight from New York city to Haiti about 20 years ago. Due the very high turbulence, no meals were served and the flight attendants did not leave their seats. It was not the common bumpy type, but rather fierce winds, which made the airplane move and shake sideways more than vertically and horizontally. The gusts were relentless and intermittent for about 3 hours. We were flying above the regular clouds one always sees in the sky but I noticed there were very high and thin wispy clouds above us, which I’m not sure if they had anything to do with the turbulence. It was a December 25th and I remember wondering if I was going to die on a Christmas day as I thought about my parents and my brothers. And it was terrifying but the prayers, which eventually became chants due to the severity and duration of the turbulence, worked. I was not the only person verbalizing prayers, but most people were quiet. I think the majority of passengers were not going through the extreme panic and fear I had. Luckily the last 2 hours of the flight the ride the turbulence vanished and the ride was very smooth . I was able to relax and felt very much relieved as if I had just lived a true life and death experience, which I’m not sure if it really was.

Since then, I’ve continued to fly every year at least once or twice and some years as much as 12 to 15 times. Interestingly, I’m always more scared on flights going to my destination and not as much on the way back home. I find the take off and the climbing part of the flight much more more frightening than the final descent and landing, which according to Boeing is statistically the most dangerous. Somehow I find the thought of returning to land comforting. Fear is not rational.

This year I went on two transatlantic flights and unfailingly, I became anxious on the week before the flights with thoughts of the possibility of dying in an airplane crash. Projecting about the future is of course bad because we have to live one day at a time. Anything can happen tomorrow or even later on today, for example something fatal, but I cannot live my life worrying about it, I need to live now, in the moment. Applying the one day at a time principle to my thoughts and emotions has relieved my fears, which at the end of the day are a waste of time. When I’m in an airplane, I’m completely powerless of what may or may not happen, the same way as I’m powerless over many things in life.

Flying over the Alps 2021

The specific worries I’ve had on the days before boarding an airplane are that I’m too young to die, that it’s unnatural to fly, that it’s not meant to be and that it isn’t right. There is of course an argument to be made that the carbon footprint and effects on the environment of air travel are too high and therefore we should not fly. But we humans need to progress and learn from our experiences too. Flying is of course a choice but I’ve always chosen to fly and never hesitated.

On my last transatlantic flight this year, I thought of the time one pilot told me turbulence is his favorite part because he knows the pilot is in essence subduing the wind. I was able to see turbulence as something positive and deal with it one second at time, surprisingly without fear and an elevated heart rate. During the usual safety announcements I thought about the statement this particular airline made “we take passenger safety very seriously.” The realization that there are many things I don’t know about airplanes and air travel was comforting, There are many people behind the air industry after all . It’s not about me, I’m not the only person in this world. Fear can be my own mental creation too, a kind of solitary downward spiral. I have been in dozens and dozens of flights in my lifetime. I have to trust the system and forget about what I cannot control. I have to let go. The Higher Power, God, or the Universe has a plan. It’s Their Will, not mine.

Copyright © 2021 Jorge Luis Carbajosa

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