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Fear of flying? Post a question to psychologist Patricia Furness-Smith and Pilot Captain Steve Allright - ANSWERS BACK

(85 Posts)
RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 25-Jun-13 14:34:58

If you find flying a traumatic experience or avoid it altogether then we have help on hand this week. We're running a Q&A with Patricia Furness-Smith, a psychologist and psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience and Captain Steve Allright, a BA training captain on Boeing 747 and professional pilot who has clocked up over 10,000 flying hours. Patricia and Steve are authors of Flying with Confidence, a book based on the BA course. Both Patricia and Steve have been a member of BA's Flying with Confidence team for over 10 years.

Post a question to Steve and Patricia before the end of Monday 1st July and we'll post up their answer the following week on 7 July. Everyone who joins the Q&A will be entered into a draw to win one of three copies of Flying with Confidence. Watch out also for a page of tips from Steve and Patricia which we'll link to from this thread when it's live.

Protego Sat 29-Jun-13 12:11:03

I used to fly and liked take-off but after that it was plasticy and boring! Now I would not fly because of the risk of being unlucky enough to be on a flight with a virus shedder - Saudi SARS or vH7N9 or a new Swine 'Flu!
Until airlines bother to do some basic precautions eg body temperature scanning of passengers BEFORE boarding (cheap easy and non-invasive) which would reduce if not eliminate the risk (some people can shed virus but not be ill) I will not be flying!
Ah - were you only talking about irrational fears here? hmm

Wannabuyawatch Sat 29-Jun-13 14:28:15

I feel different as I don´t have a fear of the plane crashing or anything going wrong. My fear is simply that I am terrified of having a panic attack and there is nothing I can do do escape the situation. I had been getting much better but had an awful panic attack on my last flight for no reason whatsoever. I just sat for the rest of the flight in complete misery, hot, sweating, unable to open my eyes and just wanting it all to be over. I am desperate to get over this, but have tried CBT; hypnotherapy, psychotherapy and alcohol therapy! Only thing I have done is taken beta blockers/valium but I am scared to. I don´t want to limit my children´s life because of this and would do anything to be cured!!

chimchar Sat 29-Jun-13 14:57:35

Watching with interest.

My general anxiety is terrible at the moment.

I can't go in lofts, the tube or anywhere too small or enclosed. I even got panicky in the theatre at christmas time because I thought I could feel the upper circle creaking and moving.

I don't have an issue with flying particularly, mine is more the claustrophobia.

My question is where is the best place to sit on the plane to maximise the feeling of space around you?

Also, do cabin crew know how to manage some one in the throes of a panic attack or would I be left on my own to manage.

This thread is making me feel a lot less alone with my anxieties.

LilBlondePessimist Sun 30-Jun-13 11:28:29

My flying anxiety is so bad that I have actually cried reading the posts on this thread. If I am driving near an airport and a plane flies overhead, landing or taking off, I begin to shake.

I won't fly without my children as I don't want to leave them without a mother. We emigrated to Australia two years ago and I really don't think I can face visiting home.

I have almost not got on several flights, and completely broke down and just didn't get on one, even with several kind and patient stewards trying to help me on. My husband was pissed that we didn't go on that hol, to say the least. I didn't fly for almost 5yrs at one point, and any time I do force myself now, I spend the flight in tears. Diazepam and beta blockers don't work.

I also fear heights, being driven by other people on motorways, and public transport in general. Oh, and I have a phobia of other people vomiting near me. So really im just fine and dandy!! hmm

I suppose my question is, can someone with such an extreme fear ever be 'cured', and what would it take? I'd really love to be able to fly for my children's sake, and not let them pick up on my fear.

ToffeeWhirl Sun 30-Jun-13 11:40:04

Oh, Lil, that sounds really miserable, especially as you can't fly home. Have you had CBT to tackle any of these anxieties?

I asked my DH what it was, in particular, that scared him about flying and he said he couldn't say because it was everything! He worries about what the flying does to your body (he has suffered quite bad pains after flying), he worries about not having enough oxygen on the flight, he worries about the plane crashing, terrorists taking it over, etc etc. I was exhausted just listening to him. For the moment, it's not a problem because we can't go anywhere anyway, but he said he'd like to see Australia one day and doesn't think he'll ever be able to do that.

Fozsjobear Sun 30-Jun-13 17:32:55

I used to fly quite often but like others on here my fear has only started since I became a mum. I've read the Allen Carr easyway book about flying and it does help for a few days before my holiday but as I'm boarding I always fall apart. The last time I flew wih my 3 year old I cried pretty much through the whole 2.5hr outbound flight much to his amusement! I understand that flying is safe but it's the fact that if something happened we would know and be completely helpless as the plane came down. Is there something that will permenently help to ease my fear or will I always have to resort to alcohol (even before a 7am flight!) whilst sobbing on my kids shoulders???

S3BFD Mon 01-Jul-13 00:25:24

I am not scared of flying at all but my husband is. He has never been on an aeroplane so I feel he is frightened irrationally about something he has never even experienced (good or bad). He also claims to have a fear of heights.
He actually blames his parents for never taking him on a plane as a child & surprise, surprise his mother had a fear of flying which I believe she has more than likely imposed in my husband's mind.
His opinion is if an aeroplane has a fault - 100% chance you crash - 100% guarantee you die.
The problem is I love holidays abroad & I am finding him very restrictive. Now we have children he will not let me taken them on a plane & I will not holiday without them. It is causing me to resent him. I am fed up of going to Butlins/Haven.
Now the clincher - my husband is a rather unreasonable person. He will not talk about his fear (just bites my head off), will never entertain hypnotherapy, refuses flying fear course & will not take sedatives to fly.
What else can I do? I do not want my kids to end up scared to fly like him.

IndigoBarbie Mon 01-Jul-13 21:20:44

An old friend told me that I'd to remember that the captain LOVES to fly and that's why he does his or her job so well, that made me feel a bit better. I do seem to be oversensitive to the up/down/sidey ways movements that I seem to feel when I sit in my seat, and for me - taking off to reach cruising height is the bit I don't like......

LilBlondePessimist Mon 01-Jul-13 22:45:00

Yeah Toffeewhirl, it is a bit miserable at times, especially concerning the kids, I definitely feel that I restrict them and absolutely don't want to to that and try my utmost not to. But sometimes my irrational side takes over and I can't help it.

I've not had cbt, doctor used to just keep giving me more medication hmm, but it's definitely something I need to get under control.

LatinForTelly Mon 01-Jul-13 22:59:26

Blimey, just did huge long post and lost it all grrr.

So, to try and be a bit more brief, I was v confident, frequent flyer as a child and young adult. Had one slightly frightening flight. Then 9/11 happened which made me worse, and now with children I am even worse.

I have an overactive imagination and terrifying dreams before I fly. I think terrible thoughts about what might happen. (Eg DS has a medical condition. I take extra med supplies on board in case of a hostage situation grin)

Although I'm not woo, I imagine the hand of fate in flights and that, for example, if I nearly miss a flight, it's a sign I shouldn't fly.

Have had hypnotherapy, which helped a bit, but I find I can't do it when flying with young children.

I manage about 3 short return flights a year at the moment to see close family, with a great deal of trauma and stress. I want to be free of this and be able to travel without the ordeal, and maybe even go further afield when the children are older.

I do understand the mechanics of flying, and even the statistics. I don't know why I spend a short flight in a constant state of fear, when I don't walk along a pavement constantly expecting to be mown down by a car, for example. What can I do?

RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 02-Jul-13 11:00:00

The Q&A is now closed. We're going to go through the thread now and find 20 questions that we feel are representative of those being asked and send them over to the experts. It's clear from the volume of posts that this is an issue that affects a lot of people so once we get the answers back next week we'll upload them to an archived Q&A page with some general tips from Steve and Patricia. We'll post on this thread when the answers are back.

LaraMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 08-Jul-13 12:36:17

We now have the answers back from Patricia and Steve, and I will be posting them up shortly.

mirai Mon 08-Jul-13 12:49:07

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Woodenpeg Mon 08-Jul-13 14:53:21

me too. I feel sick already... proper panic attack stuff. How long do we think it will take?? marking place

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 16:21:21


Ok a simple question 'How do you stop being terrified of flying?'

I do fly but as my fear has got worse I have found I am avoiding/limiting flights where possible and it's starting to restrict my family so I would like to get over this. Also, although I have never had a panic attack, I really feel one might be likely on a plane and the thought of losing control like that is really worrying.

I understand, basically, the physics of flying and that it is a very safe form of travel etc but can't get over the fact that sometimes it goes wrong, and if it does go wrong there will be nothing I can do to protect my children. I know this is a fact so how can I accept it and not be paralysed with fear when I fly. And not only when the flight is imminent, we are flying on holiday in a few weeks and I've been waking up in a cold sweat thinking about it for months. I have Diazepam prescribed for the flight but tbh it has almost no effect, the fear is stronger!


A large number of people have the prospect of their holiday spoilt by suffering from anticipatory anxiety and living in fear of a panic attack. In addition some people like your self find that medication doesn't help them a great deal. As this is upsetting your sleep patterns I recommend that you deal with it sooner rather than later. Reading the book, Flying with Confidence, will equip you with the skills to prevent a panic attack so this will empower you enormously and help you to get out of the vicious circle you have found yourself in. You are now not only worrying about the flying but also worrying about your potential reaction to the flying as in you fear a panic attack. You are therefore indoctrinating yourself with negative ideas, which will only serve to make the fear greater. Many people find the knowledge from the book is sufficient to remove their concerns as myths are debunked and are replaced by facts about safety. I hope that you have a wonderful relaxed holiday once you have challenged your attitude to flying.

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 16:23:20


During the flight, when the aircraft makes all the ding-dong noises, I panic thinking it's a code from the captain signaling to the air crew that something's gone wrong. Can you explain what these noises mean?

There are several things which cause "ding-dong noises" all of which are entirely routine. The most common is the on board inter phone system, another the signal from the flight deck to all cabin crew that the aircraft is about to take off, and when the seat belt sign is turned on or off you will also hear a chime. Every exit door and most galleys on board an aircraft have an interphone station where crew can communicate with each other routinely, for example, if they have run out of orange juice in one cabin and need more bringing up. The ding dong is NOT an indicator of serious disaster. It is important to remember that in the extremely rare event that there is a technical problem, for example that may cause you to divert, you will be told by the flight crew, so unless you hear otherwise, assume everything is normal.

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 16:25:04


I do not enjoy flying at all but even so still cant help watching all those air traffic investigation programmes. My question is... On occasions we hear that a planes engines can all go out and the pilot can land safely by gliding I.e the New York river landing. But then other times a plane can suddenly crash?! What's the difference? Surely if a problem occurs, could the pilot glide it down?!!!!

It is quite true that in the extremely rare event that if an aircraft loses all of its engine thrust, it can glide perfectly well, up to 100 miles from cruising altitude. There have been accidents, as you mention, where aircraft crash, for a number of other reasons where the aircraft is not able to glide, each accident being unique in its causal factors.

It is worth remembering that following an accident investigation lessons are learnt, and steps are taken to introduce new design and procedures. These steps ensure that a similar accident should never happen again, and this is one of the reasons that if you look at the statistics you will see fewer and fewer crashes and fatalities year on year, even though the number of flights and passengers travelling increases year on year. Flying has always been the safest form of travel, and becomes ever more so year on year.

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 16:28:35


Mine is a slightly different question because I don't have a fear of flying, as such, but I do have a fear of vomiting. Do you think flying is less nausea-inducing than other forms of transport, and what would you suggest would help reduce the risk?

Many people suffer from a variety of forms of motion sickness or travel-sickness, which is broadly caused by your vestibular/Balance system sensing movement whilst visually you are not able to see the extent of the movement to form a match or consistency. A good way to understand this is to think about how you feel when you spin around and then suddenly stop. Your vision is picking up that you are stationary but the fluid in your inner ear continues to rotate and tells you that you are still moving. So you have a conflict with regard to what is happening, i.e. your eyes are telling you one thing and your Balance system in the ears is telling you something else. This causes nausea and the body then interprets this in a very primitive manner and deduces that you must have ingested poison. So in an attempt to rectify the situation your body will try to make you vomit to get rid of the perceived poison.

Without going into detail, whether flying is less nausea inducing than other forms of transport depends largely on your vestibular equipment as to which type of motion you find triggers the nausea, i.e. is it linear movement or rotational movement or both? Some people suffer from carsickness but not seasickness and vice versa.
About a third of the population are prone to seasickness because there can be considerable rotational movement due to the rolling effect caused by the waves. This coupled with being in a berth without a window (therefore no visual information available showing the movement) triggers the nausea.

Many people suffering from this problem find that taking some form of ginger like ginger tea helps to prevent the vomiting, due to it’s anti-emetic qualities, but does not get rid of the nausea. Booking a window seat helps the situation since you will be able to gain visual information showing that you are moving which will match with your vestibular information that you are moving rather than just looking at the interior of the aircraft which does not give you an indication of movement and hence the dissonance/discrepancy. It is worth a visit to your GP to seek advice, as there are various treatments available consisting of pills, patches and special glasses etc., which can help you.

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 16:34:41


My landlord is a pilot and I quizzed him repeatedly about flying.

My fear has got progressively worse until 6hours of turbulence from St Lucia left me terrorised. I flew again after but I had five Valium!!! Five. They did nothing other than effectively trap me in my own body, my mind raced and raced with fear but my body didn't respond in a panic.

I know in my rational mind that flying is safe and normal but two questions, why do pilots not talk you through turbulence if its so normal. And if I really can't manage my fear are there short acting sedatives I could resort to?

It is the very fact that it is normal that it is not seen as worthy of comment, apart from requesting that you remain seated with your seat belt fastened. Many people try to work during a flight and would find it very distracting to have a running commentary. Remember that turbulence is an entirely normal and natural phenomenon just like you would expect your channel crossing by boat to vary due to the smoothness of the sea some days and other days it may be more wavy. We do have a running commentary from the flight deck on our courses, which anxious passengers find very reassuring.

"And if I really can't manage my fear are there short acting sedatives I could resort to?"

Your GP can advise you on what would be suitable in terms of sedatives e.g. small dose of diazepam. If you wish to go down the medication route considerable care should be taken to get the right dosage so that you are not overly sedated. You could then be incapable of looking after yourself on the flight. This is why being overly intoxicated on alcohol on a flight is frowned upon since you can pose a danger to yourself and others.

Since sedation does have side effects I always encourage people to take real control by mastering the 4 Rs techniques, which are described in detail in the book. The 4Rs roughly involves learning how to React, Regulate your breathing, Relax your muscles and Rehearse a positive scenario. By doing the 4Rs you can avoid or arrest a panic attack by inducing a state of relaxation. Once you are relaxed you can access your rational mind, which knows how safe flying actually is smile

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 16:36:26


I should ask a question I guess. I'm a bit wary of the experience and competence of the pilots of budget airlines and holiday company airlines compared to BA, Virgin etc airlines. Is this a justified fear?

No. All pilots are trained and checked to a legal standard that is set and monitored by the Civil Aviation Authority. Obviously experience levels, initial training, ongoing technical and non technical (teamwork) training will vary from airline to airline, but every six months, regardless of which company you work for, a pilot has to undergo rigorous testing in the simulator in order to retain his flying licence. On top of that we undergo an annual medical, a technical refresher and route checks on routine flights.

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 16:39:16


My question is: why has my fear of flying got so much worse over time? I have been flying since I was a baby. Very international well traveled family. I never had any fear at all until about ten years ago. Nothing specific started it off. It has got worse and worse. The last flight was a tight are. Only a short flight from Venice to London and I was nearly hysterical over what felt like extreme turbulence to me, but nothing to anyone else. It has totally put me off the idea of a holiday abroad. I also find the turbulence (even mild) makes me nauseous.

So, why has it got worse?

You say that nothing specific has triggered it but we often develop mental health difficulties as a result of change, be it good or bad. The very fact that we have to pay greater attention to what we are doing puts a greater strain upon us and sometimes the accumulation of lots of little changes or a few major changes can take it’s toll, mentally, physically or both. For example one of the main reasons why people develop a fear of flying is becoming a parent. Because your world is significantly changed, this has to be adapted to and you can no longer live your life on a form of auto-pilot as you have a dependent to look after.

In this particular example a second factor is also involved in that on an evolutionary level you are programmed to assist in the survival of the next generation and therefore might well find that you become more risk adverse ( many new parents give up motor biking, bungee jumping etc). Even though this is entirely irrational in the case of flying, since this is the safest form of transport available. If we do want to be around to raise the next generation it would be more rational to give up driving which really is a risky occupation! To demonstrate the extra demands that change can make upon us I often ask clients to brush their teeth or hair with the opposite hand to the one that they usually use. They then see first hand, if you pardon the pun, the extra effort involved in doing such a tiny task, which previously required little concentration but considerable effort when switched to the opposite hand.

As to why the problem has got worse. Although you might well have long since left behind the extra stress that caused the phobia in the first place, by not effectively addressing the problem you have reinforced the bad habit. This is very similar to revising for an exam so that you can deliver the goods on the day of the examination. In your case you have been diligently rehearsing/revising how frightening you find flying and now have become proficient in finding it extremely uncomfortable.

I hope that very soon you will be back to your natural self, which is someone who ten years ago knew how to fly with confidence.

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 16:41:54


I am terrified when flying and would appreciate an explanation of how exactly a plane stays in the air and also what causes turbulence and when is it dangerous?

It sounds like you need to come on our course! The theory of flight, especially lift, is explained and demonstrated fully on our special one day BA Flying with Confidence Course. Turbulence is also covered in great detail. Both these topics are also covered in our Flying with Confidence book.

In a nutshell, the shape of the wings enable the aircraft to fly by creating a suction (low pressure) above the wing as they are forced through the air by the engines. Turbulence is caused by a number of different things, the most common in the cruise being jet streams, fast moving "rivers" of air snaking around our planet at high altitude caused by the differential heating of land and sea masses combined with the rotation of the Earth. Turbulence may be uncomfortable, but it is NEVER dangerous.

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 17:02:53


Oh, this is a great thread. I used to travel all over the world with dh - to New Zealand, Canada, Samoa, America. But since we had kids, I have got more and more scared of flying, helped by a couple of incidents like being hit by lightning and an aborted landing. Now, if I think about flying, I am terrified - I am sick, get diarrhoea, and can't help thinking about our entire family dying in a plane crash. Please, please, what can I do to help myself so that I can go on holiday with my family??

The key to your "incidents" is that you are still here to tell the tale. Lightning strikes on aircraft occur almost every day somewhere around the world, and pose no threat to safety. I have had seven, but none for about ten years, that is the nature of flying. The aircraft is designed to withstand a lightning strike, and to dissipate the static electricity that is generated via static wicks at the rear of the wings and tailplane.

An aborted landing can feel like a traumatic event, but in reality it is a quite routine event for pilots to execute, and something we are trained to do when it is safer to "go around" than to land. In the high landing density of traffic at Heathrow, a go around (aborted landing) happens at least once every day. It is the safe option if the preceding aircraft is still on the runway.

In short you can master the 4Rs techniques to enable your body to not change from long-term survival mode to short-term Emergency survival mode. This is caused by your fight or flight response mechanism being activated which causes a cocktail of stress hormones to be released into your body to deal with the perceived threat. Your fight or flight response is designed for physical threat, hence why all non-essential processes shut down so that all resources can be put into your escape from the threat (flight) or if this is not possible then into defeating the threat (fight). A good example of this is the shutting down of your digestive system causing you to have a dry throat (saliva not produced in the same quantity) and often vomiting or squitters which will cause you to be lighter and able to run faster to get away from the threat. Finally should you be caught by the threat/predator you will not smell too appetising so might well not get gobbled up.

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 17:06:29


I too am afraid of flying. I avoid doing it at all costs and haven't done it at all since I became a mum.

What frightens me most is that these aircraft are always flying they barely ever stop (I think). I mean they do an 8 hour flight and then have a 1-2 hour turn around and then they're flying again. And the process is repeated. I worry about stress and wear and tear on aircraft, especially as some are very old. Your car couldn't cope with that and it doesn't have 4 jet engines and fly at 40000 feet.

On top of that the volume of aircraft in the air, I've seen the flight tracker apps. Are our skies getting too full?

I know you are all professionals, but pilots are not miracle workers if a plane is suddenly no longer air worthy. Air traffic control near misses are not unheard of and I know there are aircraft engineers to maintain the aircraft but they work through the night, people working overnight are statistically more likely to make mistakes because we are designed to be asleep.

Can you see how I've over thought this?

Can you reassure me that these aircraft are definitely air worthy, honestly (even on budget airlines)?

Thank you.

Yes. The reason that aircraft are able to continue flying for so many years is down to one thing. Excellent maintenance. You are quite right, the time spent on the ground is less than in the air, but EVERY time the aircraft is in the ground the aircraft is checked. A more detailed check is carried out in every 24 hour period, and even more detailed every week. After a certain amount of time, or "cycles" the aircraft is removed from flying altogether for several days to probe even into "wear and tear" issues. This gets ever more searching as the aircraft gets older with old parts being replaced to the extent that a very old aircraft is actually almost completed made of new parts! All of these processes are laid down and contribute hugely to air safety.

Air traffic control is a long subject, which we cover on the course and in the book in detail, but suffice to say, the skies are never too full, otherwise we have to stay on the ground to await our take off slot. Air traffic controllers are licensed professionals, just like pilots.

Patricia&Steve Mon 08-Jul-13 17:09:13


I fly half a dozen times a year, but have always been scared of the plane take off and landing and hate that acceleration feeling on the runway. I spent most of my flights staring intently at the Flight Attendants faces, gauging whether they look concerned at the bumps and pings.

Couple of questions if I may?:

I worry about the angle of the plane on take off. Have there been many cases of airplane tails/back ends dragging on the ground and causing crashes? What stops this from happening (probably an insane question, but one of my concerns upon takeoff).

What happens if take off is not achieved? Is the plane capable of slowing down again before the end of the runway?

Do most crashes in the air happen in the cloud layer where there is less visibility? Should I add this to my long list of worries?

What happens if the wheels fail (i.e. don't come down). Are there a back up set?

After landing, what happens if the brakes fail to slow the plane - does it have to take off again, and has it got the capability to take off again?

Not insane, as it is possible, but 100% of take off "rotations" are controlled manually by the pilots, and so it would take an extraordinary lack of judgement to cause the tail to drag on the ground, and even then the aircraft would still be able to fly.

What happens if take off is not achieved? Is the plane capable of slowing down again before the end of the runway?

Yes, we have a speed at which we must continue the take off, called V1, but any time up until that point we can brake the aircraft to a safe stop.

Do most crashes in the air happen in the cloud layer where there is less visibility? Should I add this to my long list of worries?

No. I think you are referring to crashes that occur in fog, which has been a causal factor in a number of accidents in the past, but with improved technology, is now far less of a challenge to pilots.

What happens if the wheels fail (i.e. don't come down). Are there a back up set?

There is a back up system, as there is with everything on aircraft, but aircraft are able to land quite safely without any wheels, and this happened once or twice over the years.

After landing, what happens if the brakes fail to slow the plane - does it have to take off again, and has it got the capability to take off again?

There are many different devices and braking systems that are able to stop the aircraft, and the chances of them all failing at the same time as you touch down are nil. Even then the aircraft could indeed take off again just after it touched down.

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