Q&A on fear of flying


For many flying can be a traumatic experience, and some avoid it altogether.

Patricia Furness-Smith has over 20 years of experience and Captain Steve Allright is a BA training captain on Boeing 747 and professional pilot who has clocked up over 10,000 flying hours - they are the authors of Flying with Confidence, a book based on the BA course. Here they answer your questions.


Q. Since we had kids I have become more and more scared of flying, increased by a couple of incidents like being hit by lightning and an aborted landing. Now, if I think about flying, I am terrified.

A. Patricia & Steve: 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. You 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.

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.

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. In the high landing density of traffic at Heathrow, a go around (aborted landing) happens at least once every day.

Q. How do you stop being terrified of flying? I have found that I am avoiding/limiting flights where possible and it's starting to restrict my family.

A. Patricia & Steve: 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. 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.

Q. Why has my fear of flying got so much worse over time?

A. Patricia & Steve: 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 its toll, mentally, physically or both.

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. You have been diligently rehearsing/revising how frightening you find flying and now have become proficient in finding it extremely uncomfortable.

Q. What causes turbulence and at what point does it become dangerous?

A. Patricia & Steve: 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.

Q. I worry about stress and wear and tear on aircraft, especially as some are very old - and some are continuously flying: they do an eight hour flight and then have a 1-2 hour turn around and then they're flying again. On top of that there's the volume of aircraft in the air - I've seen the flight tracker apps. Are our skies getting too full?

A. Patricia & Steve: 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 on the ground the aircraft is checked. A more detailed check is carried out in every 24 hour period, and an even more detailed check every week.

After a certain amount of time, or 'cycles', the aircraft is removed from flying altogether for several days to probe 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 completely 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 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.

Q. I'm scared that I will have a panic attack due to being in an enclosed space, and that I will freak out and try to open the doors at 30,000 feet and kill myself and everyone else on board.

A. Patricia & Steve: Firstly the doors cannot be opened in flight due to the pressure differential so there is absolutely no chance of this eventuality. Secondly you can control the panic by mastering the 4Rs techniques mentioned in the book. Cabin crew are fully trained to keep both you and all the other passengers safe. But prevention is better than cure so I very much encourage you to learn the simple techniques which will enable you to feel much more in control in the first place.

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

A. Patricia & Steve: 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.

Q. I know in my rational mind that flying is safe and normal but, why do pilots not talk you through turbulence if it's so normal?

A. Patricia & Steve: 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. 

Q. I don't like flying but, for me, it is when we are up in the air and I think the engines are stopping. The note of the engine seems to drop until I feel sure it is about to stop.

A. Patricia & Steve: I think you are referring to levelling off, or perhaps the reduction in power just after take-off, when we do not require so much power because we no longer have the drag of the landing gear. Your inner ears work as accelerometers, and so the change in rate of acceleration is what you sense, together with an actual, but very small, reduction in thrust. The other time the engine note would drop is when you level off in the cruise and less power is needed.

Q. On occasions we hear that a plane's engine can go out, and the pilot can land safely by gliding, ie the New York river landing. But then other times a plane can suddenly crash?! What's the difference? If a problem occurs, could the pilot glide it down?

A. Patricia & Steve: It is quite true that in the extremely rare event that 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.

Q. 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 happens if take off is not achieved? Is the plane capable of slowing down again before the end of the runway? What happens if the wheels fail (ie don't come down) - is there a back-up set?

A. Patricia & Steve: 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. 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.

With regards to the wheels, 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. And 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.

Q. I'm a bit wary of the experience and competence of the pilots of budget airlines and holiday company airlines compared to the larger airlines. Is this a justified fear?

A. Patricia & Steve: 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.

Q. My flying anxiety is so bad that I have actually cried reading the posts on this thread. 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.

A. Patricia & Steve: The simple answer is yes. It doesn't matter how many factors feed into a phobia, once you have the understanding about what is happening, you will be empowered to deal with it. I am so sorry that you have suffered so much with your emetophobia, acrophobia etc. The techniques discussed in the book are transferable skills, which will assist you in dealing with all your problems. It seems that your difficulties have blighted your life long enough and it is now time to take action to reclaim your freedom to live your life how you want to live it. I wish you every success in this endeavour.

Q. If I really can't manage my fear are there short acting sedatives I could resort to?

A. Patricia & Steve: Your GP can advise you on what would be suitable in terms of sedatives. 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 as you could then be incapable of looking after yourself on the flight.


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Last updated: 7 months ago