Aviation writer Gordon Smith reveals how he put his fearful flying days behind him.
“Cabin crew, doors to automatic and cross-check.” For most frequent flyers it’s a phrase so ubiquitous it blends into the white noise of pre-departure preparations, part of a reassuring rhythm alongside inflight safety demonstrations and warnings about smoking in the toilets. For me, it had the opposite effect. Hearing this benign instruction on the PA system would send my already-jittery body into overdrive. It was the point of no return.
Multiple studies suggest around a third of the adult population find flying nerve-wracking for one reason or another. Travellers in this category are unlikely to relish the experience, but it’s not enough to stop them getting on board. The same cannot be said for those with aerophobia – a much more serious fear of flying – with research indicating up to 5 per cent of us fall into this group. Those with the most acute cases simply refuse to fly at all.
I’m unable to identify a ‘Big Bang moment’ that sparked my aviation anxiety. No near-miss catastrophe or tabloid-esque ‘flight from hell’ to sow the seeds for deep-rooted concerns. It was a creeping awareness in my adolescence of just how wild it is to travel on a commercial airliner.
I could get my head around the fairly elementary laws of maritime travel and the concepts underpinning railways. Aviation, on the other hand, appeared so abstract: how could a 200-ton hunk of metal carry hundreds of passengers at great speed, seven miles above the Earth’s surface?
The result was a decade of restless flying, with many journeys spent in complete silence, refusing to speak to my travel companions until we were safely back on terra firma. Even smooth cruising on calm days was unpleasant, as my brain conjured up extreme and often deadly scenarios: What if there’s a fire? What if we collide with another aircraft? What if this turbulence isn’t normal?
The events of 11 September, 2001 only compounded my festering phobia. I not only had to worry about mechanical failure but also the risk that my fellow travellers could be plotting an atrocity. Was he taking a suspiciously long time in the lavatory? Did she look shifty at the departure gate? Mixing this new-age passenger paranoia with traditional triggers created a toxic cocktail at altitude – a far cry from a tasty mid-flight mimosa.
Although there wasn’t a seminal moment that ignited my fear of flying, there was a more defined end to my phobia. Back when Ryanair offered promotional fares for literally a penny, I leaped at the chance to explore Leipzig in eastern Germany. But as the date of the trip approached, I started to worry. We were flying a low-cost carrier during the hours of darkness in the middle of winter, a holy trinity of perceived risks for my worrisome mind.
Sick of spinning worst-case scenarios in my head, I knew something had to be done.
Methodically, I listed out all my fears, and every negative incident that had ever occurred, and sought to rationalise my feelings with meticulous research.
I discovered, for example, that Europe’s low-cost carriers rank among the safest airlines flying anywhere, fact-checked the adage that driving to the airport is more dangerous than the flight itself, and learned that even if things go awry, the outcome is almost always favourable. I soon had quantifiable datasets that helped to contextualise my concerns. The long-overdue exercise helped me understand just how safe and reliable modern commercial aviation is.
The aim was to help me fly with greater confidence, but it ultimately had a rather unexpected fringe benefit: my research awoke a huge appreciation for the nuance and complexity of the industry and left me hungry to learn more. I soon found myself reading about aircraft, airlines and airports without anxiety-fuelled ulterior motives. Before I knew it, I’d gone from aerophobe to aerofanatic, and for the first time since childhood, I could sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.
My experience laid the foundations for a career built around aviation. I now fly multiple times a month, sometimes for pleasure but more often for work. The fact that I’m writing this calmly while being buffeted around in a bumpy turboprop is testament to my metaphorical journey, which has enriched my world travels.