Flights, Anxiety and Fear
Human moment: general anxiety disorder will lowkey have you overthinking the hell out of everything.
It’s said that anxiety is a constant worry over the future, over things that haven’t happened yet. Having dealt with this since about 2008, you can imagine how stressful it used to be making that 10 hour overnight flight to the UK for University. Once the aircraft door was closed, my mind ran a million miles per minute wondering “is this gonna be the flight” (cue Final Destination opening scene). Multiply this by a particularly bad flight I had a few years ago and I am pretty sure when the anxiety and the experience of that flight mixed it created an irrational fear of flying.
Context is important,as always. I have been flying long before I can remember, but my earliest memory of a plane is somewhere around 8 years old. I don’t think I cared enough at that age or up until the point in the story that I am going to tell you, about turbulence or the idea that flying may somehow be scary or dangerous.
Fast forward to 2008. I’m flexing back to Nassau from London, and had a layover in Miami. Hopped on American Eagle Flight 02-whatever the hell to Nassau. Took off, and then 20 minutes in I learned how many curse words I actually know.
This damn plane started one piece of shaking in some turbulence on the outer bands of a thunderstorm back in 2008 and I still haven’t forgotten about it. Turbulence is nothing to be afraid of at all, but I wasn’t always able to say this so confidently. Learning to fly helped me get over my fear of flying. Yes, I - Nick International lover of all things travel used to be afraid to fly.
So, this flight went like this:
Flight Attendant: “It’s getting a little bumpy up here, but we should be out of the clouds soon hopefully”
*PING* - Seatbelt sign goes on
Captain Gonzales: “AhHhHHhHhh…..Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain from the flight deck. We have about 20 minutes of holding fuel remaining and we are presently at 1500 feet and are unable to see the runway.”
“We’ve been advised by ATC to climb and turn around and land in Freeport, Grand Bahama as the weather conditions in Nassau make a safe landing impossible”
Me: Oh shit.
This American Eagle ATR started climbing again through the dark rain clouds. The wind outside was so loud and so strong that it was like being thrown around inside a Valley Boys bass drum when they were really rocking out in Rawson Square. For those of you on whom the Junkanoo reference is lost, imagine being put into a tumble dryer and shaken about.
Two flashes of lightning, the woman next to me popped a pill; then we lost altitude abruptly as the engines started making what I thought were struggle sounds. I really didn’t know what the fuck was happening, and throughout this entire ordeal I never let go of the back of the seat in front of me. I didn’t think I was going to die, but I also wasn’t 100% sure.
When we landed in Freeport, I don’t think I had ever been so eager to get off of a plane. Those ATR’s are terrific aircraft, with great safety records but for fucks sake man why did homeboy think it was a good idea to fly the mosquito into a STORM? That Kalik from the bar in Grand Bahama’s airport was the best Kalik I have ever had, no cap.
That wasn’t my last experience with bad turbulence but it was the last one that really rattled me to my core. There was an occasion I was flying BA0252 to London and we hit that portion of the Atlantic crossing where you enter the Jet Stream. Gusting headwind sent this Boeing 777 dancing in the air and spilled my damn gin and tonic. The turbulence on that flight lasted about 2 hours.
Crossing the equator into southern Africa is another area that seems to constantly be turbulent. En route to Johannesburg while I was in the lavatory, I heard the seatbelt sign ping, and then in the middle of trying to take a leak, the plane started doing the cha-cha slide and before I knew it my feet were wet and I’d basically missed the toilet. I am very sorry to the crew on that flight, if it were me I would have been….pissed.
Fast forward to 2020 and as recently as yesterday I was sitting in the cockpit of a 9 seater Navajo along with a Captain flying to a neighboring island deliberately trying to navigate on the bands of a small rain storm to get a little bounce going. Talk about growth. I have almost no fear of flying anymore, though this took some time. The thing that helped me get over my fear of flying finally, was learning to fly.
A big part of nervousness and anxiety during flight has to do with trusting someone else with your life. Once you’re on board and the door is closed, you have relinquished control to the Captain and crew.
You can’t see into the cockpit, all you can see is the cabin, and if you have a window seat you’ll be looking at the open sky, clouds or darkness. When there is turbulence, you don’t know that the Captain and co-pilot(s) are actually quite chilled and unphased. The conversation would probably sound like:
Captain: “Getting a little bumpy up here, let’s request a different altitude, really don’t want to spill my tea”
Co-Pilot: “Okay, cool. Hopefully the passengers didn’t feel that. What are you watching on Netflix these days man?”
Captain: “American Murder”
Co-Pilot: “Oh shit, me too!”
This isn’t to say that there aren’t times when conversations may sound more urgent, but the point I am trying to drive home is turbulence needn’t worry you. It’s just uncomfortable and it doesn’t tend to last for very long.
Sitting in the cockpit, you appreciate that there is no imminent danger around you, the plane isn’t falling out of the sky and everything is quite fine save for the annoying pockets of air you’re bumping your way through.
There’s something else that has always messed with my mind and I think airlines should rethink the hell out of this one. The seatbelt chime, ring, alarm, whatever the hell you want to call it.
Perhaps it’s just me, but that sound causes the release of far too much adrenaline and is more appropriate for an emergency than it is for a simple alert to fasten your seatbelt. You feel me? Delta Airlines has installed on some of their Airbus aircraft (I think they are Airbus planes) a voice system instead of the chime. It says “Ladies and Gentlemen, the seatbelt sign will now be illuminated, please fasten your seatbelts and continue to enjoy your flight”. Much calmer, less startling. I don’t fly Delta often enough.
Once I came to appreciate what was happening in the cockpit, I gave up on being afraid to fly. There is a life lesson here too: you needn’t fear that over which you have no control so long as you have understanding, trust and a little faith (just in case). If that doesn’t settle your mind, have a 2mg [redacted] and you’ll wake up in your destination.
Big thanks to Bonded Excursions and C6-DMB for the flights.