Fears are educated into us, and can, if we wish, be educated out.
– Karl Augustus Menninger
Step 1: Know your enemy.
Planes get a bad press. They are giant masses of metal, heavy and inflexible that glide through the open air at incredible speeds and dizzying altitudes. They flout our understanding of the laws of nature as they are ultimately unnatural. They groan and shake in ways that make your blood grow cold and have been told to
spontaneously combust, crash, fail, rip apart, the culmination of which are the stuff of nightmares. With all these preconceptions of catastrophe with which I associate flying, the only sensible option remains to find out to what extent this is true? I need to distinguish FACT from FICTION.
I read a post written by a private pilot and psychologist Basic Principles of Aircraft Flight, which gave me great insight into the technicalities of flying that as a passenger I never knew, and also the tools for my rational cognition to override my irrational. What I appreciated most about the article is that the author does not attempt to disguise the posed risks of flying, he acknowledges that if something does go wrong during a flight it can go very badly indeed. I found the honesty refreshing though because it meant I took more comfort in the reassurances he offered.
Even with all the engines stopped an airplane can glide back down. Of course, it won’t glide as well as a sailplane, and it can’t climb in an updraft, but it won’t fall like a rock either. Its altitude will be traded for airspeed, and the airspeed will generate enough lift to fly it back down to the ground for a safe landing.
You can also rest assured that pilots are specifically trained to fly an airplane with any number of engines—including all of them—not working. (And on jets, if an engine catches fire, built-in fire extinguishers will put out the fire.) Getting back to the ground after an emergency might be scary, but you will likely survive.
The facts laid out reminded me of a few things: primarily that the pilot is trained and makes decisions for the best and safest flight and landing possible, secondly that I am not the only person who wants to survive!
On a train journey the subtlest whir of an engine or obscure groan can set alarm bells ringing in my head. I imagine the transportation as a live vessel and the creaking or scraping of metal against metal as a seeping wound that marks the impending destruction of the train/shuttle/plane that carries me. The author outlines some of the common sounds you would hear during a flight ie the engine throttle back when levelling off for cruise, or the whirring of flaps and spoilers as they are extended for descent and landing. With this collected information I can build a flying context that is unthreatening to my rationale which whilst is still not able to cope with the unexpected, can at least feel more control over discomfort.
The most beneficial part of this article is the author’s aviation knowledge combined with an awareness of the psychological impact of panic. I have read tons of literature on panic attacks and often scoffed at the people who recommend telling yourself to stop. Well genius, if it were that simple I would have been cured by now. Here the physiological reaction to fear is explained which is one that once triggered cannot be reversed by mere verbalizing, so I will sign off with this last copy & paste extract:
The part of your brain that causes you to panic when you feel the discomfort of turbulence is a primitive part of the brain that understands behavior, not language, and that has been conditioned to equate emotional distress with physical danger. When your body feels the first bumps of turbulence, your brain interprets it as a danger and sends out the signal to pump out fight-or-flight chemicals that cause physiological arousal.
Now, at this point you have two options.
If you believe that there is a danger, and that you have to do something to fight against it, you only encourage your brain to keep on pumping out more fight-or-flight chemicals, and eventually this process escalates and you fall into a panic. Moreover, you can’t stop the panic by telling yourself to stop panicking. As I said before, the part of your brain responsible for the panic doesn’t understand language. It only understands behavior—and this brings us to your second option.
The only way to stop the panic is to act in a way that tells your brain that there is no danger. So stop fighting. Instead of fast, shallow breathing take long, slow, deep breaths. Instead of staring around in a frenzy, close your eyes. Instead of clenching the arms of your seat, loosen your grip. Relax all your muscles and just sink down into your seat. This behavior will tell your brain that you are not in danger, and subsequently your brain will shut down the fight-or-flight chemicals—and you will experience a calm relief.
Furthermore, the next time you experience the first bumps of turbulence, remember what you have read here and tell yourself, “It’s OK. This is distress more than danger.” Take your hands and feet off the “controls” and let the plane fly itself. Take slow, deep breaths. Close your eyes. Relax your muscles. And then any of the first sputters of fight-or-flight response will just dissipate.
Happy flying 🙂
- Being Comfortable with the Four S’s – Stalls, Spins, Spirals & Slow Flight (primermastermags.wordpress.com)