(Ir)Rational Fear of Flying?

Everybody makes the choice. It may not be a conscious one at the time, at the exact moment that it happens. But somewhere along the line—usually during the planning process—everybody makes the choice. And usually, little consideration is given to the decision. It’s engrained behavior. So when the time comes to step over that threshold, most people do it with a sense of blasé.

Not me. I don’t. I’m an active participant in the planning, in the lead up and in the eventual crossing from one side to the other. And, of course, that makes me a cauldron of nerves, a bubbling neurotic who instantly fields thousands of questions and concerns in my own mind. As quickly as they come, I have to shrug them off. If I didn’t, I’d probably lose my mind.

I like to tell people I have a healthy fear of flying. I like to say there’s nothing irrational about my anxiety. I do believe that fears typically have some basis in reality. Not everything that people fear is baseless, is cause for concern. Don’t call the people in white suits, as they say. But I’m also aware that fear can be crippling and nonsensical. It can manifest itself in odd ways and in odd places. If you don’t get a handle on it, then, yes, you’ll be imprisoned by it.

That’s why that threshold that I mentioned earlier is so important to me. I have to acknowledge it because denying it is foolish and fruitless. I’m not smart enough to think past it. But I also have to understand ultimately stepping from one side to the other probably won’t ruin me.

I know. You probably want specifics. What threshold? Stop burying the lede.


The threshold is the imaginary demarcation between the end of the jetway and doorway of the plane. Everyone makes the decision to step over that line and onto the plane. But who really thinks about that. Still, when you decide to walk onto a plane, you’re leaving your well being in the hands of pilots and grounds crew and the actual, physical tin can with souped up engines. You have to hope that everyone does his or her job precisely. You have to hope they do their due diligence. You have to know that you have absolutely no control over what happens from the moment you’re on the plane to the moment you’re off of it. Once you’re in, you’re there, for better or for worse. And there’s a helplessness about that. Maybe I don’t like putting my faith and trust into that many people. Maybe I think something as large, mechanical and intricate as a plane is just waiting for disaster. Maybe I believe that the laws of gravity are going to trump the marvelous feats of engineering. I don’t know what it is. But I know that I get in a lather sometimes because I have zero control. (Hell, maybe I’m a closeted control freak. But I don’t think that’s the case.)

Of course, you could turn tail and head back up the jetway. But there’s no guarantee that’s any safer. I know what the statistics say: Air travel is the safest form of transportation. And there’s great reason for that: technological advancements, well trained pilots and grounds crew, air traffic control that keep other planes in the sky away from one another. But there’s little comfort in numbers. I can’t wrap myself in a warm blanket of statistics and think that everything is going to be all right. I just can’t do that. On some level the stats are reassuring. For example, there’s a higher probability of my getting in a terrible car accident then of a plane I’m riding in crashing to the ground. That’s definitely a positive, and I try to dwell on the positives before and during a flight. It helps on some small level. But still, most people don’t have that feeling helplessness when they drive their cars. Why? Because they’re in control of their actions. True, when you drive, you have to be focused not only on what you’re doing but on what everyone else is doing, as well. But you know that if something bad is about to happen on the road, you rely on yourself, on your instincts, on your timing to avert disaster. When you’re in a plane? Well, you’re just along for the ride, all the while knowing that if something horrible goes wrong, well …

But none of this stops me from flying. And it probably never will. I fly fairly often during the year. I usually take a trip or two during the fall and spring semesters, then end up flying two or three times during the summer. I’ve taken quick jumps from Charlotte, N.C., to Greensboro, N.C., and I’ve taken interminable flights from Honolulu to Atlanta. I’ve experienced turbulent flights, smooth flights, bumpy landings, pancake landings and sudden drops. But I keep going because if I don’t, then fear envelops me whole and controls my actions.

I wrote all this from a bar in Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., as I waited to board a quick 40-minute flight to Las Vegas. I see people spread throughout the bar, drinking beer and wine, checking e-mail, playing games, listening to music, writing in a notebook, talking with friends and colleagues or just watching any of the 11 TVs clumped together against the far wall. I can almost guarantee that the middle aged woman who sat across from me, who glossed her lips and wrote Lord knows what in her notebook, wasn’t thinking anything remotely similar to what I was. Was she in denial? Or was she simply more well adjusted and rational? Maybe a little a both, but probably more of the latter.

The Yankees are visiting Boston, and that game is spread across four of the 11 televisions, and it serves as a welcome distraction from travelling and flying. A guy in a brown baseball game worn backwards is sitting at his table, resting his head on his clenched hands. He’s intently watching the Red Sox-Yankees match up. He seems invested in its outcome. He’s assuredly not thinking about whatever plane he has to catch soon. The engineering behind thrusting a several ton aircraft in the air is not nearly as important as whether struggling Red Sox slugger David Ortiz can turn around a pitch and get his average above .200. Priorities, people. (For the record, Ortiz walked.)

I look at these people and simultaneously deride them and envy them. Part of me says, “C’mon, folks, don’t be stupid. Humans weren’t meant to fly. That hunk of metal isn’t safe.” The other part says, quite simply, “I envy you.”

Why did I write this while waiting for a delayed flight? Because I was hoping it would be cathartic. I thought allowing my concerns and anxieties to surface would lead me to a shift in my mentality. I don’t want to be neurotic about flying. I want to enjoy it more than I do. I’m not sure if this helped at all. But I know one thing for sure, writing it before boarding a plane probably wasn’t the best choice. I’m not sure if this soothed my nerves or simply caused an explosion in concern.

Either way, I got on that plane.

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