Whilst some people have a fear of flying from early on that never seems to go away I have never experienced any problems. I fly regularly for my work and with family living over 10,000miles away planes are the best options to see them again! Like most people I have been on planes that have experienced turbulence or the shakes that remind me of a puppy dogs tummy when you tickle them. However it was at the end of last year that a bad flight resulted in a fear of flying that had the potential to impact my personal life and my career.
My flight back to Australia for Christmas started off as routine, on a well known airline stopping in Dubai. I was incredibly excited to be leaving an English winter and heading home to what I was hoping were many trips to the beach! As we got close to Dubai the Captain came over the letting everyone know that there were 50minutes until we landed so many people got up to go to the toilet, some started to repack their bags opening the overhead lockers and the flight attendants starting walking up and down with trolleys to collect any rubbish. I was in the last row next to the toilets, I had chosen the spot deliberately to help me stay awake on the first flight, and seeing the long queue decided to wait until we landed to get out of my seat. Tightening my seatbelt, a self concious habit I have had for years to confirm I am strapped in, I returned to watching a movie that I know can not remember what it was. A few minutes later the whole plane was startled by the Captain suddenly coming on the speaker shouting ‘All crew and passengers sit down immediately’. I have never heard someone so stressed in my life and from his tone you knew that what was about to happen next would not be good.
The announcement led to the worst game of musical chairs you have ever seen with crew taking passengers seats and passengers trying to work out how to use the jump seats. Within about 10seconds of the announcement the plane started falling from the sky. The first time this happened no one really reacted because though scary it was a slight hiccup. But it kept happening and we kept falling. You could hear the weather around us was fierce with wind and rain battering the hull, there were bags falling out of the overhead lockers, the abandoned trolleys were flying up and down the aisles slamming into walls. As I was at the back of the plane I could see other passengers trying to get out of the toilets but with no where to go they were hanging onto railings. Each time the plane dropped I could see out from my peripheral vision these people flying into the air as the flight attendants yelled at them to find seats that didn’t exist. There was understandably lots of screaming and I cried, and cried, and cried.
Then as quickly as it had started we got through whatever it was. The seatbelt sign went off and the flight attendants resumed asking people for rubbish. There was no explanation and twenty minutes later we had landed. As I left the plane I had hoped to ask the pilots for an explanation, for me knowledge is power but they had already left. The flight attendants would only say it was a bit of turbulence and reminded me I only had one hour to get through the gates to my next plane. Not helpful. Safe to say the next plane I got on I didn’t sleep as planned and the lovely couple next to me had to cox me out of my seat to move around, as it was thirteen hours of terror where any noise or potential plane movement brought more tears to my eyes.
The next two weeks were fine and after telling a few friends about what had happened and spending time with family and going to the beach I thought I was all fine. I had no real nerves before boarding the plane or when I strapped myself in. Something clicked once we took off, the plane jerked a little and fear clocked me with every rumble causing me to grip the armrests harder. This flight was only just over an hour and the thankfully the seat next to me was empty as I was concious that my fear could spread. Closing my eyes I concentrated on breathing, held tight to my seat and thought I was doing ok until the woman holding her baby across the aisle whispered to me ‘Are you ok?’. Shaking my head no I closed my eyes again. The next 24 hours weren’t fun with no sleep as I headed back to London and if I wore a fitbit I am sure it would have had stress spikes all over the place! I subsequently slept for thirteen hours missing my friends engagement party and realised I needed to take some action as I couldn’t continue to live like this especially as only a week later I was flying again for work.
Knowledge is power and google is the oracle so I investigated a lot on ways to combat this fear. My friend Shay who travels a lot pointed me to some tips on how to cope and even wrote a blog post himself on the topic. On my next four flights (two short haul and two long haul) there have been six tips that have worked well for me.
Get back on the horse. I know that if I didn’t continue to get on planes this temporary fear could have become permanent. Don’t get me wrong it was not easy to do and I even considered cancelling the trips to avoid the stress but you have to confront your fear to squash it.
Breath. The first thing that changes in my body language when this fear hits is my breathing. I practice yoga and pilates so have had breathing training. Concentrating on breathing helps me to stop my mind going crazy and assess the real situation. Is the plane crashing or is it just a little bit of turbulence that wouldn’t have worried me before? If you have gone into a full panic attack I know this tip isn’t helpful but if you can catch it beforehand just try to breath.
Invest in noise cancelling headphones. For me the biggest trigger is the noises on a plane that I can not identify. Was that the engine just stopping? What is that ticking noise that wasn’t there a few minutes ago? Noise cancelling headphones block all of this out and allow you to to be in your own bubble. By the third and forth flight I was sleeping on a plane again which I wasn’t sure would ever happen.
Don’t invest in enablers. When I was doing all my research my first mindset was to invest in behaviour that would mean I wouldn’t have to endure the stress of flying. This included finding alternatives including travelling by train even though it increased my journey by four times. My most intense thought was to invest in some adult nappies so I wouldn’t have to move from my seat! Extreme I know and as I was telling my friend of the option I laughed and said that I shouldn’t invest in things that are bandaids rather then fixers.
Choose airlines that invest in their staff and have experience. I travel top tier airlines now despite the price as this means they invest in their staff training and most importantly maintenance. My uncle flies for one of these airlines and he is always on some training program that lasts months! I also want to trust the staff on the plane. One of my friends refuses to fly an particular airline that deliberately employs younger staff for their looks and to create a party atmosphere. Whilst I know this airline trains their staff well my friend made a good point when she said they can never get her drink order right so why should she trust them with her life getting her out of a plane?
Tell people your story. Absolutely bore people to death as talking about something helps you get over it! You might find someone who can give you valuable information. The most helpful for me was when I told one of the flight attendants when I was able to preboard early. Her astonishment and comfort for the next long haul flight was a real help sharing with me all the flight details and weather predictions for the next ten hours. She also told me about how British Airways have a safety course that I have signed up for where I will learn how to open the doors, activate the slides and get out of a smoked filled cabin.
The last flight I went on had some turbulence throughout but I was able to relax and sleep so I am hoping I am through all of this. I no longer dread my boss telling me I might have to fly somewhere for work but the true test will be whenever the next flight. At the moment that is months away, a trip to Portugal with friends, but I am sure that there will be a flight sometime soon in my future and I hope it goes well.
Oh I deliberately didn’t go into the detail of the research I did on the human body and how it reacts to lack of oxygen etc when you are forty thousand feet in the air. But the biggest tip I have for everyone is that if those oxygen masks fall down on your flight get it on you asap. You only have about two seconds before the human body can’t cope and you will pass out!