How To Get Over the Fear Of Flying: The 2-Step Master Plan
Has learning how to overcome fear of flying become a priority for you? Do you imagine that everything that could go wrong on a plane, will go wrong? Does your anxiety cause your heart to race uncontrollably before, during and after the flight? Has your fear of flying prevented you from even getting on a plane?
If any of these are familiar to you, you’ve come to the right place. Most fear concerning flying is irrational—it is a set of fears based on events that will very likely never take place. This guide will addresses safety issues of the air travel industry and help you begin approaching flying based on facts rather than unfounded fear. Here are the three steps to overcoming the fear of flying:
1. Recognize and Eliminate Irrational Fears
Virtually all forms of the fear of flying come from three root fears:
- Fear of the unknown
- Lack of trust in the airplane itself
- Lack of trust in airline personnel (pilots, mechanics, air traffic control, etc.)
My aim is to shed some light on the unknown and provide relevant information on the airline industry in general to help bring your level of fear down. It is important to note that the fear of flying is not a rational response to a legitimate danger.
It is a response based on irrational fear from within yourself.
As you learn the facts about airline safety, you will be able
to replace irrational fears and anxiety with a calmer mindset based on facts about airline industry safety. Armed with this information, you will hopefully learn how to overcome fear of flying quickly for good.
No one can truthfully say that air travel is completely risk-free. But it is the safest mode of transportation. Consider this quote from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) website: Air travel is the safest mode of mass transportation. According to Dr. Arnold Barnett of MIT, based on the accident rate over the last few years, you would have to fly on average once a day every day for 22,000 years before you would perish in a U.S. commercial aviation accident. In 1998 there were more than 10 million departures and not one fatality aboard a commercial aircraft.
Air travel is the safest mode of mass transportation. According to Dr. Arnold Barnett of MIT, based on the accident rate over the last few years, you would have to fly on average once a day every day for 22,000 years before you would perish in a U.S. commercial aviation accident. In 1998 there were more than 10 million departures and not one fatality aboard a commercial aircraft.
Let’s look at another angle of how to overcome fear of flying in airplanes. Here is some interesting data:
Flying Safety Statistics
Average Deaths Per Year
- Bicycle 1,000
- Gunfire accidents: 1,452
- Medical procedure complications: 3,000
- Drowning: 5,000
SOURCES: Bureau of Safety Statistics, National Transportation Safety Board
Compare those stats with this one: From 1982 through 2010, 3,288 people in the U.S. died from airplane related causes. To emphasize, these stats are not from one year, but from 30 years combined. For more stats, see our flying safety statistics page.
Fear of Flying FAQ
Now we’ll take a look at seven common questions, fears and attitudes involving the fear of flying, along with the facts involved:
Isn’t a Car Safer?
A big part of this rationale goes back to the trust issue: In a car, you control your destiny and feel safer, while in a plane, you are not in control and experience more fear. This may be true—to an extent—but does it mean you are safer? Consider this: To obtain a pilot’s license, you need years of training. To obtain a driver’s license for yourself, you merely need to pass a basic written and driving test. Plus, as a driver, you cannot control what other drivers do. Other drivers often drive while intoxicated or are distracted by talking on a cell phone, texting or fiddling with the radio.
Pilots, on the other hand, are constantly monitored through radio during a flight. From 2002 to 2007, there were 109 deaths due to aircraft crashes according to the FAA. During the same time period, 196,724 people died in automobile accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The FAA has estimated that flying is about 200 times safer than automobiles, which the previous statistics bear out.
How Do Airplanes Stay in the Air? Are They Really Safe?
Fear of flying statistics reveal that 73% of fearful flyers are afraid of mechanical problems during flight. So an important part of how to overcome fear of flying is understanding of how an aircraft works and learning to trust it.
There are four forces that work together to allow a plane to fly: gravity, drag, lift and thrust. I won’t get into the scientific explanations, but suffice it to say that the process allows planes to fly as naturally as it is for us to walk. As one pilot said it best, “planes are the happiest in the air.” Everything about a plane is designed to fulfill its purpose—to get its passengers and crew safely from one place to the other through the air.
Safety procedures includes repair and upkeep. Airlines engage in ongoing routine maintenance and overhaul planes as needed. For every hour that it flies, a modern airplane undergoes 11 hours of maintenance.
It may surprise you to know that jet engines are much simpler than those in automobile engines or even lawnmowers. This makes them much more durable and less likely to break down. And in the unlikely event that one of the engines fail? A plane is perfectly capable of running on one engine.
Is Turbulence Dangerous?
A bumpy ride on a plane tends to make those with flight anxiety even more nervous. But once you understand what causes it, you’ll understand why turbulence is a very normal part of flying and not a cause for fear or concern. You may have learned from weather reports that air pressure can fluctuate from one area to the next.
When a plane flies through an area of low pressure to high pressure (or vice versa), it causes a “bump” in the ride. These bumps aren’t dangerous, but pilots intentionally navigate away from strong turbulence to ensure the smoothest possible ride and the least anxiety for passengers. Another fact to keep in mind: Modern planes are designed to handle much more intensive turbulence than they would ever encounter. Note: I’ve noticed that many airlines, including Delta, Southwest and Spirit now use the term “rough air,” while United still uses “turbulence.”
Does Weather Affect the Plane?
Many people have a particular fear of flying in thunderstorms and other inclement weather. The weather is always monitored before and during the flight time, and sophisticated weather radar in planes can detect storms from 160 miles away. If weather is too dangerous for flight, the flight will be delayed, or if you have already taken off, the pilot will fly around it or land at an alternate airport. Rain doesn’t affect a plane’s ability to fly, and planes are equipped to withstand lightning strikes.
Will the Plane Crash Into Another Plane?
This is a common fear, but planes crashing into one another is highly unlikely. Airliners are always in contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC). ATC can track all planes’ movement by radar and ensure they maintain a safe distance from each other. Additionally, planes have Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) on board which lets them know to adjust their path as needed, so this is another flying fear that is largely unfounded.
Can the Plane Doors Come Open During the Flight?
No. Once the aircraft is pressurized, there is nothing to fear; it is impossible for the plane doors to be opened. At around 30,000 feet, there is 20,000 pounds of pressure holding them shut.
How Qualified Are Pilots? What Training Do They Receive?
Another key component of conquering the fear of flying is learning to trust the pilots, so I thought I should expound on the qualifications and training of these professionals. Airlines hire people who already know how to fly. These pilots come either from a military or civilian backgrounds and have already earned an air transport pilot (ATP) license and logged a minimum of 1,500 hours required as a prerequisite to applying at a major airline.
The training pilots get from airlines after hire focuses on learning to fly commercial airplanes and following Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines. Potential hires are thoroughly screened. They receive a battery of psychological tests to assess abilities and to ensure a stable personality. They must then prove their flying abilities in a simulator. A physical and health history is also obtained; the presence or family history of a serious condition will likely end an applicant’s candidacy for the job. At the end of the process, a panel of pilots will perform an in-depth interview of the candidate.
When pilots are hired, they are trained for a period of time—an average of two to three months—on aircraft systems as well as FAA and company policies and procedures. The pilot must pass computer generated tests and an oral exam given by an FAA representative or FAA-appointed representative.
Next, simulator training prepares the pilot for a wide variety of events—both routine and abnormal—that a pilot will encounter in the air. This training covers instrument gauges, computer systems and emergency procedures. The newly hired pilot must demonstrate proficiency in every aspect of the job to an FAA or FAA-approved instructor (also called “check airman”) before continuing training.
In the first 15-25 hours on the plane they are assigned a company check airman. New hire pilots begin as a “first officer” and are supervised by the captain, who is also in charge of the rest of the crew as well as the plane and its cargo.
First officers begin on a one year probationary time period. The captain submits an evaluation of a new pilot’s performance each month. If the ratings are satisfactory, the probationary status is removed. It may decrease your anxiety to know that both captains and first officers undergo regular and extensive continuing flying education. They are also rechecked for proficiencies—annually for first officers, every two years for captains.
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2. Understand Treatment Options
There Are A Variety Of Fear of Flying Treatment Options Available
The fear of flying can be an isolating feeling, especially if it prevents you from traveling for work, pleasure or to stay in touch with family and friends living afar. Does simply the thought of boarding a plane fill you with anxiety? Does each flight feel like a terrifying gauntlet? You are not alone.
Millions share your discomfort. With airplanes serving as today’s most convenient form of long-distance travel, overcoming a fear of flying is of paramount importance for many people. For those looking for a fear of flying treatment, there are a number of options available. From fear of flying therapy to hypnosis, many have learned to board a plane with confidence and peace of mind.
To get to the root cause of your fear, you may want to try talk therapy. Find a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist in your area who specializes in treating patients with anxiety disorders. If you are not sure the difference between these professionals, here is a brief explanation:
- A counselor or therapist hold a Master’s degree plus a particular license such as Licensed Professional Counselors or Licensed Clinical Social Workers. These type of therapists specialize in talk therapy.
- A psychologist holds a Doctorate degree (Ph.D or Psy.D) in psychology. Psychologists also specialize in talk therapy but also perform functions such as psychological testing and research. A handful of states allow psychologists to prescribe medication.
- Psychiatrists are physicians (or medical doctors—M.D’s) with a specialty in mental health. Many psychiatrists continue to provide talk therapy. But increasingly, psychiatrists focus more on medication management and leave the traditional hour talk therapy sessions to counselors, therapists and psychologists.
Finding local fear of flying classes or someone that specializes specifically in the fear of flying would be ideal, but counselors with that specialty are more difficult to find. A good alternative would be the SOAR Program, an online course developed by Tom Bunn, an airline Captain and licensed therapist. Part of the program includes phone counseling with Captain Tom.
For more information, click here or see the online courses section at the end of this article.
Discussing when your fear began and possible triggers, you may be able to gain insight into your anxiety. A therapist can help you change your internal dialogue and replace it with a confidence boosting mantra to help you control your feelings of panic.
Many choose to complement talk therapy with anti-anxiety medications. If you are seeing a therapist or counselor, they will often recommend a psychiatrist or refer you to your medial doctor to discuss an appropriate prescription. Medications like Valium can allay the heart racing and adrenaline rushes of anxiety to help you stay calm. With more composure, you will be better able to remember flying is one of the safest forms of transportation and pilots and crews are some of the most highly trained professionals in the world.
The downside to medication is that while it may alleviate your physical symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily treat the underlying issues that manifest in the fear of flying.
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Another optional flying phobia treatment is hypnosis. Much like a therapist, a hypnotist will start by helping you get to the origin of your fear. Hypnotherapy can help you begin to associate flying with excitement rather than terror. This technique can also help you visualize yourself enjoying your flight relaxed and in control of your emotions.
There are a lot of mixed opinions around fear of flying hypnosis (and hypnosis in general). I know of people that say it has worked wonders for them, while others have had unsuccessful experiences with the treatment and regard the practice as shady and unreliable. I’m not an expert in this field, so I would recommend more research and discussion with medical professionals if you are considering this option.
While professional treatment is certainly beneficial, there are also steps individuals can take on their on to reduce anxiety by harnessing your emotions. This consists of two steps:
- Getting a handle on racing thoughts
- Controlling your breathing
Controlling Racing Thoughts
Fearful fliers suffer a variety of thoughts such as:
- The plane will crash in mid-air
- I’m going to die
- Once the doors shut, I’ll be trapped in a cramped space
- I’ll have a panic attack or heart attack
You normally won’t be able to ignore the thoughts or wish them away, so you need a process to deal with them directly. Psychologists recommend an effective 5 step process to do just that:
Step 1: Identify the Fearful Thought
The fearful thoughts are generally irrational. From the list above, how many of the items on the list are actually likely to happen (other than being in a relatively confined space)?
The answer is none of them. So the first step is realizing that your racing thoughts are irrational and you want to get rid of them.
Step 2: Snap Yourself With a Rubber Band
You may have heard of this technique to break bad habits, but it also works for the fear of flying. Bring a rubber band with you on the flight. Thicker rubber bands work better because they are sturdier and don’t sting quite as much as thinner ones. Place the band so it is positioned over your palm. When you experience racing thoughts, snap your palm with the rubber band. You’re not looking to maim yourself, you just want a bit of a sting. What’s the point? The sting helps interrupt the racing thoughts.
Step 3: Self Talk
In this step, you are decisively telling yourself to stop thinking the irrational, negative thought. Use a word or short phrase like “Stop!” “Quit it!” or “That’s enough!” You should think these words or phrases, not say them aloud, so that you are not alarming your fellow passengers on the plane. It is helpful to drum up anger to accompany your self talk. It is an important distinction to direct your anger at your fear, not at yourself as a whole. If you are having trouble generating anger, just think of all the problems that being afraid to fly has caused you. This could include missing important events, vacations, jobs, etc.
Step 4: “I Can” Statements
This step is similar to the previous step but the message is the opposite. You want a short self-affirming self statement like, “I can do this!” or “I’ve overcome harder things.” Some people choose to use motivational statements tied to why they want to defeat their apprehension of flying. This could be something like, “I’ll have a great vacation if I can conquer my fear during this flight.” This is not a new tactic—athletes, for example, use these statements all the time because they are effective. And they can be effective for you as part of your overall fear of flying help strategy!
Step 5: Repeat As Necessary
Just like any process, these steps take practice. It seems simple, but this method has been used by countless people to control their fears and anxiety when they fly.
For the best fear of flying course, see the Soar program review.
Controlling Your Breathing
After you’ve got a handle on racing thoughts, it’s time to focus in on the next set of tips—controlling your breathing. When you get anxious or fearful, your breathing gets out of whack; your breaths become faster and more shallow and you may gasp for air. The idea is for you—not your fear—to control your breathing. Psychologists utilize another 5 step plan to address this challenge:
Step 1: Inhale From Your Diaphragm
When you breathe from your diaphragm, your stomach protrudes out. Count three seconds (you can use the old “one thousand one, one thousand two…” method to help you keep a consistent pace).
Step 2: Hold Your Breath
When you reach the count of three from step 1 above, hold your breath for a count of three.
Step 3: Exhale
Purse your lips and exhale for a count of three. Tightening your lips helps prevent you from exhaling too quickly.
Step 4: Rest
After you have exhaled, rest without inhaling or exhaling for a three-count.
Step 5: Repeat
Repeat steps one through five for five to seven minutes.
Again, the idea of this this technique is to put you in control of your breathing during the flight. You can practice the techniques while still at the airport. The process will restore your breathing and the rest of your body’s functioning to normal within five to seven minutes.
If you prefer to address your fears in the privacy of your own home, you might consider an online course. A number of multimedia presentations are available with practical tips and meaningful insight on how to learn to trust the plane and its crew, to cope with anxieties surrounding your perceived lack of control and to calm your episodes of panic.
One of the cons of online courses as a fear of flying treatment is the lack of a personal touch—some simply prefer dealing with someone in person. The SOAR fear of flying program partially addresses this by offering online counseling.
The pros are the relatively inexpensive cost compared to other therapies and the ability to immediately access materials by experts in the specific field of the fear of flying. Click here for an overview of our top recommended courses.
Hopefully I’ve given you some information that will help you with overcoming the fear of flying. There is much more information that you can check out for yourself, including the fear of flying tips, fear of flying help for children, and tips for first time flyers guide. Good luck with everything and happy flying! For help with non-flying related fears and phobias, visit fearapy.com.