My love affair with the air. A long winded rambling about what has become my nightmare.

21 September, 2010 - 06:26

Pure, unbridled terror. You know what it feels like. Your palms are soaked wet and your heart is pounding so loudly that you're certain that it must be disturbing the person sitting next to you. I started writing this post on a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, the first of 9 flights that I've scheduled to take over the next month. I sucked back a triple dose of Rescue Remedy within the first 10 minutes of the flight and that just wasn't cutting it, so I drank. When I'm on the plane all my senses switch to hyper-alert and every little sound or motion change shakes me up. I notice that the man 2 rows ahead of me has a cast on his right foot, which is hanging out in the aisle. It could be worse, I think to myself... if this plane goes down, that man is a goner for certain.

My love affair with the air began in 1989 when I was 7 years old. Our family had moved to Johannesburg from Port Elizabeth because my Dad had been transferred for work. That year my mom bought me a ticket back to Port Elizabeth to visit my best friend. It became a yearly treat. At the airport all the nice air hostesses would fuss over me and take care of me, thanks to my UNACCOMPANIED MINOR status. Flying became a real treat and over and above the destination what I looked forward to immensely was the flight. I absolutely loved the magic of being in the air and would do my best to secure myself a spot at the window. I couldn't stop looking out at all the tiny things down on the ground.

I'm not what you'd call a stranger to flying. Since 2000 I've done individual trips to England (three times), Nigeria, Buenos Aires and Tanzania, done a round-the-world trip in 2006 (18 flights), traveled to Drupalcon Barcelona in 2007 (8 flights), a trip to New York in 2007 (with 3 flights), a round-the-world trip in 2008 (17 flights), this latest batch of flying madness involving Drupalcon Copenhagen & Canada, and countless domestic trips in-between. I would even go so far as to say that I like being at the airport.

Well - liked, anyway. In November 2008 I set off on the start of a new exciting round the world trip, and I had all sorts of ideas and plans and more excitement than I could contain. First stop Buenos Aires with a layover in Sao Paulo. The flight departed from Sao Paolo on time in the early evening and would land in BA after dark. I had a whole 3-seater row to myself, and it had been a long day of flying so I slept lightly most of the way. All was well and I was looking forward to the indulgent pleasure of being in this new amazing city, and to being with Scott again who I had not seen since September.

I was woken up to the sound of the seatbelt sign being switched on. Ok I thought, it's only a few minutes until landing and the plane was descending at what felt like a swift pace.

I could not have been more unprepared for what happened next. The plane hit very bad turbulence and dipped down hard. It sounded like the pilot had smashed the jet's belly down onto solid concrete. I was strapped in but obviously not well enough because I lifted completely off of my seat. After the sudden drop the plane flipped completely over onto its left side, and then onto its right and back again onto its left and then finally we straightened out and proceeded with a very turbulent descent. The scene played out in slow-motion for me. I could see all the sparkling lights of the city down below. It was like being in a car where the driver has lost control of the vehicle and tries to straighten out but over-corrects. There was an announcement made by the pilot after the flipping and bumping on the plane but it was in Spanish and I'll never know for sure just how close we were to crashing that day. Of course the attendant I spoke to afterwards assured me that everything was fine but they are robots and are trained to do that.

At that time I believed that I was going to die in that plane. A million thoughts raced across my mind, and the first was that Scott would arrive in BA the next day and think that I had stood him up. I imagined him being in this foreign country alone. I wondered if he'd stay for the full three months after learning of our plane crash or if he'd be freaked out and go back home to Vancouver. I thought about my mom and dad and sister, and I thought about the data on my laptop and wished that I'd backed up before leaving home so that my clients could get their work from it. I thought of the cash withdrawal I'd just made at Johannesburg International Airport before I left that morning, the largest amount of cash I'd ever carried (I had to pay for the full 3 months of our accommodation upfront) and I was mightily pissed off that it was about to go up in flames and my sister wouldn't get to spend it (I decided that thats what my parents would do with all my stuff - give it to her). I also thought about all the people living in the houses below that we would fall onto. It was after dark and I was sure that they'd be in their homes, and wished that I had a way to warn them to evacuate.

Most people I've spoken to have had a bad flight at some point before and so had I. This one was different though. It left me aware of my mortality. For me now, the focal point of travel has switched from excitement about the destination, to paralytic fear and anxiety for weeks preceeding the trip over the stupid flight.

I turned to the internet. Surely I couldn't be the only person this has happened to, I thought. I was right! There are courses designed especially for people like me and the unanimous opinion was that the best fix was one offered by Virgin Atlantic. There was one problem: I would have to fly to London for that.

I've tried talking to friends and family in the hope that someone might have some comforting words and I instead discovered that nearly everyone else had some form of latent anxiety too. I even learnt from my aunt that she had been in a plane that crashed (it was a minor accident, but an accident all the same)! People suggested I see a psychologist but that won't cut it - I need someone who is both a psychologist and someone who can explain to me what all the noises in the plane mean, and the technical reason why the plane will "never" fall out of the sky because of turbulence. My trust was shattered that day.

Some flights are worse than others: on a recent flight out of Vancouver we were on the smallest plane I'd ever been on (it had propellers and only 12 rows of seating). This was definitely the flight that I freaked out worst at, and for no reason at all other than how the plane looked. When we walked across the tarmac and onto the plane I felt like I was being led into a gas chamber. The flight wasn't even particularly turbulent and I'm ashamed to admit that I fretted and quietly howled the whole way through it. Scott thinks that the flight attendant thought that I was grieving a lost friend or relative, which took the edge of my embarrassment (he's kind that way). I had to greet my inlaws-to-be with red puff-face though.

I'm still looking for a course to take and would appreciate any information or advice that anyone has. My fiance is from a country very far way away from mine and I don't want to spend the rest of my life going through this every six months, because not flying anymore simply isn't an option.

Incase you're wondering, the flight was with Aerolineas Argentinas. This flight isn't the reason that I will never user this awful airline again, because we all flew together to Iguazu Falls after that. Scott wrote about them, and after that I can truthfully say that I would rather pay 3 times the cost with any other airline than use Aerolineas Argentinas ever again. If you are ever given the option, do not travel with this airline. They are very bad.


Responses to this post

13 years 12 weeks ago

Oh god, that is awful hearing how badly off you were on the last flight.

You're right in realizing a lot of people have a fear of flying. As I told you, I'm not all that comfortable with it and I used to love it. My tactic for getting through a flight is meditation - deep breathing and pushing away the thoughts about dying that are freaking me out. It sounds like you now have a full-blown phobia of flying and I wish I knew something to suggest that would be helpful in dealing with it.

13 years 12 weeks ago

Thanks Rachael. It was so silly, the flight really wasn't very turbulent or anything - something just snapped I suppose. I don't know if its the same for you, I find that it isn't even the thought of dying that's so horrific, it is the thought of being aware of one's imminent demise for a minute or two as the plane tumbles down. That's what disturbs me the most.

One good thing that's come of it is that it's booted me into action in dealing with it more hands-on, and I've been reading up a lot and learning some very interesting things. Did you know that the same irrational fear hits many air crew, including pilots?

Another old friend emailed me in response to this blog post. He used to sky-dive and was always quite a dare-devil. He told me that one day, for no reason at all, he felt extremely anxious and scared getting onto a flight that he routinely takes to see his parents. Since then it got worse. He chatted about it with another friend who was also into sky-diving and a similar thing had happened to him, but to the point that he couldn't even stand to be in tall buildings! Their thoughts are that as we get older, maybe some different self-preservation instincts begin to kick in.

Thanks for your message and your suggestions.

13 years 12 weeks ago

Awh Sam, I'm so sorry to hear about your experience. I know the feeling. I've had a few frights myself and really have developed a dislike for all things airport related. But, like you said, travel is an important, almost necessary, part of your life these days, so let me see if I can help...

Some interesting facts to consider...

Airlines with No Fatal Plane Crashes Since 1970: Africa
Air Mauritius
Air Seychelles
Inter Air
Qatar Airways

Airlines with No Fatal Plane Crashes Since 1970: Canada
Air Transat
WestJet Airlines

Given that most of your flying will be between SA and Canada, your best bet seems to be doing the international legs with Emirates.
(I put this list together from this web site: they have some other good resources if you're interested)

~Aviation accidents are extremely rare, with the probability of a passenger being killed on a single flight at approximately 8,000,000-to-one. If a passenger boarded a flight at random, once a day, everyday, it would statistically be over 21,000 years before he or she would be killed~

I'll share one other thing...about 6 years ago I was afraid to fly. When I got in the plane I was near panic. I had to sit and close my eyes and try and think of happy thoughts to survive the ride. It got so bad at one point that I almost forfeited my seat. I remember being on the phone with my boyfriend at the time crying that I wasn't able to get on the flight. But I did anyway, and it was awful. After that flight I went to see a social worker. That was one of the best decisions I have ever made. She helped me develop strategies to deal with my fears. Today, I hate to fly, but I can manage that fear. Sounds like you might need to consider the same. I suspect some other easy/less time consuming fixes are like taking happy pills such as Valium.

I guess when it comes to issues of mortality, when your numbers up, your numbers up. Rather than let the reality of this consume you with fear, make it empower you to live each day with a vivacious relish. Dream big; tell people you love how much you love them daily; don't sweat the small stuff; do things that are pleasing to you and well, you know what I'm getting at. Grab that fear of airplanes by the balls and say 'airplane, I ain't afraid of you and your stupid turbulance!' ;O)

I love you my dear friend!

13 years 12 weeks ago

Awesome, thanks Cath! I knew you weren't fond of it but I didn't know that you'd also had a full-on freak out like that. Do you ever have the same or a similar feeling come up when you're on any other types of transport? I get controllable stirrings of it in trains, boats and even certain cars / buses sometimes. Also, when we visited Nina in Chicago on our trip over to Saint Andrews, Ross (Scott's dad) took us up the Sears Tower and that elevator - sheesh, it moves at light speed! The thing really catches a speed wobble as it's rocketing you just about into orbit. That did it to me too and even Nina was feeling weird from it.

There's interesting info on the link that you gave. Did you see this bit? "Research is somewhat sparse, with one of the most important studies on fear of flying dates back to 1980". I'm surprised that more airlines aren't offering courses or doing research into it, because really if people aren't flying then it affects their bottom line too. And the industry has changed more than I'm sure anyone would have imagined since 1980. People were probably still allowed to smoke on aircraft at that time!

You wrote: "I guess when it comes to issues of mortality, when your numbers up, your numbers up" - yes! In my thinking head I realize this, and it's very much Scott's philosophy too and he reminds me that we have no way to control anything that's going to happen. I think that that part a councilor will be able to help with. As I said to Rachael in the comment before yours, it's not even the dying that's the disturbing bit, it's the thought of the period before dying and spending my last few minutes in terror!

Since a small amount of looking I did last week, I've found a few courses offered in Canada that I'm considering taking. I have shoes to buy in exotic locations, dammit!! ;)

Thanks for your comment. Love you lots! I'll give you a call next week xxoo

13 years 11 weeks ago

I agree!!!! Just because your future pairs of shoes are in another continent, you shouldn't be deprived!!! ;O)

Actually, when I was going through that hard time with flying, it did effect me in other places-- I felt panicky when I was in elevators, buses, crowded rooms and it got so bad at one point that I could barely manage sitting in a full car. The social worker that I went to was really good about helping me out of that rough patch. A good first step is what you are already doing-- which is finding resources to help you. We should chat about it. I'll look for you online this week.


Andrew M
13 years 12 weeks ago

I too have always loved flying and became a nervous flyer after a similar incident:-

To start with, as we got to the boarding gate my friend freaked out and refused to board the plane - think 'Final Destination' here - we couldn't calm him down and he ended up missing the whole trip! So we were already feeling a little unsettled. Then about an hour into the flight the captain literally shouted "Fasten your seatbelts NOW!!" and BANG we just dropped and got tossed around like a leaf for about 5 minutes ... people were screaming and praying ... the captain initiated a maximum-rate descent to find a less turbulent altitude, so the whole aircraft was groaning and whining and rattling.... you get the idea. Every time I fly, I am still nervous about the possibility of hitting clear-air turbulence like that again.

Thing is though, having been a pilot for a few years and knowing a lot about aircraft, I KNOW for 100% certain that there's no reason to be concerned. It's easy to let your imagination get carried away thinking about what all the noises mean and what might be happening ... but the truth is, they are designed for far, far tougher conditions than you or I will ever experience.

The engineering margins are ridiculously large - the wings for example can flex 45 degrees before they break (search youtube for 'boeing 777 wing test'.) That is 150% of the maximum load they will EVER encounter. There are redundant systems and instruments for everything. The autopilot software is engineered at a level so far above what you or I do its insane .. every event is sent to between 3 and 9 separate computers (depending on aircraft) programmed by different teams, before using the quorum to make a decision. A Boeing 747 can fly on only 1 engine and if that fails it will still glide quite nicely to the nearest field while running on a purely mechanical backup in case the power is out too. More people every year die ON aircraft (from natural causes) than FROM aircraft. As Cath above said, the chances of you not making your destination is so slim its neglible.. you're more likely to die from a falling coconut when you get to where you're going.

The only thing you gotta worry about is hitting your head on the ceiling if it gets bumpy. For that reason, keep yourself buckled up the whole trip, and when it gets choppy just start laughing insanely at all the other passengers while you revel in the excitement.

13 years 12 weeks ago

Holy crap. That sounds so frightening, way more so than what happened with me. It's always made worse when the others on the plane around you are freaking out too: it validates your fears.

I'd been wanting to chat to you more about it too. We spoke about flying a little bit when we went for Thai in Brooklyn and recently I was thinking that you might be able to offer some info up just like what you've posted here :) For example, it always made me anxious watching how much the wings were bending. I knew that they are designed with a bit of give, but I didn't realize it was to that degree (<-- pun!).

Do you ever get nervous / afraid when you're flying? I'd imagine it's quite a different feeling on the planes you fly than on the large jets. How about when you're a passenger on a flight? Was your scare incident before or after you began pilot school, and did you have trouble going back if it was during? Was Roxz with you? (sorry for the 20 questions! There are so many things that I wonder about).

And then there's Air France Flight 447... in pictures, (though of course it's all speculative)

Thank you for your input. It's helped to learn those things. Perhaps I can undergo some sort of hypnosis to forget about the bad stuff :)

I hope you guys are well. We were just talking about you the other day

Andrew M
13 years 9 weeks ago

Sorry for taking so long to see this! Are you feeling any better about flying yet?

To answer your question: I sometimes got pretty nervous when I was up front, but in 100% of cases I can put that down to n00b experience. On my first solo cross-country I came back to Lanseria to find a 22 knot crosswind, yet the Cessna I was in was only rated for 15 knots (and I'd never landed in more than about 5!) My two backup airports were out due to thunderclouds, and I had 1 hour of fuel left. I approached at an impressive crab-angle and managed to get 1 wheel on the runway but then started veering off into the grass, so I had to apply full power and declare a go-around to the tower. Feeling kind of shaky I completed a circuit and tried again, but this time the crosswind was up to 24kt and I couldn't even line up with the runway. Another go-around. Now I was panicking - I had maybe 20 minutes of fuel left and the ground had never seemed so far away. Luckily the ATC guys gave me directions to Brits airstrip which had less of a crosswind, and I was able to put her down there (barely.)

At the flying school they know very well that an incident like this can grow in your head and put you off flying forever, so they did the best thing: They sent another plane out to Brits with some fuel, they refilled my tank, and then they made ME fly back before I'd had a chance to think about it. This time the wind was calmer and I totally greased my landing. I went home feeling pretty good about myself.

Let me be very clear that I was on about 50 hours training whereas a passenger jet captain has thousands of hours experience, an instrument rating and a co-pilot as backup. No company interested in it's bottom line is going to give a $100 million asset to any old idiot unless they are 100% sure she will look after it. For this reason, I am not at all nervous when flying on a passenger jet.

13 years 12 weeks ago

Even with red puffy face we still think you're beautiful!

13 years 12 weeks ago

You guys are the best. I could never have hoped for or even imagined anyone better! Thanks for everything that you do.

13 years 12 weeks ago

Hey Smath -

I was meaning to post the other day and spaced - like you and some others were saying, with big phobias about things that are uncontrollable, it really isn't the situation that is the most scary, it's when you realize the fact that you have zero control over it. And then coming to grips and finding a way to cope with the having zero control.

That's why I was sort of thinking that any good counselor would probably be helpful in figuring out how to deal with your thoughts about it, and ways of coping better when you have to confront the fears.

The one I went to for ages (and a couple of my good friends have also seen now) is fantastic - he's over near my old place in the West End, but I really bet it would help talking to him if you want to see someone when you're back...

Big hugs, enjoy the farm!

13 years 11 weeks ago

Thanks dude <3 This discussion has been really good and it's allowed me to pinpoint some of the exact things that bother me (specifically the time in the plane inbetween when it started falling or going down, and when it actually reached the ground).

When we're back I'll chat to you about your guy. My friend Cathy has also sent me some great audio files to use until then. We've decided that since our flight back to Vernon actually goes through Vancouver I'll just stop and get out at that point, and then Scott will go back to Vernon and drive back to Vancouver in the next day or two after that.