Plane Answers: Overcoming the fear of flying

This week we’ve had many questions that all ran along the same lines; how to overcome Aviophobia, or the fear of flying. Most people who suffer from this fear are well aware of the statistics that show that air travel is the safest form of travel, and no amount of assurances and facts are able to calm their fears. But I’ve been told that understanding more about what happens in an airplane does go a long way towards quelling some of the anxiety associated with flying.

Jenna asks:

My stepmother refuses to fly. Her explanation for this is one time when she was in a plane, it dropped 10,000 feet. The other day, I was talking to my friend Nora, who said her mother had a similar story. How often does this happen and what causes a plane to lose control for so long? I am also afraid of flying, so I would love to know. Thank you for your time!

Thanks Jenna. You can assure your stepmother that planes don’t just drop. It’s analogous to driving in your car and suddenly finding yourself on an interstate two miles away. The media and so many movies have reinforced this idea that airplanes can hit ‘air pockets’ and drop hundreds or thousands of feet.

As I mentioned in a previous Plane Answers post about turbulence, even during some of the roughest air, we don’t gain or lose altitude generally.

There are some astute readers who will point out that there have been occasions that airplanes flying near their maximum capable altitude needed to descend rapidly to regain airspeed, but even in these instances the airplane hasn’t lost control.
Lisa emails:

This question is more to answer something that concerns my husband more than myself. His biggest fear of flying is that during take off the tail end is going to hit the runway. He does not understand what prevents that from happening. Could you explain. I would really like to go to Vegas but cannot get him on a plane because of this unanswered question.

It’s very rare for the tail of an aircraft to come into contact with the ground, though there are some jets that are slightly more prone to it. Those airplanes are equipped with a tail skid to absorb the contact with the ground. Concorde even had a little wheel back there. Here’s what that tail skid looks like on the Boeing 767-300:

On the 767-300 the tailskid extends for takeoff and landing and retracts during flight. It’s activation is tied to the landing gear lever.

We’re trained in techniques to maintain a good clearance between that tail skid and the ground. We have a load planner who figures out the proper airspeed to begin the liftoff, and we’re careful not to allow the airplane to ‘rotate’ or leap into the air too quickly. The Boeing 777 even has two design features that help prevent tail strikes. One is a limiting device that makes it more difficult for a pilot to pull back on the yoke too aggressively during takeoff and the other is a design change in the landing gear that prevents the tail from coming too close to the ground. The other airplanes rely on good training, and this seems to be effective.

I would estimate that there are just a handful of tail strikes nationwide every year. And when they do occur the flight will usually come back in to land at the departure airport to complete an inspection.

Part of our preflight inspection requires that we check the skid for any paint removed from the flat bottom portion, which would indicate a scraped skid. A scraped tail skid or contact with the lower aft fuselage on airplanes without a skid won’t directly cause an accident, so your husband is better off worrying about his odds in Vegas than the odds of a tail strike on the flight there.

And Melissa asks:

I’m taking a trip with my son who is six. This will be his first time ever flying and I’m wondering how I should explain the turbulence and even the take off and landing. Of course I will be talking him through it all, but I was just wondering if anyone had any ideas on how to prepare him for this without scaring him.

The fear of flying seems to get passed on from parents to their kids. Hopefully if your son sees that you’re looking forward to the trip and that you find it fun to fly, he’ll be equally excited. I have a six year-old daughter who enjoys flying, although she’s been traveling every year or so since she was born.

If turbulence occurs, explain to him that just as cars occasionally hit bumps on the road, the air outside the aircraft can be bumpy at times. It usually doesn’t last too long though. As for the takeoff and landing, sell it to him like a ride at Disneyland. It can be fun when you look at it that way. You might also want to talk him through some of the sounds. If you’re able to hear it, let him know when the landing gear comes down. After touchdown, explain that the engines will get louder as they are put into ‘reverse-thrust’ to help slow the airplane down.

Which brings me to Bryan’s question:

What can I do to overcome my fear of flying?

In the past airlines offered ‘fear of flying’ courses. Today that has given way to companies that specialize in this training. I’ve found a few resources that might be helpful.

There are a number of online sources such as Fear of Flying Help and Five tips for fearful flyers that offer some suggestions, and there are a number of courses offered such as The Fear of Flying Clinic and SOAR.

I don’t have any first hand information about these sites but maybe a reader has had some success with one of them, or another program. Let us know in the comments.

If there were a way for passengers to see out the front of the airplane, maybe they’d feel more secure about the flight. Imagine how scary it’d be to ride in a car that only has a view out a small window to the side. Some people feel the need to be in control, and without a clear view ahead, flying might be nerve racking for them.

My only other advice is to visit the cockpit before departure. If the pilots aren’t too busy, I’m sure they’d be happy to allow you to visit the cockpit. For some passengers it’s helpful to know that the people in the front of the airplane, who probably have families at home, are just as interested in a safe flight as you are.

Based on the number of questions I’ve received about this topic, I’m sure there are a large number of people who are anxious flyers or unwilling to fly all together. Who knows, maybe reading the Cockpit Chronicles will give some people a better understanding for just what goes on during a typical flight
from the pilot’s perspective.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.