SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Fear of Flying

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 04 2011
Banner image depicting airplane

Getting ready for the flight across the Rockies from Cranbrook, British Columbia

My family recently returned home from a whirlwind trip to the Canadian Rockies, where we spent a picture-postcard Christmas with my in-laws. Between the tobogganing, ice-fishing, hot chocolate and camp-fires in the snow, it was a holiday to remember. (My not-quite-five-year-old caught a hefty wide-mouth bass on Christmas day. His first fish!) But the trip did have one significant drawback, at least for me: we had to travel by plane.

I loathe flying. It's not that I'm impatient about delays, layovers, or lost luggage (all of which happened on this trip). I'm serene about that stuff. (I was a shepherd for 10 years. If there's one thing I can do at an expert level, it's wait.)

What I can't stand is being 30,000 feet in the air.

Funny thing is, I like aircraft — as long as I'm not going up in one. Still, like them or not, I've gone up in quite a few. Over the years, I've ridden in flying machines as large as a 747 and as tiny as an ultralight. I once nose-dived exhilaratingly off a mountaintop in a doorless helicopter. (At one point, admittedly, the pilot did ask me to stop grabbing the controls in terror.)

When flying, I always make a point of looking out the windows, and remembering how truly amazing it is to find myself “sitting in a chair in the sky” (as comedian Louis CK memorably emphasized). And yet, I can't make myself forget that sitting in the sky is creepy. Amazing, yes — but also creepy as hell.

Subjective Experience

My wife Cheryl is used to my difficulty with flying, but she can't easily relate to it. She's completely comfortable on planes, so there's little connection between our subjective experiences of flight.

Our trip home after Christmas is a good example. As we boarded the Dash-8 to cross the Rockies from Cranbrook to Calgary, the flight attendant let us know that there would be no drinks served on this hop, due to “a little rough air on the way in.” For someone afraid to fly, that's a very bad sign. Sure enough, the flight was a roller-coaster, a white-knuckle nightmare. Shaking, stumbling off the plane, I gasped that this one was really a doozy. Cheryl said, “I thought it was OK. A bit bumpy.”

A bit bumpy? Seriously?

Isaac Asimov on the cover of Skeptic magazine

Isaac Asimov went to exceptional lengths to avoid flying. (Portrait by Pat Linse, on the cover of Skeptic magazine's premiere issue.)

In Good Company

Cheryl has long since given up on one of the great clichés of my life: “You're a skeptic. Shouldn't you know better?” I do know better. Of course flying is safe. My problem is not innumeracy, but visceral terror.

Nor is my fear connected very directly to the actual (tiny) risks of flight. It's psychologically disturbing to me to be at cruising altitude, and I remain tense the entire time — only to relax (at least slightly) as soon as I feel the plane begin its descent. But that doesn't even make sense. Being way up in the air is the safest part; getting closer to the ground means the risks are going up, not down.

At least I'm in good company. Many skeptics would prefer if there were fewer %@#$ skeptics on %@#$ planes. I've bonded with numerous uneasy flyers in the skeptical world, including Skeptics' Guide to the Universe co-host Jay Novella, Token Skeptic host Kylie Sturgess, and MythBusters creator Peter Rees.

Skeptical pioneer Isaac Asimov (a founding member of CSICOP, now called CSI) was famously terrified of flying. notes that Asimov flew only twice in his life (both times as part of his World War II military service). Asimov's discomfort with flying limited his ability to travel. As James Randi recalled,

He was paradoxical in some respects; while he freely wrote of faster-than-light space vehicles streaking among the stars, he had a life-long fear of flying here on Earth, and could often be found standing in New York's Grand Central Station consulting train schedules, rather than at an airport.

Like Asimov, I've sometimes resorted to unlikely workarounds to avoid airplanes. In 2006, my family and I drove from Vancouver, British Columbia to attend the Skeptics Society's “Environmental Wars” conference in Los Angeles — a multi-day drive in order to avoid a couple hours on a plane. (Similarly, during my shepherding career, I used to end every year with a 16-hour red-eye Greyhound trip home, when a one-hour flight cost the same amount.)

What Can I Do?

Am I at the mercy of irrational fear? Not entirely. I have management strategies, from comfortable clothes to distracting reading material. The most effective measure, by far, is the prescription I finally got from my doctor. (That picturesque-but-time-consuming round-trip drive to California in 2006 was the last straw.)

My work requires me to travel a fair bit. Asimov might have gotten by with his trains, cars, and cruise ships, but as a practical matter I need to fly. Thankfully, it turns out that medications can radically reduce the amount of anxiety that fliers experience. I've joked that mine could be something like Dumbo's feather (perhaps made with the goodness of PLAH-see-bo) but the truth is that a simple doctor's visit opened up the world to me. I now travel regularly, making trips to Australia, Atlanta's Skeptrack at DragonCon, and other places that might otherwise have remained out of reach. Each successful trip makes me feel a little better about the next.

As well, it helped me to speak with knowledgeable people about the capabilities of modern commercial jets. (A nod here to pilot Joe Anderson.) Airliners are extremely strong, conservatively engineered machines which inherently “want” to remain stable. (It is comforting to realize that a jet can fly with one engine — or even glide for a hundred miles or so, and land safely, with no engines at all.)


Is this relevant to skeptical outreach? Perhaps. One lesson from my own struggles is this: human beings are not masters of our own minds. Our deep-in-our-spines beliefs are more complicated than we might wish. Even for a trained scientist like Isaac Asimov, mere facts can take a back seat to visceral emotional response. (I'm reminded of a well-known flaw in Pascal's Wager. It's easy to say that we should voluntarily choose to believe one thing over another, but how exactly do we do that?)

Michael Shermer explains,

Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of what we previously believed. Most of us, most of the time, come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Rather, such variables as genetic predisposition, parental predilection, sibling influence, peer pressure, educational experience and life impressions all shape the personality preferences that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to our beliefs.

Because our reactions are to such a deep extent irrational, resting on emotion and cognitive shortcuts, we are naturally receptive to false beliefs — and therefore vulnerable to deliberate deception. As P.T. Barnum observed in 1865,

The amount or strength of man’s brains have little to do with the amount of their superstitions. The most learned and the greatest men have been the deepest believers in ingeniously-contrived machines for running human reason off the track.

Our natural preference for truthiness over truth can immunize us against facts. (This has prompted decades of skeptics to call for more careful attention to effective communication.)

Indeed, the situation is even trickier than it appears. Not only is it difficult for skeptics to dispel false beliefs by stating the facts, but the act of explanation can actually backfire: skeptical explanations can paradoxically increase belief. And that depressing reality is (as I think Steve Novella once put it) enough to make skeptics run screaming out of the room.

Like Daniel Loxton’s work? Read more in the pages of Skeptic magazine. Subscribe today in print or digitally!

49 Responses to “Fear of Flying”

  1. Max says:

    “Asimov might have gotten by with his planes, trains, and cruise ships…”

    You mean just trains and cruise ships, not planes right?

  2. Max says:

    Phobias are irrational by definition, so a rational argument won’t cure them. Maybe playing flight simulators might help. Google Earth has one: Press Ctrl+A.

    By the way, how come aircraft pilots and flight engineers have a higher occupational fatality rate than driver/sales workers and truck drivers?

    • derfbu says:

      The data at probably includes ALL pilots. Non commercial pilots have a rather high rate of crashing.

  3. Max says:

    Are you afraid of heights too, or just flying?

    I suspect that fear of needles and doctors makes some people find anti-vaccine arguments appealing. In such cases, it may be more effective to address the underlying fear and reduce the stigma of it than to debunk specific anti-vax arguments.

    • tmac57 says:

      I suspect that you might be right about that Max.As a partially reformed needle-phobe, I use to avoid vaccines (and all shots if I could).I eventually realized that it was no longer the pain that I was afraid of,but it was my reaction to the injection due to pent up anxiety that I was dreading.I would get pale and clammy,feel faint,nauseated,dizzy,and my feet would start to get numb and tingly.It is an awful feeling worth avoiding,and not easily rationalized away.Vaccines don’t bother me now,but I still need to be lying down when I have blood drawn,to avoid nearly passing out.

  4. biopunk says:

    I have flown along that flightpath on a Dash-8 many times and can agree with Daniel that, sometimes, it is indeed a quite a “bit bumpy”.

    My worst flight experience was on that same route.

    Thing is, now that you’ve experienced it, maybe you can rank your future discomfort along the lines of:

    “That was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as that flight from Cranbrook to Calgary.”

    …and maybe get some perspective on your fear?

    • MadScientist says:

      A recording accelerometer would be handy to get actual numbers rather than the subjective “this seems worse than …”. Then again for best results you should strap it to something immovable like the seat, preferably with a simple orientation to the aircraft. With all the paranoia these days that might result in the aircraft landing at the nearest airport and the police escorting you from the aircraft.

      • biopunk says:

        It is not just the sudden drop in altitude, it is the moment you see and feel gravity behaving in a way you aren’t used to; it is the sudden change in the sound of the engines as they lose and gain lift and the plane’s very visceral shaking.

        Add luggage bins, seat trays and beverage carts banging open and a bunch of people getting bounced about and you can have a heap of sensory overload going on.

        I’m sure that someone’s fear can be exacerbated by not having any means of control in that situation.

        Same goes for having to rely solely on the pilots and the plane’s engineering specifications.

        It is easy to be afraid in those circumstances, and I don’t believe that some fear would be an irrational response.

  5. BillG says:

    Does not fear underline every aspect of one’s life?

    “It takes courage to be afraid”, Montaigue.

  6. John Paradox says:

    I always thought that Mr. Asimov and I had something in common.. I am as ‘white knuckled’ a flyer as exists, and I’ve only flown once when we moved from Florida to New Jersey (which has its own reasons for fear -chuckle). Ray Bradbury also has fear of planes, he canceled a speech because weather made travel by bus impossible.
    One thing, though, is I often wonder if my fear is more along the lines of ‘I’m not in control’… I don’t particularly like being a passenger in a car, but it’s nowhere near a phobia, as flying is for me. I have little fear of heights, but that is because I was afraid of them (also fire and oceans/surf from incidents when I was young) but I somehow overcame those fears.
    Over the years, I have become more ‘brave’ in incidents that once would have frightened me, and honestly don’t know if I had to travel by plane, if I would still have that same phobia.


  7. tmac57 says:

    One strategy that you might want to try when things get a “bit bumpy” in the air,is to watch the flight attendants,if you can see them.I find it reassuring to see them calmly reading a book or magazine while my teeth are being rattled by extreme turbulence.I figure that with all of their flying experience,that if they aren’t visibly worried,then there probably isn’t any reason for me to worry.

  8. As a pilot, I always found the fear of flying to be mystifing. A bad day in the cockpit is usually better than a good day in the office. :)

    Although I do suffer from quite a bit of vertigo at unprotected heights. Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon just gives me the willies! Go figure. We each have our own fears and frailties. Part of the human tapestry I suppose.

    Now, don’t get me talking about sky diving… WTF is with that?

    • MadScientist says:

      Yeah, tell me about it. I’ve jumped out of helicopters with a rope attached and slid ~50 feet to the ground and think nothing of that, but I just don’t get that stuff about jumping out of aircraft and hoping your backpack won’t malfunction.

  9. LovleAnjel says:

    I’m a white-knuckle flyer. Part of it is loss of control, part is a fear of falling from great heights, but mostly it’s a fear of being on fire and falling out of the sky as the wind tears the aircraft to pieces around me I see my loved one next to me screaming in terror and pain as he/she dies…I had night terrors about it in high school.

    Take-off and landing are the most dangerous times, so they are the most terrifying. But I count the seat backs from the exit row to my seat so I can crawl over them to get out of the plane when the tube is full of smoke and fire. I understand that it’s easier to land a prop engine aircraft and you need less space, but the ride is so jerky I find it more frightening than jet engine craft. I tend to bury my face in a book and only stop for my drink or to run to the bathroom. My husband hates flying with me.

    • Max says:

      How do you like roller coasters?

      • LovleAnjel says:

        I’m okay with rides that spin (I like magnetic induction or hydraulic coasters with no starting hill). Usually my anxiety builds up so much waiting in line and looking at the hill that I walk through the car and out the exit. When I got on the Power Tower at Cedar Point I looked up, freaked out and had the operator unstrap me so I could run away.

        My husband also hates going to amusement parks with me.

  10. DPeterman says:

    tmac57 already mentioned my main trick: watching the flight attendants. This has gotten me through quite a few bumpy patches.

    I also tend to get very nervous while still sitting at the gate, waiting for things to get underway. One thing I’ve found that calms me down instantly is to tell myself “Neither this aircraft or this crew has ever been in a serious crash.” Silly, yes, but it has quite a calming effect on me.

  11. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    People looking for rationality about flying should read the writings of Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who has written several books and has an irregular column called “Ask the Pilot” on
    Smith may not be a declared “skeptic” but his devotion to facts makes him at least an important ally.

  12. MadScientist says:

    Are ya’ affeard-a spiders too?

    Flying is great fun – but I’d rather be a scientist than a pilot. It was a fortunate choice of careers since various health issues would prevent me from holding the required certificates to fly paying customers. I can’t help but laugh hearing people talking about how far they reckon the plane had fallen when it hit a rough patch – I suspect only a pilot would have a good idea and that’s because they would have noticed what’s going on with the altimeter in previous flights. Normal folks’ guesses are way too low …

  13. Maria says:

    I’m a pilot (and a skeptic) and I also have some mild fears about flying in airliners. I think it’s the complete lack of control that I have over what happens; the thought that this complex aircraft could be taken out of the sky by an almost infinite number of “ifs” that could occur at any time — including days or weeks before I even boarded!

    It’s not bad enough to require medication and although I’ve been in turbulence, the situation has never been bad enough to really scare me. (At least not since I began flying.) In fact, as I pilot, I’ve found myself in much scarier circumstances while at the controls than sitting in an airline’s aluminum tube at 30,000 feet. But still, the fear is there and I’d much rather travel from point to point only 500 feet off the ground in a tiny aircraft made of mixed metals and plastics under my control than in a 737 with the airline’s top pilots on board.

    Go figure, huh?

    • I’d direct interested readers to Maria’s excellent post about helicopter pilots who experience fear of flying helicopters: Pilot Flying Fears?

    • MadScientist says:

      That’s funny, I prefer the heavies. It’s the small types that I’m uncomfortable with in rough weather. Well, there was this time as a passenger on a 747 I was looking out the window at the engines and thinking “gee, I hope the shear pins were designed to take that abuse”. I’d never seen the wings flap so much before (or since) or seen the engines wag so much.

      Don’t you have any faith in the other pilots’ training? I’ve never met anyone else who’d flown but was scared as a passenger. Strange indeed.

      • badrescher says:

        A “trip from hell” about which one friend called me to complain included a flight from Detroit to a small town in northern Michigan. My friend said that he hated to fly in anything in which you could feel the wings flap.

        I have always been a pretty good flyer, but I was on one of those 10-seaters a few years later and I now understand completely.

      • Richard Smith says:

        While I have no serious problems with flying in general, it was certainly unsettling the first time I was on a flight and looked out the window only to see the wings bouncing up and down. I reassured myself that if the wings weren’t allowed to flap, they’d very likely snap.

      • Max says:

        When was the last time an airplane crashed because its wing snapped from flapping? An engine is more likely to fall off.

        The scary thing is that a jumbo jet can be brought down by stupid things like computer bugs, iced up pitot tubes, underwear bombs, and friggin birds.

      • Dan Kennan says:

        Here’s my irrationality…I feel much safer in a small plane where I can see the pilot than in an airliner, even though I know the little planes are the dangerous ones. It’s a control thing, I suppose, and it’s one of those things that reminds me of how irrational we really are.

        It doesn’t stop me from flying, though. I also watch the attendants and remind myself that the airline wouldn’t have paid so much for this amazingly expensive machine if there was a large chance of it falling out of the sky.

    • Max says:

      Sitting in a tube 30,000 feet above ground feels so unreal to me, it’s like playing a video game or looking at satellite imagery, which feels less scary than, say, skiing down a steep slope where there’s a real chance of falling and breaking something.

  14. sunny says:

    When I lived in Alaska a close friend of mine lost his wife in a seven seat plane flown by a government pilot (the local pilots were kinda crazy). I flew in to a fishing trip and after the pilot dropped the three of us off he flew over the Cook Inlet and neither he nor the plane was ever seen again. I flew out of a hunting trip in a four seater (with four adults) and a full load of meat in the pontoons and the pilot was barely able to get off the lake we were so overloaded. He used the technique where you go down the lake at top speed making waves and then turn quickly and cut across the waves trying to bounce off the water. He then proceeded to fly no higher then 100′ above the ground all the way back to base. I loathe flying in small planes, but I would do it to get into the back country.

  15. Karen says:

    Good to know I”m not the only skeptic with a fear of flying!

    My husband thinks its a bit silly I know because I’m already aware of the likelihood that i’ll die in a car accident vs. a plane crash or how planes like their stability and the fact that the wings bob up and down is really a good thing (though terrifying to look at during severe turbulence). I cant help it, im still scared. This is unfortunate because I simultaneously love going places in a short amount of time (no cars or trains for me!) so I suck it up, take meds and drink cocktails.

  16. Trimegistus says:

    You might have motion sickness — not the full barf-level but enough to make you uncomfortable and uneasy. Check with your doctor about meds — but TEST THEM BEFORE YOU FLY. Dramamine makes me sicker than seasickness does.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      Dramamine is also the zombie drug. I can’t function the rest of the day after taking it.

  17. feralboy12 says:

    Sometimes labelling things “fear of” creates a misnomer, particularly when vertigo might be involved. Being way the hell up in the air removes those nearby reference points, and can create havoc with one’s sense of balance. That is very unpleasant. I’ve never flown, but I do hike up mountains for tremendous views that I sometimes have to turn away from. I’m not afraid of falling, I just feel like gravity has forgotten me for the moment.

    • tmac57 says:

      I am not ordinarily fearful of flying,but the few times that I have become anxious during a flight,I had the same feeling that I get when I’m a passenger in a car driven by a reckless driver,who goes too fast,follows too close,and pays too little attention.That kind of powerlessness makes you tense,and leaves you wondering if you are going to get out of the situation safely.That,I would classify as “fear”,not vertigo.

  18. Les Posen says:

    As a skeptic and clinical psychologist who works with fearful flyers (I work with airlines too), I find these many comments amusing yet confirming of the many facets of fear of flying. No one yet has mentioned, but hinted at, limbic system centrality in the generation of these fears in the face of the statistics of commercial aviation.

    hence, if you read my blog, you’ll see my approach is not to spend laborious time in how a fear got started (more of intellectual interest to the therapist) but what is currently maintaining the fear – or to be more direct, the avoidance+relief behaviours. Usually, a combo of unchallenged appraisals, affect, physiological reactions, and safety-seeking behaviours. Not all of them making themselves available easily to conscious reflection.

    • @Les Posen: I thought it best to run a draft of this article by my colleague Barbara Drescher before posting. A cognitive psychologist (though not a clinician), Barbara did raise the topic of evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapies, designed (as she put it) “to reverse the effects of an autonomic nervous system that is designed to get us to act quickly when we might be in danger.” However, as mental health is not my area of expertise, I elected to focus more closely on my own personal experiences.

    • vanessa says:

      The Soar fear of flying course is beyond amazing. As a skeptic, I just couldn’t understand why my brain couldn’t wrap itself around safety of flying v driving etc. As good as the course is, the real gems are the articles in the library: “Keeping your cool with evidence based-rather than belief based reality”, The egocentrically arrogant mnd” and phobic responses, control beliefs (nonsense) How we create omens. It’s remarkable. I’ve spent my life on the ground or on drugs to fly. I am now asleep before the wheels are up. Check out the library-for a research junkie like me it just worked.

  19. gwen says:

    I grew up on planes. My childhood encompassed the evolution of air travel. My dad was in the military and we routinely flew to different continents every few years. I developed a fear of flying as an adult, and it limited my travel for years. I was determined to overcome it, and while I will never love flying, I can now get on a plane to go wherever in the world I want, without a dose of ativan or valium first!!

  20. blair says:

    If the anxiety and obsessiveness begin at the moment you realize there’s no way to get there other than by flying, even if the trip isn’t for several months, it’s not motion sickness.

  21. MT says:

    I used to love roller coasters and stuff. The first time I flew i found it fantastic. The forces we feel in the liftoff are amazing. The view from above is marvelous. However some 10 years ago i started fearing these kind of things. I need a beta blocker if i need to fly and I don’t go on a roller coaster. However rational and skeptic, once the little chemicals get produced there’s no escaping them. I tried deep breathing, reading, nothing works. However if something else is worrying me, if I have a migraine for instance, the anxiety does not set in. I believe the best is to preemptively get the brain box busy with something else, although I admit I didn’t have much success…

    • Mriana says:

      Getting busy reading didn’t work with me. I think I need to be with the pets and tranquilized if I ever have to do it again. Seriously, distracting did not help my fear, anxiety, or travel sickness, which I never had on land travel. The travel sickness was the first, but I felt too physically glued to me seat to even move. Yes, I was fighting tears, as a 44 y.o. woman trying hard not to act like a scared little girl. Didn’t cry, but I was still a mess.

  22. Lou says:

    “I’d rather die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, rather than screaming in terror like his passengers in the cabin.”

    Some people have a true flying phobia. But I think most are afraid simply because of unfamiliarity with flying. Like most things in life, experience and repetition breeds calmness and confidence.

  23. Kenneth Polit says:

    What medication are you referring? For me, what works best is one of my “special” brownies, and 6fl ounces of Wild Turkey 101. We may still crash, but I don’t give a f**k.

  24. Mriana says:

    I tried flying once recently, for the first time and only time in my life. First time I ever got travel sickness and I could not look out the window for anything because my dizziness and nausea got worse. For the most part, I was glued to my seat while everything was spinning and felt like the floor fell out from under me, even though I knew there was a floor there… somewhere. The stewardess brought me a barf bag and the couple across from me said I was so green they felt sure I going to puke. No, I didn’t puke. I just could not move and was so dizzy. That was both the trip there and the trip back, with a layover/transfer both ways (four planes) and I could feel every move of the planes- take off, turns, slowing down, speeding up, landing, not sure which was the worst, but I think landing was the worst, even though I wanted down, and down safely, so badly. I have no plans to fly again. It might be the safest mode of travel, but I hate it and would prefer the Greyhound.

  25. Zed says:

    Funny once it’s out there how many people are in the same boat. I definitely am. I love planes, I have spent hours watching them take off and land. But actually flying, not a big fan. I am glad my kids didn’t inherit my anxiety. What works for me it Xanax and Scotch. And if that doesn’t work keep adding drinks.

  26. Fergus says:

    I have always been fascinated with flight, but hate flying commercial,
    although I know it is statistically very safe, and I know how most
    aircraft systems work, ATC, etc.,

    So I built a gyrocopter(autogyro), taught myself to fly it, and am
    quite happy to tootle along in the breeze at 2000ft or so, in what
    has been accurately described as a flying lawn chair. Also it has one of the poorest safety stats of anything that flies.
    Control is obviously part of it, but the rest defies my understanding.

  27. Donna Gore says:

    I used to love flying but the last few times I’ve been rather nervous. I don’t know if it’s the scare stories in the news, the heightened security, the fact that I’m getting older, or what. But it hasn’t gotten so bad that I need sedation. I just try to distract myself.

    I’m glad you can make the trip here to DragonCon! PS – I see you’re a Colbert fan !