How to Deal With a Fear of Flying

May 31, 2005 -- -- During the first four weeks of gestation of the human embryo, a set of fishlike gill slits grows and then disappears - a controversial legacy, science tells us, of a time when a more simple version of our DNA was adapted to life in the oceans.

So, obviously, we were meant to swim.

Nowhere during that gestation sequence, however, is there even the slightest evidence that we also grow a temporary set of wings. In other words, for too many of us, that perversely confirms the old adage that if humans were meant to fly we would indeed have come equipped with a way to ride the wind without having to buy an airline ticket.

Frankly, even we pilots will acknowledge that our species isn't naturally adapted to hurtle through the stratosphere at insane speeds. That's why, unlike birds, we carry oxygen with us at high altitudes and pay so much attention to flight safety and checklists and emergency training and check rides. Couple all that with the basic aerodynamic complexities required for engine-powered, heavier-than-air flight, and it's understandable why some might consider the act of sealing yourself inside a large metallic tube with wings and engines along with several hundred other humans the rough equivalent of Russian roulette.

It's not, but that's not the point. The fact of being fearful while in the air forms its own reality, and it can be tough to deal with.

Aviaphobia is the technical term for fear of flying, and if you're afflicted by it to any degree, you're in the company of at least 20 million other occupants of the North American continent. Some are just vaguely nervous about sounds and motions of the aircraft that are little understood and seldom explained. Some, however, are virtually terrified, gripping the armrests with white knuckles and spending the airborne hours fighting the very disturbing expectation that, statistics aside, they won't survive the experience.

The reason this is such a serious problem for so many really comes from our lifestyle as North Americans. In fact, our continent is very big, our railroad service is very spotty and regional, and getting from coast to coast by car, train, skateboard or walking is simply incompatible with the pace of business or even the average family's holiday plans. This doesn't even include emergency trips across a thousand or so miles of America, weddings, funerals, and flying over the rivers and woods to reach grandma's house. If you have six days off, spending five-and-a-half driving to and from your destination in order to avoid flying just doesn't work, and if we've become anything coherent as 21st century Americans, we've become a nation of geographically scattered brothers, sisters, parents and kids.

In other words, scared to death or not, most of us have to fly, and for those with advanced cases of aviaphobia, that equation yields great anxiety and even panic.

So, can anything be done about your sweaty palms when you're voluntarily under house arrest in a 500 mph aluminum tube?

In a word, Yes!

First, as with anything in human psychology, there is more than one cause of being fearful in the air. Sometimes it's triggered by very deep-seated and serious experiences that only a psychologist can reliably address. Many times fear of flying is exacerbated by the required surrender of control. But the most widespread cause of aviaphobia is the easiest to remedy, and that's simply not understanding what's going on and being unaware of the basics of why airliners are so incredibly safe.

Of course, everyone has heard the statistics about how amazingly safe commercial air travel has become. Without quoting mind-numbing numbers, suffice it to say that statistically you're in more danger in your own bathroom than flying, and you're in vastly more danger driving to and from the airport. And -- as pointed out in previous columns -- in the late spring of 2005 we have now achieved over three-and-a-half years without a major passenger airline accident in North America, an unprecedented milestone.

But if statistics don't cure fear of flying, what does?

Well, you may have read two of my recent columns entitled "Things that go 'Bump' in the Flight," (you can find them here: Part One and Part Two). Both explained some of the details of what's happening when you hear certain sounds or feel rough air during a flight, and while such things are second nature to pilots and flight attendants, to someone who has never had detailed exposure to or knowledge of how planes fly, any bump in the road can trigger massive anxiety.

But just telling you about turbulence and landing gear sounds and in-flight motions is seldom enough to solve the problem. What does work in the majority of cases are fear of flying clinics, and fortunately there are many such examples available around the country. While at least one free airline-sponsored fear of flying clinic has been discontinued recently because of the costs, a quick Google search for "fear of flying clinic" or aviaphobia will yield a list of available courses, and very likely one close to you. Many such clinics are free, but all seek to do two basic things: Respectfully acknowledge that your fear is real, and help you conquer or eliminate it with a combination of new knowledge and actual experience, often culminating in a "graduation" flight. As an airline captain, I've been privileged to skipper several such graduation flights over time, and I can tell you that even on an individual basis, we all bend over backward to help soothe the way when a passenger identifies himself or herself as an apprehensive flier.

After all, if the cure doesn't work and you don't buy that ticket to ride, we all lose.

John J. Nance, ABC News' aviation analyst, is a veteran 13,000-flight-hour airline captain, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves. He is also a New York Times best-selling author of 17 books, a licensed attorney, a professional speaker, and a founding board member of the National Patient Safety Foundation. A native Texan, he now lives in Tacoma, Wash.