Do you have a fear of flying?
Are you a nervous flyer?
Recently one of our loyal readers confided in us that she LOVED travel but was a bit of a “nervous flyer”. For her, the thought to getting on an airplane nearly ruins her rare vacations. Candidly, Mike and I fly a lot for our “day jobs” and flying has become a bit routine. We really couldn’t relate in a meaningful way. In our search for something that might help, we came across Captain (ret.) Tom Bunn. The former Air Force supersonic jet pilot, commercial airline captain, turned therapist helps people everyday conquer their qualms about flying. We caught up with Captain Tom and asked him some tough questions:
Are planes really that strong? Can they withstand strong turbulence “bumps”?
Yes. Absolutely. If you look at videos on youtube of wing testing, you see wings bent almost into a u-shape. That’s during testing. In actual flight, you never see the wings move 1 percent of what these tests show the wing can take.
We have a free app that measures G-forces during turbulence. The plane is built to handle a continuous 2.5 Gs with no damage to the plane. It is built to handle twice that, but may need repair. On the G-force meter is a variation of 0.2 Gs during light turbulence – variation from a normal 1 G up to 1.2 G and down to 0.8 G. In severe turbulence, the variation would be around .6 G, thus up to 1.6 and down to 0.4 G.
There is no safety problem. But, knowing the plane is up high, and aware of all that space between the plane and the earth, it is easy to imagine the plane falling. Free-fall is a zero G condition. Free-fall never happens. But, when a person feels lightheadedness at around 0.8 G, due to anxiety they may think the plane is falling, which of course, is not the case. By using the free app in flight turbulence, an anxious passenger can scientifically prove the plane is not falling. They can also prove the plane nowhere near its limits. Flying anxiety be gone!
Why don’t pilots give us the full story? They know that a section is going to bumpy that day, yet they don’t tell us right out of the gate?
They don’t know the full story in advance because Clear Air Turbulence forecasts are not reliable. The best CAT forecasts can do is specify areas where, due to jet stream activity, turbulence is possible. The only reliable information is what we hear on the radio from other pilots ahead of us on the same route. Even so, conditions change from minute to minute. When a pilot twenty minutes ahead reports turbulence, when we get there, it may be smooth. Of visa versa. A pilot ahead reports it is smooth, and when we get there it is bumpy.
Not knowing more doesn’t bother pilots because they know turbulence is not a safety problem. Pilots are mystified that passengers fear turbulence. It is my belief that turbulence causes fear in a round about way. Anxious fliers try to control anxiety by keeping the flight out of mind. If the flight is smooth, they may be able to pretend they are not on a plane, but are sunning on a beach. But if there is turbulence, this pretense falls apart and the person comes face-to-face with the reality that they are on a plane, 30,000 feet up, and that they not in control. If they start to panic, they have no way to stop it because they have no means of escape. In other words, fear of turbulence is fear of fear. And, when they feel afraid, they tend to believe there must be danger. There is no danger of the plane crashing, but there is danger of emotionally crashing.
Often we hear pilots say we are going through light “chop”…what exactly does that mean in English?
Chop is like the ride you get on a speedboat she the surface of a lake is choppy. If the bumps are regulate, or rhythmic, we call it chop; if irregular, we call it turbulence.
Crazy question, do pilots feel the same level of turbulence as passengers?
Actually, it is an interesting question. Pilots spend so much time in turbulence every week that they get immune to it. Turbulence is so ordinary thing that pilots often don’t even notice it. I’ve gotten calls for irate flight attendants asking why I haven’t turned the seat belt on. I hadn’t even noticed the turbulence. They did because, though they are used to it, they have trouble serving passengers during turbulence. So, they want the seat best sign on so passengers will understand they need to discontinue service..
In turbulence a pilot regards turbulence regards as of no consequence, an anxious passenger can be terrified. Why? First, because turbulence makes it impossible for them to pretend they are not on a plane. And second, because a part of the brain releases stress hormones when something takes place that the person is not used to. If the plane drops twenty times in a minute, a pilot gets no stress hormone release. But, passengers, who are not used to turbulence, get twenty shots of stress hormones. These hormones add up and cause a high level of arousal. A psychologically secure person regards arousal as arousal. But a psychologically insure person equates arousal with fear, and fear with danger.
That is a point that anxious fliers need to catch on to. To the anxious flier, arousal = fear = danger. That is not true. Arousal is just arousal. Fear is an interpretation of the meaning of the arousal. The anxious flier’s interpretation is wrong; the fear they feel does not mean danger. On the other hand, some believe lack of fear means safety. That’s wrong, too. Driving late at night, some drivers you encounter are impaired. since you don’t know that, you don’t feel fear. Though you are in very real danger, you don’t feel afraid at all. When flying, you can be completely safe, and due to imagination, believe you are in danger.
Is it safe to fly through thunder storms?
The plane is safe when flying through thunder storms. But we don’t do it. We have weather radar that is color coded – green, yellow, and red – to show the intensity of a thunderstorm. We try to avoid them completely, but if we can’t we go through a green area.
The best dressed in the sky! Have you read out post about Flight Fashion?
Is it better to fly in the morning, afternoon or evening for a “smoother” flight?
Morning is the better because it is usually less windy and the thunderstorms have not had time in the sun to billow up to great heights.
With the whole “lap child” incident not long ago, are children safe on laps of parents?
I’m sure that if the parent holding that child had not been caught by surprise, there would have been no problem. How can I be sure? Because the child did not go far out of the parent’s arms. Since the child did not continue upward and hit the ceiling, the force was not great.
In your experience, which airport is the worst for turbulence? Denver, PHX other?
Denver is the worst because the Rockies extend up to 14,000 feet. The Rockies disturb the air flowing eastward from 14,000 feet down to the ground. When flying at 15,000 feet, the air can be completely smooth, and then when you hit 14,000 feet, you get turbulence,, and that turbulence usually lasts all the way to the ground. Perhaps knowing that this is really very mechanical and predictable may help an anxious passenger think of it as normal for Denver, which it is. Phoenix – and Las Vegas – get turbulent in the afternoon due to the sun heating up the surface of the desert.
What is your take on allowing cell phone calls on planes?
As in a theater or a restaurant where you are necessarily close to other people, I would rather not be bothered by that.
1000Fights: We agree! NO CALLS!
I fly a fair amount…once a month-ish. I am not afraid of flying, but I am a nervous flyer. Bumps can unnerve me. Any suggestions on overcoming that fear?
First, know it is safe. Second, know you get shots of stress hormones because the bumps – to you – are not routine. The arousal that results is just arousal. Arousal is not fear. There is no danger. Third, use the app to prove everything is OK, that the plane is not overstressed, nor is it falling.
Something we have always wondered…why do they fly so far north when flying from the states to asia and Europe?
It is actually the shortest distance. That would be obvious if you were looking for the shortest distance on a globe. If you stretch a string from your departure point in the U.S. to your destination in Europe, the string goes over Canada, and just south of Greenland and Iceland. A globe is, as the earth is, spherical. A paper map, being flat, has a lot of distortion. It makes it look like the shortest route is much father south than it really is.
What is the most difficult case of flight fright you have ever had to work with?
Really difficult cases involve “psychic equivalence.” If the person repeatedly imagines disaster, they produce a condition called psychic equivalence. In this condition, what is in the mind (imagination: what one fears will happen) is – when stress hormones build up – accepted as real.
Most people can distinguish imagination from reality. But for some,, when they FEEL like something is true, to them it is true. If they FEEL something is going to happen, they “just know” it is going to happen. And, if another person tries to tell them otherwise, they get nowhere. The mind is locked. They “just know” if they get on the plane, they will die. As ridiculous as that sounds, it happens to a lot of people who having trouble flying.
Captain Tom Bunn, an airline captain and licensed therapist, is President and founder of SOAR, Inc.’
twitter: Capt. Tom Bunn
Captain Bunn has helped over 5,000 people overcome difficulty with flying. He was part of the first fear of flying program, which was started at Pan Am in 1975. He founded SOAR in 1982; and to offer the most effective help possible, he completed graduate school to become a therapist. He spent five additional years in training at psychological institutes, finally developing a therapy that has made it possible for everyone to fly
1000Fights: Thank you kindly to Captain Tom for taking our questions about flying. We hope that there was something that proved helpful. We definitely want all the Fighting Couples out there to love Flying. If you are struggling with a fear of flying, give Captain Tom’s program a try. Happy travels!