Fear of Flying

by Deanna Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

It’s not about dying, really—it’s about knowing you’re about to die. Not in the abstract way that we haphazardly confront our own mortality as we reach middle age and contemplate getting old. And not even in the way (I imagine) that someone with a terminal diagnosis might think about death—sooner than expected and no longer theoretical. It’s much more immediate than that.

Whenever I teach logical reasoning to my students, I start with a classic syllogism to illustrate deduction: All humans are mortal; Socrates is a human; therefore Socrates is mortal. For an example of inductive reasoning I ask them to think about the major premise of the syllogism: All humans are mortal. How do we know this statement is true? The only reason we assume that anyone currently alive is mortal (including ourselves) is that a very large number of people have died before us. We have no proof.

But if you’re in an airplane hurtling toward the earth, my guess is that such airy sophistries fly right up to the ceiling along with the beverage carts. Suddenly an incurable cancer diagnosis might seem kind of warm and cozy in comparison: you would have some time to get more used to the idea, say your goodbyes, rewrite your will to indulge your current spites. People in a crashing airplane might just have time to clutch an arm or an armrest, gabble a hasty prayer, perhaps make a quick phone call to leave an unerasable message on a loved one’s voicemail.

And that’s what I’m really afraid of: those 60-to-600 seconds.

Which is utterly ridiculous, when you think about it. After the terror—oblivion. I would not survive to remember those awful moments; there would be no PTSD, no nightmarish flashbacks or cold sweats in the middle of the night. All my memories would be gone, along with my hippocampus, the twenty pounds I gained during the pandemic, and the Dansko clogs I like to wear when flying.

I remember a while ago learning about a class of anesthetics that act by preventing the formation of memories rather than blocking the nerve impulses that signal pain. Of course my immediate thought was: Does that mean people on these drugs actually experience pain during their surgery, but they just don’t remember it? As far as I can tell, the answer might be yes? But we’ll never know, since no one remembers the pain afterwards to report it. Contemplating this state of affairs feels akin to contemplating infinity. Telling yourself not to worry about some upcoming awful event because you won’t remember it afterwards is not a winning strategy. The human brain is not that subtle.

One of my all-time favorite poems is Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” in which an insomniac recounts his middle-of-the-night anxieties about death:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

The “specious stuff,” I imagine, refers to Lucretius’s claim that the fear of death is irrational: “Therefore death to us / Is nothing, nor concerns us in the least, / Since nature of mind is mortal evermore.” For Lucretius, the mind (we might say “consciousness”) is purely material, a function of the body, and when the body ceases to exist then the mind will also. There is nothing to fear in death since all experience will simply cease. While I admire Lucretius and Epicurean philosophy—indeed, my Great Resignation back-up plan is to found an Epicurean School-cum-survivalist compound—I agree with Larkin that this is the very definition of a mindfuck. Try to reason your way out of reasoning, and while you’re at it don’t think of a monkey.

But it gets even more complicated. I am a rational person, and I understand rationally that the chances of my dying in a plane crash are next to nothing. I do not literally fear that the airplane I’m on will be chosen, among all other airplanes, to be the target of a terrorist attack or a one-in-a-million catastrophic mechanical failure. I guess I just don’t think I’m that special. But I do fear my own fear. I know with near perfect certainty that when I get on that airplane I will experience intense discomfort or even panic. Anyone who’s ever had a panic attack, or a prolonged session of overwhelming fear due to a phobia, understands that this is not a trivial matter. In case you’re wondering, yelling Well then just don’t be afraid! inside your own head doesn’t work. We’re right back to trying to talk yourself out of something using the exact same tool that is the source of your problem: obsessive, exorbitant thought.

Don’t get me wrong—rational thinking can help a little. In the early days of my flying phobia I read obsessively about how air travel works, what is happening inside the plane at all stages of a flight, what all the scary sounds mean, how there are multiple fail-safe and back-up systems in case of mechanical failure. I spent a lot of time pestering my friend Scott, the spouse of my elementary-school bestie who had been a Navy pilot and Top Gun instructor, with my nitpicky questions. It helped to hear how cavalier he was about flying, that he wasn’t at all bothered by the kinds of risks he and other military pilots would take compared to the protocols of a commercial flight. If they don’t mind flinging themselves off aircraft carriers and landing in the middle of the ocean using rubber bands, then surely I don’t need to worry about the little bump  that the wheels on my Airbus A320 make when they retract after take-off, right? I tried to convince myself that I was just being a wimp. It sort of worked.

∞ ∞ ∞

While I had always been a nervous flier, my anxiety came to a gloriously insane head around 20 years ago, when I was flying from New Hampshire to Chicago for a friend’s wedding. About 40 minutes from the end of the flight, the plane began its (totally normal) gentle descent in preparation for landing. I was sitting in a window seat with my forehead pressed against the cold plastic pane when I noticed that we were starting to drift, very slowly, closer to the ground, and I suddenly became convinced that we were experiencing mechanical failure and were about to crash. I spent the rest of the flight, until the wheels softly kissed the runway at O’Hare, sweating and trembling in terror with my heart pounding in my throat. I gazed in horror as the tranquil clouds below us crept nearer and nearer and the ground below gradually rose up to slam into the underbelly of our plane. The sun was shining, the sky was a serene blue, the farmland below was a smooth mosaic of greens and browns. From the distance of many years and from the comfortable depths of this armchair, my fear seems utterly bizarre—I had flown many times before, I was familiar with the narrative arc of a normal flight, I understood intellectually that in order to land the plane would have to descend from the sky. And yet I became convinced that the pilots and flight crew were shielding their passengers from the horrible truth that we were slowly crashing and were all about to die in a fiery conflagration. Why they were calmly collecting our biscotti wrappers and asking us to raise our seat backs was a mystery.

To this day I have no idea why that particular normal, placid flight inaugurated a decades-long reign of terror. Maybe it had to do with the current uncertainty in my life—unclear job prospects, long-distance relationship with a partner whose visa was about to expire. Maybe it was years of built-up stress (grad school, those job prospects again) looking for an outlet. Maybe it was several recent spectacular airline crashes—EgyptAir 990, Kenya Airways 431 and Alaska Airlines 261 one day after the other, the Air France Concorde—that made the possibility of dying in an airplane seem more plausible. Of course, this was just a year or so before the September 11th attacks, after which all bets were off. After 9/11 I barely had time to worry about dying in an airplane what with freaking out about anthrax and buying rolls of duct tape to seal up our windows, but somehow I managed to multi-task.

We all have our stories about where we were when we heard about the Twin Towers, and here is mine. I was on my usual two-hour commute to campus when the NPR signal cut out where it usually did, about half an hour away from school, right after Bob Edwards announced that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Somewhat understandably, I pictured a small private plane and the death of single hapless pilot, and immediately thought to myself, “What a chump. That is really sad.” I got to my office, gathered up my books, walked across campus, taught a 90-minute class on Coleridge (What were my students thinking? Why didn’t they say anything?), returned to my office, made a cup of tea, and turned on my computer to search on Travelocity for flights to an upcoming conference. “ALL AIR TRAFFIC GROUNDED” the banner screamed from the top of my computer screen. “Hunh,” I thought to myself. “I wonder what that’s about.” I turned back to my desk and started prepping for my next class. After a few minutes a colleague poked her head in my office door. We chatted for a little while—she admired my new haircut, I told her where I’d gotten it done—then she eventually said, “So what about this World Trade Center thing?” “Oh, you mean that pilot who crashed? Yeah, that was weird. What was up with that?” She stared at me in horror for a moment or two. “Wait—do you mean you don’t know?” “Know … what?” I asked reluctantly. And then she filled me in.

After the first wave of uncomprehending horror, which buckled my knees and drove me down into my desk chair, I had the following thoughts in the following order: My god all those people; How is this possible?; Are there more attacks coming?; I have to get home now; I wonder if that’s why all the flights were grounded; Oh maybe this means airline travel is over forever oh please please please let that be the case please. I am not particularly proud of that last thought, and in fact it’s even worse than it seems: the whole sequence occupied less than 2 seconds, which means it took me less than a full breath to move from the mass death of innocents to “Maybe I won’t have to do that thing I’m afraid of any more.” Such is the staggering power of a phobia, I suppose.

But here is the funny thing about how the threat of terrorism intersects with my flying anxiety: whenever I hear that a plane has crashed through a premeditated act of malice, I am comforted. Of course I am horrified by the death and destruction—but I am also, at the same time, relieved to learn that it came about through a deliberate act of human intentionality. Things are still as they are supposed to be. One or two insane murderers wanted to bring an airplane down, and they successfully executed their plan, and therefore the fundamental laws of cause and effect are operating as they should. At least I don’t have to contemplate the sheer horror of meaninglessness implied by a mechanical failure, or wind shear, or a glitch in air traffic control. At least all those people died for a reason, even if it’s a sick and twisted reason. That’s better than no reason at all.

I recognize that this way of thinking is not to everyone’s taste. For many people the idea of fellow creatures deliberately causing such pain and suffering is more horrifying than the depredations of chance. I suspect that my preference, for intention over entropy, is part of a more general tendency to deal with anxiety through attempted control. I also suspect that the other way—relinquishing control and acknowledging that we are all puffs of thistle on the winds of fate—is the healthier approach. But again, what can one do in the face of this understanding? Let go of your inability to let go! Don’t think of a monkey!

I recently had the opportunity to discover how I might respond in the event of an actual air disaster, and it was not pretty. A few months ago my spouse and I were returning from visiting his family in New Zealand when our plane hit clear-air turbulence about 30 minutes into our flight. (I’ll wait while you click the link. I had never heard of it either.) The dinner service had just started, I had a plastic tumbler of sauvignon blanc in my hand, and I was just allowing myself to believe that we were safely in the air and that I could relax until landing time. (Part of my flying strategy involves a whole series of magical-thinking “bargains” I’ve made with the aviation gods: two minutes after takeoff I can stop worrying about crashing, nothing bad can happen once we’re at 30,000 feet, etc.) Suddenly the plane was violently see-sawing up and down (or maybe it was side to side? it was really difficult to tell), utensils and iPads were flying, people were crying and praying. To be clear: this was not normal turbulence, even the rough kind; it felt like the plane was out of control and that we were in mortal peril. I desperately locked eyes with our flight attendant, who had buckled into the jump seat opposite us. He looked annoyed with me, and then I realized it was because I was screaming.

Fork lying on floor of airplane
Where my fork ended up

After either 15 minutes or 48 hours of hellish lurching, the plane finally settled down and the captain came on the PA system to tell us that we had hit a patch of clear-air turbulence: “We apologize for the discomfort, but there is no way to predict it in advance.” Perhaps you are now wondering why the captain didn’t address us immediately after it started, so that we didn’t have to ride out the terror wondering if he had passed out in the cockpit. The reason is—if you share my fear of flying you might want to stop reading right now—that during those horrible minutes he was likely struggling to regain control of the plane. Apparently such violent turbulence can make it difficult or impossible for pilots to read their instruments.

So now I know how I will likely react in the face of my own fast-approaching death. (I wonder what proportion of fellow human travelers share this knowledge of themselves? How many people have truly felt that they were about to die? Not to be all grandiose about it—my belief was erroneous and perhaps silly, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it was an actual, pressing belief.) Gone are my fantasies that I would rise to the occasion with graceful resignation, using the opportunity of my last moments on earth to reflect on the mottled tapestry of human existence while taking solace in the image of my bodily integument becoming one with the cosmos, or that I would push aside my petty selfish fears to comfort those around me, or even that I would cling to my life partner in the next seat and whisper my love one last time. No, apparently I will lose my mind with terror like a cornered rabbit with its eyes rolling back in its head. Good job, brain.

So here I am, here we all are, on a flight that is slowly, almost imperceptibly, crashing to the ground. You can look out the window and calmly note that the descent is orderly and routine, reassuring yourself that the pilots have everything under control; you can keep playing Two Dots on your phone till the charge runs out; you can order another tasteless Bloody Mary or two; you can grade those last couple of student papers you’ve been putting off; you can re-watch the end of Magic Mike 2; you probably have time to do all of these things. You could also allow yourself to picture the worst and be very afraid. I don’t know which way of passing the time before landing is the most sane, rational, true, or honest—probably you don’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. And apparently once you land, you won’t even remember how you spent the flight.