Things That Go Bump In the Flight

In my unhappy spot.

I love to travel but hate to fly. I regularly drive six hours to Southern California instead of hopping on a commuter flight that would get me there in one-sixth the time. I’d rather drive three days to reach Colorado than suffer the turbulent approach to Denver’s airport.

“That way I can bring my dog and don’t have to rent a car,” I say by way of explanation, but the truth is I hate being up in the sky. I hate being confined in a small seat in a bullet-shaped capsule with hundreds of strangers. And more than anything, I hate the sudden bumps and thumps that make me think we’re two seconds away from splitting into pieces.

Thankfully, I found a person—a pilot who moonlights as a writer—to help me cope with my irrational fear that I’m going to fall out of the sky (but is it really irrational?). His name is Patrick Smith, and he’s the Ask the Pilot blogger syndicated by He has a fabulous FAQ on his blog for white-knucklers like me. He gives the lowdown on turbulence, aborted landings, cabin air quality, the relative safety of regional airlines, and other things I try not to dwell on mid-flight. I take comfort in his point that “the media’s relentless hyping of minor mishaps, precautionary landings, and terror alerts leads many to believe that airline travel is more perilous than ever, when exactly the opposite is true.”

But still …

An anvil-topped cumulonimbus cloud is mighty pretty, but watch out: It spells strong turbulence. (photo courtesy of

Even though I understand his reassuring answers, and even though I flew around the world, I’m as jumpy on a plane as ever. Turbulence makes my stomach ache with gastric acid while my mind leaps to catastrophic thoughts. I’m pretty sure my reaction is a symptom of bigger psychological issues having to do with control and claustrophobia, and I also sense it’s related to my other big fear: earthquakes. The Loma Prieta quake of ’89 shook me ferociously when I lived in Santa Cruz, and in the months that followed, I became hyper aware of low rumblings and mild tremors that might signal an aftershock. If a big truck drives by and shakes our walls, I still tense up and grab something for stability, thinking, “Is this The Big One?” Same thing happens on a plane: Even a gentle jostling makes me wonder, “Will it get worse? Are we going down?”

A few things help me keep my cool during a rough flight:

  • focusing on the faces of the flight attendants. God bless ’em and their chipper demeanor.
  • visualize driving over bumps on a bucolic dirt road. Think: I’m just out in the country in a 4-wheel-drive truck, really.
  • repeating the mantra, “It’s worth it.” It’s worth the flight to get to the destination.
  • chiding myself for being a scaredy-cat. “Stop being so gutless. Life is full of risks. Statistically speaking, this barely counts as a risk.”
  • taking drugs and alcohol. I’ve used anti-anxiety meds during flights in the past, which helps. So does a beer or three. But those are last resorts, because I don’t want to be loopy when I’m parenting. Nor do I want to arrive with my head buzzing from a hangover that makes jetlag worse.

So that’s my advice, but I’m the first to admit it hasn’t helped me very much. If you fear flying like I do, how do you cope? If you’re as tranquil in the sky as on the ground, what’s your secret?

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2 Responses to Things That Go Bump In the Flight

  1. Claudia December 27, 2010 at 8:12 am #

    As you know – I am with you on this. I am heading straight over to his blog right now! Thanks!

  2. Davdi Lavender December 27, 2010 at 8:56 am #

    I think your fears are entirely reasonable (and yes I , too, hate flying). When you think about the idea of a much-heavier-than-air jet zipping through the incredibly thin air at 30,000 feet (just where the heck does the lift come from?) while contributing disproportionately to global warming, I think we’d all be better off sticking with ground-based transportation. I’ll check out the link, though. Maybe I’ll find it reassuring.

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