Fear of flying is like riding a roller coaster
Finnair pilot Jussi Ekman addresses the topic of fear.
I have received a lot of comments and messages on my blog about the fear of flying. I had been meaning to write about the topic for a long time, but I hadn’t found the right way to approach it. In her comment, a reader of mine compared flying to a roller-coaster; that’s where I got the idea for this article.
Fear is wisdom. If we didn’t have a sense of fear, our species would have gone extinct long ago. Evolution has made sure that fear – that powerful feeling we have learned from the experiences of our ancestors – is encoded in our genome. Many phobias are still inherited in their original form today. For example, some people are afraid of snakes, while others have a fear of spiders. Most people have a primitive reaction at the very least when a tarantula creeps along their arm. Evolution is an ongoing process, so it is only natural that individual experiences, in addition to inherited ones, also influence fear. These experiences can also be a tool for managing fear.
Fear is a feeling a person experiences subjectively. When asked about the reasons for fear, it may be difficult for someone to explain why they are afraid of snakes, for example, but not spiders. The same is true when it comes to the fear of flying. Often those who fear flying do not give a clear reason, but instead they begin to list different frightening scenarios or simply say that “the plane might fall out of the sky, or something”. A common factor is often the fear that something bad will happen to oneself or one’s child. For this reason, becoming a mother might trigger a fear of flying. (Please don’t stop here, new mothers, keep on reading!)
So, people have a natural need to feel safe.
On a roller-coaster and on a plane, people seek safety by white-knuckling the edge of the car or the arm rest, as though it were the tree branch one might fall from and become a predator’s meal. On a roller-coaster, then, the brave ones are the ones with their hands up in the air. It’s also a sign for others – body language – saying “I’m not afraaaaaaaaid!”.
People also turn to others for safety. The brakeman is wonderful – a teenage girl’s dream. Outside of the amusement park, it could be a police officer or firefighter. A person who is seen as brave and safe is attractive. On this man, even weathered coveralls look good. Add mating instinct into the mix and you’ve found an ideal candidate for a husband. With him, you will be guaranteed a life of security.
On a plane, those seeking a feeling of safety can turn to the cabin crew, as well as the pilot. Cabin crew members are very knowledgeable and know how to relate to the fear of flying. But the best person to turn to for safety may be your spouse or friend sitting next to you. One doesn’t need to know anything about flying if he/she knows how to emnolden others and to give them a sense of security.
Are brakemen, police officers and firefighters brave? Am I brave myself? Brave is usually a word we use to describe another person. He or she does something that I feel is brave. They most likely do not think of themselves as brave when doing their work. I think they are probably thinking that they are just doing their job.
So why do I go on roller-coasters? I think it would be foolhardy to go to an amusement park in the capital of a country where corruption puts ticket revenues right into the owners’ pockets, leaving the equipment rusty, the place dirty and some of the roller-coaster cars without wheels. But I do dare to go on the roller-coaster at Linnanmäki in Helsinki, even if it scares me a little. I’m not afraid to join the queue to be frightened, because I believe that the amusement park rides have been safely designed and inspected. And, after all, there’s still the brakeman! Subconsciously, I understand that it is safe. The attraction of contraptions like roller-coasters is, however, based on the idea that customers feel they are conquering their fear. I risk going on a ride in which the car creakingly climbs up to dizzying heights and dives down from there at a furious pace towards the ground, only to veer off after the next bend into a frighteningly dark tunnel. After the ride, I step out of the car with my legs shaking slightly from the adrenaline rush. I conquered my fear. I was brave.
After having gone on the ride another twenty-two times that evening, there is no longer that rush of adrenaline. Boring! The brakeman is probably bored too. Should I try going on the adults’ ride next? I realise then that the fear was relative, and my bravery questionable. I have gotten rid of my original fear.
When boarding a flight, you do not need to gather extra courage either. You have made the decision to leave and you recognise that air travel is one of the safest things you can do. In order to be brave, all you have to do is…
Let go of your fear and maybe put your hands up in the air as a sign to others – “I’m not afraid!”.
And enjoy it this time, the next time it might already be boring.
"I have worked in Finnair as a commercial pilot since 1987. I want to give a few words of comfort to anyone who has a fear of flying: aircrafts are really one of the safest places on earth. The most dangerous part of your flight is the journey to the airport. Sometimes customers are irritated when a flight is delayed for a technical fault. It only means that every last, sometimes surprising detail, is checked in order to ensure a safe flight. For me, the sky is the place to be. I hope you will feel the same way and enjoy your flight with us!"