How to deal with a fear of flying
The past few months have been uncommonly bad for aircraft disasters. In the short period from March 8 when MH370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean, to July 24 when Air Algerie Flight 5017 crashed over Mali, 701 lives were lost.
The four fatal aviation accidents in this period seemed particularly dramatic given that 2013 was the safest year in aviation history and we are in the safest period of aviation ever, where the numbers of yearly deaths have been dropping for decades.
You have to go back to 1972 for the worst year in aviation, with 2374 fatalities.
If you factor in the number of departures of aircraft each year, the chance of an accident is estimated to be 0.24 out of 1 million departures. When something untoward happens, such as a missile reaching a flight at 33,000 feet, changes are made to ensure it doesn't happen again.
On a recent trip to Europe, my plane flew so low over Iraq I could have done a weapon inspection.
Now, Qantas has announced it will no longer take that flight path.
Every unforeseen event creates greater efforts to ensure the same thing doesn't recur.
However, this is cold comfort to people with a fear of flying, or even those who are slightly nervous of flying. Since the second Malaysia Airlines disaster, I've observed through social media an increased apprehension about taking a flight, mostly from people who can normally suppress these fears.
While full-on fear of flying can be crippling, a relatively benign case of nerves while in the air can make a relatively smooth and safe flight uncomfortable if you're one of the white knuckle brigade.
Being a long-term nervous flyer, I get it. The statistical unlikelihood of a respected airline crashing twice means, perversely, we're usually fine to get on a flight if the airline has recently had an accident, especially if that airline isn't at fault. And many fearful travellers believe in the "rule of three": three international accidents in a row will not be followed by a fourth.
The four recent crashes have shown just how bogus this superstition is, or any other for this matter. But it is still doing our heads in.
I've taught myself to be less fearful of flying. On a recent violent descent into Rome through a thunderhead, with the plane dropping, lurching and twisting for a horrible 15 minutes, I gripped the seat, white-knuckled, but I was able to calm my racing heart and get through it. We landed safely, as we have on every other occasion like this. But I have to say, I still dread these rare occasions.
My personal way through it happened by chance. I once had an epiphany in a car that was bumping along a potholed road.
It occurred to me that if I were in a plane, I'd find these bumps terrifying. I now think of the sky as a series of air roads with potholes and I'm not frightened when we hit wind chop or bumpy air streams. But I still don't love the roller-coaster flights.
I've discovered the less rattled I am before I get on a flight, the better I endure it.
That begins with the choice of airline and the choice of plane. If the airline has a good safety record, I'm more reassured.
If it's an airline that has a slightly dubious record, then my anxiety does ratchet up a bit.
Sometimes in my job, flights on these airlines are unavoidable.
The larger the plane, the happier I am, as they can more smoothly ride out some of the bumps.
If you offer me a lift on your Learjet, I will probably say no.
I arrive at the airport early and check in early, to relieve some of the tension about missing flights or luggage issues. Wherever possible, I choose a seat over the wing, as it's more stable. I may have one glass of alcohol, but never more, as alcohol will affect the functioning of my rational brain, which will need to function lucidly if we hit turbulence or disruptions.
Once I'm strapped and locked in and the plane begins its thrust, there's nothing I can do.
The toughest thing for me has been to accept that. In this situation, I remind myself that the prospect of not going anywhere is more awful than a potential few moments of mile-high disquiet.
And I'm OK, really I am.
- Sydney Morning Herald