A Fear of Flying

This morning, I’m making my way to Gatwick, an airport I’ve frequented many times. I’m off to catch a flight to Morocco, on what will be my twentieth airborne journey this year alone.

But I’ve got a confession to make.

Every time I board a plane, I make my peace with dying.

Diani beach Kenya plane sea sunset

Like most people who are a bit obsessed with travelling, I’ve been flying for a long time.

My first ever flight? I went to France with my family at five years old, where we rented a little house by the sea and my grandma taught me how to eat artichokes. And my most recent flight was coming back from Iceland last week, where I sat next to a friend who closed her eyes on take off, gulped hard and grabbed involuntarily for my hand when the plane turned sharply in mid-air.

Being a frequent flier

From domestic three hour direct journeys to international ten hour layovers, I’ve wandered through hundreds of departure lounges, eaten many ‘appetizing’ trays of foil-covered food, and chirped out, “have a nice day!” to smiling air hostesses of countless different nationalities, while simultaneously trying to hide my aircon-flattened hair from their impeccable hairstyles.

I’m used to other people not enjoying flights. I’m also used to being the one who sits calmly and casually, flicking idly through the in-flight magazine while the safety demo fills the aisles.

But a few years ago, I thought about being in the air a bit too much, and somehow made myself afraid of doing it – and now this fear of flying is quite an unexpected development.

sunrise Easyjet plane flight clouds

The strangest thing about it is how internal the fear is. I don’t often voice how I feel, probably because I don’t want to think about it any more than I already do. Plus it might offset the well-travelled exterior I apparently emit to admit not liking planes.

Deep down, I know it’s one of the many repercussions I’ve had to deal with after losing my mum a few years ago. I used to love seeing the world from the air, but now there’s an involuntary gut clench when we’re over mountains or houses; surely that will be a worse crash landing than over water? I hate tempting fate, but I often can’t help it.

Despite all my over thinking, though, I’ve never actually had a bad flight. Some rough turbulence here and there, and one night flight across the States when I watched a lightning bolt go through the wing, but ultimately nothing to precipitate the fear.

And yet with every flight, I get a little bit closer to being one of those people who applaud when the wheels hit the tarmac.

Keeping the fear inside

I know many fliers have the same problem: I’ve been seated next to more than enough. The Italian suit en route to Milan, whose clammy fingers sweated tightly and silently into the arm rest; the Indian who unrolled a small bag of dirt from his pocket and kissed it in a clenched fist as we took off.

I wear a St Christopher’s pendant that my mum gave me before I went to Kenya in 2007 – I’ve worn it ever since, even though I’m about as unreligious as they come. And when I was in India,  I took part in a kundalini workshop which introduced me to the flower of life technique. Every flight from then on, I’ve silently imagined numerous flower of life manifestations surrounding the plane, holding it up.

We all have our own rituals for feeling safe.

Sears Willis Tower, Chicago glass box balcony

Nervous smile masking the fear at floor 103 of the Sears Tower, Chicago

Unsurprisingly enough, I’m not great with heights either. But for some reason, this is a fear I’ve taken in hand on more than one occasion – such as sitting in a clear perspex box about 1,400 metres above an American metropolis. Which I did not feel at all comfortable about, particularly when a friend thought it would be funny to push me.

And then there’s the slightly more daring attempt to face up to a fear. Which, for those with a height phobia, is skydiving.

Life at 15,000 feet

Less than three days after arriving in Kenya for a volunteering project, I went to the beach and somehow found myself flying through the clouds in a plane without a door. A short German man with half a finger on his right hand adjusted the straps that held us together, shuffled towards the edge of the plane, and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Time to go!”

And, without having a moment to address the churning whirlwind of terror in my stomach, I was falling downwards extremely quickly.  

Those thirty-odd seconds of free fall are intense, to say the least.

I spent the majority of them familiarising myself with the bizarre sensation that the air I was trying to breathe in was, in fact, solid. My ears were blocked, my lips were cold, and my heart was thumping like crazy. Then, as my German friend pulled on the first chute and we jerked upwards, I forced my eyes to look around, and realised what on earth I’d just done.

Standing in the sky

We were suspended above the most beautiful sight I think I’ve ever seen.

To the right was the sun, the clouds surrounding it, and below us stretched as much of the Kenyan landscape as my eyes could take in. The beach and the shore, the reef, a few boats dotted around in the blue, and the ocean. I felt like I was flying, floating, gliding above it all on a tiny buffet of air.

And there was no fear whatsoever.

Skydive coast Diani beach Mombasa Kenya

People often tell me I’m lucky, to travel so much by myself. And they’re right, a lot of the time, even if I wouldn’t call it ‘luck’ exactly. On the other hand, though, my worst days mean I’m boarding a plane that I’m afraid of flying inside, with no one to hold hands with if it crashes.

But here’s the funny bit. My fear of flying isn’t debilitating. It doesn’t stop me booking flights to the places I want to go. And though I know I’ll not exactly relish the time I spend in the air, I also know that the end result is more than worth it. 

Skydive tandem jump Mombasa Kenya

Do you have any  travelling fears? Have you managed to overcome them? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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26 Responses to A Fear of Flying

  1. Arielle November 13, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    I went through a similar change after losing a few family members within a very short span of time- all of a sudden I started having anxiety about things that I never gave much thought to- namely flying. I even got a small prescription for Valium “just in case” for my daunting 15 hour flight to Australia! Luckily I didn’t have to use it, but knowing its there helps me relax. I always remind myself that you are (I don’t know the exact statistic) ridiculously more likely to die in a car accident… and that helps actually lol in a weird way. Also, I live on a boat now so rough seas are the new enemy 😉 happy travels!

    • kylie November 18, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

      I know how you feel. But the idea of taking drugs like valium to knock you out seem a dangerous route to me.
      I know someone who’s got fantastic results actually helping people overcome their flying phobias. He gets super quick results and you don’t need any drugs.
      His name is Christopher Paul Jones and I found him at you tube where he cured a phobia in less than 7 minutes:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIT3OF3UTx0

      I hope he can help you. good luck.

    • Flora November 29, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      Thanks for this Arielle – it’s good to know I’m not the only one to develop sudden new anxieties. I think having a ‘just in case’ option is a really good idea :) Normally once I’ve been in the air a while it gets better, or if I lose myself in a book/movie I’m fine. Hope your sea legs are doing ok!

  2. Charley M November 13, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Great post Flora. I wrote about my travel fears last week, except mine are all those exciting sports/activities people do when they’re travelling – e.g. bungee jumping, zorbing etc..

    The one thing I wouldn’t be too scared to experience though is skydiving, and your post has definitely spurred me on to sign up should I get the opportunity next year. I don’t think you can beat those kinds of views!

    As for flights, well I didn’t get on a plane until I was 19 and my first flight was to New York! That long journey didn’t really give me the option to hate it, because I was so excited to be visiting NY. I do have my little rituals though – have to sit on the left-hand side of the plane, must have peppermint nearby in case I get a little panicky, take crisps and snacks on-board in case the food is bad. Like Arielle says, knowing you have your safety items helps you to relax!

    http://blondeinthecity.co.uk/2012/11/travel-fears-4-things/

    • Flora November 29, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

      Great to hear you’re giving skydiving a shot, Charley! I’ve actually done it twice, both in Kenya and England, and it’s honestly incredible – the view, the feeling, the adrenaline, everything. I hope to read about your experience of it soon.. :)

  3. F. Everett November 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Hi Flora- great blog. I also hate flying, which is why I launched a non-flying website. http://www.roadrailandsea.co.uk. We put together great routes and holidays all over Europe and make it simple to book, without having to fly!
    Hope it might be useful in future.

  4. Kirra November 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    I too have a fear of flying that I don’t like to talk too much about in case over thinking it makes it worse. It has developed over time – for me it is a combination of being in a confined space and giving up control to someone else. Of course I would never let on and ruin my well travelled exterior. I close my eyes, imagine I am somewhere else and to unsuspecting others – appear to be sleeping.

    Love your blog :)

    • Flora November 29, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

      Interesting, I’d never thought about it as a relinquishing of control before, but that could actually be part of my fear as well. But of course you’re not supposed to tell anyone that :) Glad you’re enjoying my writings!

  5. Jackie D November 18, 2012 at 2:05 am #

    I remember watching an episode of Ellen Degeneres’s show when I was younger and she was talking about how she’s scared of flying, and she said something like, “There just isn’t anything natural about being in a metal cylinder hurling hundreds of miles per hour through the air and 30,000 feet above the ground.” I always think about that to try to lighten the mood during take-offs and landings, which are usually the only two parts that make me nervous.

    • Flora November 29, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

      Ohh dear, that definitely doesn’t help! I think I prefer Arielle’s suggestion that you’re way more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash… Although to be honest I’d prefer to avoid the crash talk completely :)

  6. Teresa November 24, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

    Funny thing…..as an addicted world traveler, digital nomad, I actually feel safer in the airplane than I do on the drive to the airport. Go figure! I reckon having had several firsthand experiences with major car accidents in my family, I know that the odds are truly more in my favor that I will safely land on an air strip than being able to successfully outwit my fellow auto drivers. I have actually taken off from the shortest landing strip in the world, the isle of Saba. It was pretty amazing.

    • Flora December 27, 2012 at 1:05 am #

      Wow, the Saba take off sounds pretty intense! I can imagine if you’ve had more than your fair share of dangerous car experiences you’re likely to find that kind of vehicle a bit more scary :)

      • Teresa December 27, 2012 at 1:16 am #

        Yes, cars worry me more than airplanes. However, I have to add that I find flying to be tedious and really don’t relish the actual journey to my final destination. It doesn’t keep me from traveling though. The getting there always makes the boredom of flying worthwhile.

  7. Anni December 3, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Hey Flora, I loved your post! I feel EXACTLY the same way and it’s great knowing I’m not the only one with the crazy thoughts. I fly frequently as well and seem to spend way too big a portion of my time at airports and on planes, something which I probably wouldn’t even be so bothered about if I wasn’t always travelling by myself.

    I think that when you travel alone you often have too much time to ponder the world around you and the fact that you’re sitting very, very far from the ground. I for one will never be able to comprehend how planes, especially the biggest ones, stay airborne no matter how many times someone explains it to me. Long, transcontinental flights also seem to scare me more than short hops within Europe; I convince myself nothing could ever happen on such a short flight, haha. It’s all in the head!

    Anyway, I’m glad your fear isn’t keeping you grounded because it’s not holding me back either – stay safe and keep soaring above those clouds :)

    • Flora December 27, 2012 at 1:10 am #

      Thanks Anni! You’re definitely not the only one – and I think you’re right; when I fly solo (which is most of the time) I tend to overthink my situation a good deal more than if I had someone to chat out loud to!

      Congrats on still travelling as much as you do, though. It’s great to be able to acknowledge your fears and still act positively, in spite of them :)

  8. Lucie December 28, 2012 at 5:43 am #

    That is exactly how I became afraid of flying: one day I thought about it too hard. It started to seem unnatural for all that weight to lift off the ground. From then on I have had to will myself to sleep through every flight. Unfortunately my popping ears and burning throat always wakes me right before the scariest part: dissent. Now, the more I fly the scarier it is. I still love to travel though; especially on international flights. Thanks for letting me know I’m not crazy 😀

    • Flora December 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

      You’re definitely not crazy Lucie! I think an overactive imagination isn’t the most helpful thing in situations like these though :)

  9. Ceri February 18, 2013 at 11:43 pm #

    Wow, hun. Skydiving! That’s pretty incredible. I’ve always wanted to bungee jump actually. :) But anything with some kind of parachute sort of freaks me out. That’s my fear – Not knowing if the parachute will open.

    I always thought I was okay with flying until last December. Me and my friend were taking a quick flight from D.F. to Puerto Vallarta (literally AN HOUR flight) and I’m usually really eager to have a window seat – I LOVE being able to lean against the window and fall asleep. And I suddenly realised, as we were taking off, that I was actually terrified!

    Every other flight I’ve ever taken has always been in the dark – Either really early morning or in the middle of the night – and suddenly being able to watch the plane leave the ground was one of the most shit-scary things I’ve ever experienced. As soon as we were up in the air I was fine but that taking off was horrible. I hated it. I guess that’s my flying fear.

    • Flora December 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      Taking off usually freaks me out too – that’s when I still feel like a crash or a breakdown is a lot more likely. Once I can plug into a movie I start to forget about things though!

  10. Coleen March 27, 2013 at 1:22 am #

    I have a fear of flying also! But it seems like my fear is worse around period time. I get cramps and I get fear in general. The strange thing is when the period is gone and I start taking b complex vitamins I start feeling better and then my fear lessens greatly.
    In the future I will have to go on alot of plane trips. This is something that I must do because of an event that will happen. I am going to church to pray to God for the strength to overcome this fear. I know there are times I can do it but you know it still is hard.

  11. christy February 12, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

    This is me exactly. Except I would never never never be brave enough to skydive :)

    • Flora February 22, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

      Weirdly enough when I didn’t think about it too much it was averagely easy to do. Although I was still petrified when I actually had to jump out of the door…

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