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Confessions of a Nervous Flyer

I don’t like to admit when I’m scared of things – especially not things to do with travel. Self-confessed travellers are meant to be fearless, right? But visiting new countries, learning about other cultures and meeting new people exhilarates me, they don’t scare me. So what’s up?

The truth is, I’m a bit of a nervous flyer. I won’t go so far as to say I’m scared of it, because it completely depends on the day and the flight I’m on. I’m perfectly fine if it’s a smooth take off, smooth cruise, smooth landing, but anything else is enough to get my palms a little sweaty.

With at least 16 flights planned for this year, I decided it was finally time to get over it once and for all. In this post, I will list the reasons I’m nervous, the rough science behind what’s actually happening and then work out some techniques on how to cope. So think of this post as a bit of a self-help guide for me, but I hope it will help you too.


The reason: Turbulence will no doubt appear on every nervous flyer’s list. It’s an odd feeling being in an object 37,000 feet in the air and having it shake, isn’t it? I get a bit nervous the plane is falling out of the sky, but it’s virtually impossible for an aeroplane to be that badly affected by turbulence.

The rough science: Turbulence is no more than a few bumps in the air, just like driving on a bumpy road. Even when knocked off its course, the aeroplane will automatically return to its original position. Your pilots are trained to try and avoid these rough patches to make your flight as comfortable as possible. While it may feel like you’re freefalling, aeroplanes rarely rise or fall more than 10m during periods of turbulence (which is nothing compared to high high you already are).

Top tips:

  1. Leave a cup of water on your tray table and watch it to see how much it moves. You’ll be surprised at how little the turbulence does actually affect the water line.
  2. Keep the window blind up so you can see that the plane isn’t plummeting, but actually maintaining a very constant height in comparison to that beautiful cloud over there.
  3. The best advice I was ever given was to jiggle your body a little when you feel turbulence coming on. This helps to counteract the effects of the shakes, and also gives you something to focus on. Ever since I found this out, I’ve been much less afraid of turbulence.

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The reason: Genuinely the only reason I am scared of take-off is the Final Destination movie. I’m not sure which one it was, but there’s a scene where an aeroplane has just taken off but immediately explodes and plummets to the ground. And now I can’t get that image out of my head when I take off. Damn you, Hollywood!

The rough science: Your plane is very very very unlikely to spontaneously combust upon take off. Or at any other time for that matter! Aeroplanes will have been checked by airport staff directly before take-off, and are given the equivalent of an MOT before every single journey.

Top tips:

  1. Look out the window so that you can see the plane is climbing, not falling. Plus, in my experience, some countries look even more beautiful from the air than on the ground. You never know what you might miss if you have your eyes closed!
  2. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you while you’re still on the ground. That way, you can focus on the conversation rather than the take-off, and you may even make a new friend ☺

The news

The reason: There have been a few news stories recently about air disasters. Despite my understanding of creative writing, and the fact that fear sells, I have been known to play into the hands of journalists and believe everything they say.

The rough science: Note that in my intro I said there have been a few, not a lot. Because if you think about the 3,000,000 flights that happen everyday, and then think about the 1 you hear about per year, it really puts things in perspective. What are the chances your plane will be the one to go? Too small to even bear thinking about. So don’t.

Top tips:

  1. Make a point NOT to read the stories. All journalists are trying to do is sell newspapers, and they do that because of fear. Don’t give them the satisfaction!
  2. Think of the other things you do in your life, even though journalists tell you not to. Eat bacon? Well apparently that’s not allowed. Flying is no different.

Other people

The reason: Let’s face it. Other people are annoying. I once flew to NYC and could smell smoke every time the dude in front of me went to the toilet. It turned out he had been smoking in the toilets, despite all the warning signs, cabin crew pleas and smoke detectors that were a clear indication that he shouldn’t. He had put us all in danger, just for the fact that he couldn’t wait 8 hours for a cigarette. Other times, I’ve had drunk people disrupting flights, people screaming, people being sick…

The rough science: Unfortunately this is just one of those things. There’s no science behind why people are annoying. Actually – that’s a lie. Isn’t psychology all to do with that? Anyway… it’s too big a subject for me to go into. You’ll just need to put up with annoying people, I’m afraid!

Top tips:

  1. Get an aisle seat so that you can move around/away from the source of the annoyance.
  2. Sit with people you know so you can enjoy their company instead, or focus on a book or a film. 
  3. If there’s someone particularly annoying on your flight, there’s no harm telling the cabin crew about it. They’re there for your safety AND comfort, so you never know what kind of strings they might pull to keep you happy… 🙂 


The reason: Dare I say it… terrorists are a bit scary. But that’s what security is there for!

The rough science: Flying is THE safest form of transport, if you don’t count spinning around in your office chair. But, even that could cause serious injury if you go too fast or bump into someone mid-spin. Just think about the screening you went through on your last flight – the same screening happens to everyone, and it is incredibly thorough.

Top tips:

  1. Feel free to chat to the security staff at the airport about the checks they do. It might put your mind at ease to know how thorough they’re being.
  2. Remember how unlikely it is that anything will happen.

Plane defects/technical faults

The reason: landing gear packing in, engines failing, etc.

The rough science: Remember what I said above about take-off? The same is true for plane defects… your plane will have been given the equivalent of an MOT before every journey, and any tiny little defect will be picked up by experts that know exactly what to look for. Also, your pilots are trained to pick up on anything unusual. They want to get home safely just as much as you do, and emergency landings are a huge part of their training.

Top tips:

  1. There’s an incredible story about how a pilot made a miracle landing in the Hudson River in New York, following a bird strike. Every single one of the passengers and crew survived. If that doesn’t give you faith in your pilots, nothing will!

Random noises

The reason: Planes make an awful lot of noise – there’s that beeping in the cabin, like, the whole time, the huge roar of the engine before take-off, and then a great bit clunky sound when you’re coming in to land. They can only mean one thing – impending death, right?!

The rough science: Absolutely wrong. Those noises are all completely normal, and haven’t you noticed them on every single one of the flights you’ve ever been on? The beeps are generally a signal to the cabin crew that they should be sitting down, or that someone in the cabin wants their attention. The engine noise is just because you’ve got such big engines stuck to the side of your bus to get you to your destination. And the clunky sound is the landing gear coming out from underneath the plane, getting ready to land. Simples.

Top tips:

  1. If there’s a new sound you’re not familiar with, ask your cabin crew. They will be more than happy to tell you what it means and put your mind at rest.
  2. Get some noise cancelling headphones – they really do the world of good and block out the worst of the noise.


The reason: Landing is actually my favourite part of flying, but I can completely understand why people get nervous of it. After all, you could miss the runway, the pilot could forget to brake, a violent gust of wind could take you off course.

Rough science: In reality, none of those things is going to happen. As I said above, your pilots are trained to deal with all of these things, and there’s always two for extra assurance.

Top tips:

  1. Keep an eye out the window as it helps to know when you’re about to land, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. 
  2. Alternatively, focus on a book or your iPod instead, and you’ll have landed before you know it 🙂 
  3. Remember that landing means you’ve reached your destination and that awesome holiday you’ve been waiting for for ages! Alternatively… it means you’re home safe and sound and you can brag to all your friends about how awesome your trip was and how you totally weren’t scared of the flight ☺


That about sums up flying for me – a means to an end that can actually be genuinely enjoyable if you think about why you’re doing it. There’s really very little to be scared of, and it can all be put into perspective when you think of the crew that do it day in day out. 

What makes you nervous about flying? Do you have any ‘coping’ techniques or top tips to share?

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  • Reply
    Capt Tom Bunn LCSW
    25th May 2016 at 9:46 pm

    Very good tips for mild flight anxiety.

    For a person with high anxiety, panic, or claustrophobia and for a persons troubled by turbulence, relief can be had by automatically controlling the release of stress hormones. How this is done is detailed in “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying” chosen Amazon editors’ 2014 favorite book.

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