How to overcome fear of flying

January 5, 2015

Don’t let it cripple you!

Airplane disasters tend to bring out every fear and anxiety we’ve ever had about flying.  We can’t escape the days of hyped up media coverage– so much overload that we can’t look away.  The scale is also significant: hundreds of deaths.  If we’ve ever flown, it’s only natural to put ourselves in the shoes of doomed passengers and feel our own terror.

“That could have been me, ” we think.

Those who are afraid to fly are reinforced in their belief that flying is dangerous.

“That’s why I don’t fly,” they say.

Oh, they might pretend it’s about flight delays, crowded airports, tiresome security techniques. But more likely than not, it’s about fear of flying.

th-3I’ve been traveling by air since I was 16 years old, millions of miles now. I’m a million-mile flyer on one airline alone.  And despite that, I had my own experience with fear of flying.

My mother was always a fearful flyer and there came a time when she refused to fly at all. When she died, she left her fear to me. It began just after she died, almost like a bequest.

Today, I know that what I was feeling was my own mortality–something that’s not uncommon when we face the death of someone close to us— but at the time, it felt like a crippling fear of flying.

Would I never again visit far-off lands? Take business trips?  Would I use all my vacation time driving to visit friends across country?  None of those options–natural outcomes of a refusal to fly–appealed to me. I had to get rid of the fear, that was all there was to it.

So I took a fear of flying course online, one based on providing facts, a rational approach to handling fear, as well as techniques for handling my anxiety and shortly, I could fly comfortably again.*

Fotolia_32437147_SBut it made me think: What’s at the root of fear of flying?

Control.  It’s about control.

Because we are not in control of the plane, we can’t be “sure” of its safety.

When we drive, we ARE in control, or so we think.

But is that really true?

It’s not. We aren’t in control of all the factors affecting our safety when we drive. The reality is that we are only in control of our own vehicle, and sometimes not even that. Another driver could easily kill us–someone drunk, tired, careless, ill–we have absolutely no control over that. One mistake made by someone else could take our life–and without even thinking about it, we take that risk every time we get in the car, multiple times a day.

Have you ever heard of “fear of driving?”   Probably not. I’m sure it exists, but it’s pretty rare.

So when we hear about airplane crashes and think “That could’ve been me,” I have to ask?

Could it, really?  Because here are the facts:


Source: The week, 2013

So here’s what worked for me:

  • The facts. I’m a rational person, so the facts speak to me. When I think of the number of flights that take off and land every single day all over the world without a single crash, it’s clear to me that air travel is as safe as any travel can be. The numbers in the graphic above illustrate that clearly. They also show how we are fooling ourselves when we think that automobile travel is safer. It isn’t.
  • Learning how airplanes work. The most impactful thing I learned in SOAR, the course I took, was that airplanes are built to handle turbulence. Air becomes very thick at high speeds–and we were told to imagine a small airplane sitting in a dish of Jello. Imagine skewers pushing the plane forward.  Tilt the plane’s nose up and the plane will go up.  Tilt it down and the plane will move downwards.  To approximate turbulence, imagine tapping on top of the Jello.  You’ll see the plane bounce up and down, but barely, and it can not fall.  While we might be fearful, the plane is handling bumps just fine.In my first flights after the course, I forced myself to consciously think about that and even say it to myself.  This analogy, plus having a better understanding of how airplanes work, helped alleviate some of my fear.
  • Techniques to relieve anxiety.  The course I took provided some effective techniques that worked really well. As time went on, I learned that simply burying my head in a book or watching a movie– ignoring turbulence–made my anxiety fade.
  • Reasonable expectations.Now, I’m not going to say I don’t ever get scared. When the pilot of our jumbo jet from Munich aborted our landing in San Francisco last month at the very last minute and I felt that jumbo jet power up and pull up, fast and unexpectedly, I did get more than a frisson of anxiety. I got even more uneasy when the Lufthansa pilot failed to say anything about the 20 minutes we spent going around and around the Bay area. My imaginings were probably way worse than what was really going on.  Nonetheless, I took deep breaths and used other techniques to relieve my anxiety.

Will that experience keep me from flying? Hell, no!  In hundreds of flights over more than 45 years that’s happened to me twice. And what really happened? A safe landing.

So, I’ll continue to fly.  How else would I see the big, beautiful world that has so much to offer?

*CLICK HERE FOR information about the comprehensive fear of flying course I took all those years ago. It’s still relevant and there are free online videos to help. If you buy the full program it’s got a guarantee. There’s also individual one-on-one counseling available. All I can say is that it worked for me.

And if you’ve got some tips to combat fear of flying, I hope you’ll share them in the Comments section below. Thank you.

53 comments on “How to overcome fear of flying
  1. Here’s a fact – pilots like some turbulence as well-why? People will refuse meals because of nausea or anxiety and they get more to eat lol! (My husband is an airline captain)

  2. Laura Kennedy says:

    Some folks are physiologically predisposed to anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, etc. It sometimes runs in families. Those who aren’t predisposed usually don’t understand this too well. Often, what works for the non-pre’s doesn’t work for the predisposed.

    I used to love to fly, until one terrifying experience. After that, I was not only afraid to fly, I developed other strange transportation fears…panicked driving through the Caldecott tunnel, in BART tunnels, other random times while driving or riding (and yes, there IS a fear of driving…I know of several cases). I learned to overcome the other transportation fears, but fear of flying stuck, and nothing helped. So I quit flying until one time when I had no choice…and that’s when I discovered Valium, and later Ativan. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the oooooooonly way to fly!

  3. I love to travel but once on a business trip I had a panic attack. I was sitting on a window seat over the wing and I looked out and the wing was bouncing up and down. I’d never experienced a panic attack but I wanted to scream but no sound would come out. I closed my eyes and the terrifying feeling went away. For several years, I still flew but never sat at a window seat.

    That’s all history now and I can sit anywhere on a plane and not feel panic. But, for a few moments, all I wanted was for the plane to land. (Just writing this brings up the strange feelings.)

  4. My husband’s fear of flying is what has kept us grounded for all these years. He is working on it (or he is going to be left at home)! I haven’t been able to drive since I had my car accident. There are physical reasons but more importantly are the immediate panic attacks that start the minute I sit behind the wheel of a car. Even riding in a car in the dark will cause them. It has really been a hindrance in my life for quite awhile now.

    • Wow, fear of driving–thanks for sharing that. I am so sorry that happened to you but it may be possible to overcome it with desensitization therapy and would be worth it.

  5. chuck house says:

    Carol, NICE post today. Fear of flying is with most of us at some time or another. I’ve certainly felt it, sometimes to the point of getting sick in mid-air. And I am among the 96% who have been in crashes and survived them. I prefer to call them “incidents” — and at this point, I’ve had the good luck to survive something like seven incidents that were ‘big enough’ to get an FAA writeup.

    Going down the evacuation chute of a crashed 747 at JFK (well, actually into the muck of Jamaica Bay since that’s where we came to rest) is among my more memorable experiences.

    So, how have I dealt with it? I began by logging the ‘incidents’ and trying to learn ‘why’ they occurred. Engineers love to know such detail, talk about immersion in a ‘good book’ to take your mind elsewhere. Kinda like the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire miscues, or the Audi sudden acceleration issue. Once the ambiguity is reduced, fear lessens–at least for me.

    Thus, when Malaysia 370 went missing, I put together a seminar about the 80 lost planes since 1920, where they went and why, and how long it took to figure it out, plus the issues with the current equipments, both on the plane and the ground. Wonderfully diversionary, and pretty insightful. Groups–Kiwanis, Rotary, Chambers of Commerce–signed up, and I had numerous pilots join in and offer perspective. Knowledge is, as you say with your stat’s, helpful.

    The other thing I’ll offer is something pragmatic. Figure out if/when you die, who else needs to be living. Macabre, you might say. But…. Here’s three choices we have made along the way–first, when we had several young children, we wanted at least one of us as parents to survive, so anytime we flew without the kids, we took separate planes to our destination. Except once only, and ironically, that plane had an emergency ‘incident’ barreling off the end of an English airstrip. We looked at each other, and held hands, and yes, prayed that day.

    Second, if all the kids were going, we all went together. Recall the phrase, “the family that prays together stays together.” Our thought was ‘we’re all in this flight together’

    Third, for some small companies (and even large ones), figure out the ‘key people’ and put them on separate planes. Boeing famously ignored this, putting the top hundred+ executives of the company on the first international 747 flight to the Paris air show–to demonstrate the safety. But PG&E lost their entire management team to a domed PSA flight thirty years ago–bad idea.

    One final thought–never take an assignment to chair the Airline Pilot Association inquiries, as I did once after 9-11. I stopped the meeting at 4pm instead of the scheduled 5pm, saying I needed to go rent a car to get back to San Francisco from Washington DC after what I heard that day. It brought down the group in total laughter.

    • As usual, I am speechless over your many life experiences. Michael and I are sitting here saying, “only Chuck!” Thanks for that expansion of the discussion, which I found riveting. When did you say you were visiting down here again? Let’s talk about this over a beer!

      • chuck house says:

        “only Chuck” is sorta what my wife says too. I can’t figure out how to edit a post, but it wasn’t a “domed” PSA flight, but rather a “doomed” PSA flight. As for that beer, sounds like a great discussion mode….

  6. Becky Blades says:

    I love flying. And I feel so sorry for those with this anxiety. I’m passing this to my mom, whose fear seems to increase with each passing year. Thanks, Carol!

  7. Ugh – I hate flying! But I’m not going to let that stop me from taking a good vacation with my family.

  8. beth b says:

    I was recently introduced to your blog , but once again I’ve found another post that really ‘speaks’ to me!!

    Unfortunately, I am afraid to fly. It wasn’t always that way and I’m not sure when the enjoyment morphed into fear. I do know it’s a control thing.

    I’m also not a very good passenger in a car either. My husband is an excellent driver, but we don’t go many places unless I drive. My anxiety from being the passenger has caused us some ugly arguments!! Thank goodness he is patient. I’m going to look into the course you mentioned. I really miss traveling and not being able to see more of this world!


  9. I’m so happy I don’t have fear of flying. You’ll surely help a lot of people Carol!

  10. Ellen Dolgen says:

    Carol, this is really helpful! I have so many friends that are afraid to fly. I will definitely be sharing this. Thanks!

  11. One person recommends valium. Please do not take that recommendation seriously. First, anti-anxiety medications are supposed to be the answer of last resort, only after all other treatment options have been tried.

    Meds are not the answer. They addictive. Not only that, but over time, they make flying worse, until finally they do nothing.

    This is because they increase the person’s sensitivity to the motions and noises of flying. Finally, sensitivity increases to the point that meds are useless. Then what do you do? Seee the Stanford University School Of Medicine research on this is at

  12. Lana says:

    So true about the control issue. My husband’s father was a bush pilot in Alaska, and as a child he flew with his father all the time. He never had any fears then because he knew he could land the plane if anything happened. But put him on a big plane as a passenger and he hates it – even though the chances of a small plane crashing are so much bigger. May have to look into that online course for him!

  13. Roz Warren says:

    Good post. The fact that I can fly from Philadelphia to visit my son in California in a mere 6 hours seems like a miracle. I’ve never hated flying — but I do hate airport hassle.

    • I think it’s odd that we haven’t progressed further and the Concord never was cost effective. And might not have been safe, although I think its cancellation was more about $$.

  14. It’s great that you were able to overcome your own fear of flying to do those amazing trips you took us on recently. I bet this information will help a lot of people.

  15. My mother too was afraid of flying, but not so much me. i love the logical approach you took though. Very smart.

    • Different things work for different people. I know someone who is eminently logical & a scientist but still gives me the same tired safety issues, that we know aren’t rational.

  16. Well, I am one of those Fear Of Driving- or I was. I could fly all day but after 2 accidents in 6 months (years ago) I became paralyzed behind the wheel- especially on a highway, over a bridge, or at high speeds. I decided to take a ‘time-out’ for about a year and drove back roads. Then, a long lost girlfriend called and asked me to come see her. This would be a 5-hour trip on an interstate and I took my young daughter. The desire to see my friend, the responsibility of having my child with me, and knowing what I was about to attempt- put it away for good. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the older I get the more I am comfortable with my lack of control over anything. Great post Carol.

  17. Ines Roe says:

    I so appreciate your post about the fear of flying and that so much of it is a about feeling out of control. I do think it is important to recognize that there are so many elements about the fear of flying (or anything else) that it is not a unified concept. For some people it is the fear of having someone else in control (the pilot), for someone it is the mechanical element, for some it may be the fear of crashing (dying), for some it might be a social anxiety (having to sit so close to a stranger for a long time). When working on the fear of flying it is not a “one size fits all” and it is important to really understand what the fear of flying represents to the person. I am so glad that you haven’t allowed your fear to stop you from your adventures.

  18. Michelle says:

    I am a terrible flier. I do fly…I just hate it. I am also a control freak…so, maybe they’re related.

  19. Hi Michelle,

    As I see it, a really fortunate child, when upset or anxious, is tuned into by a caregiver, and reassured. The child “normalizes” being upset, anxious, and various levels of feeling aroused. That child develops automatic emotional regulation.Those of us who didn’t get enough of that have to regulate anxiety manually. We control feelings by controlling situations. And if we can’t control a situation, we may avoid it or make sure we can escape it. So flying is a problem. Can’t be sure of safety. Can’t control the situation. Can’t escape from it. So, what I do is train the person to automatically regulate the release of the stress hormones that cause the feelings. So, yes, there definitely is a connection.

  20. Kathy says:

    I raise my hand as I am one that has a fear of flying. Doesn’t keep me from flying but certainly get THOSE anxieties. Funny story is I had plane mechanics on one flight and the nice man sitting next to me explained every noise I heard. When I flew back I had a matronly lady hold my hand so I would be comfortable on landing (one of my worst times). I download my favorite podcasts and books for comfort and it does help. Thanks for the SOAR endorsement as I have looked at this and thought it may be something worth exploring. Have no reason for qualms re: flying but maybe the lack of control may be a key

  21. I wasn’t aware there was an online class for this. I know a few people I should recommend it to! Great post!

  22. Janie Emaus says:

    I’m not of afraid of flying but the more I hear about plane crashes, it is raising some doubts in me. And I can so relate to fear of driving!

  23. I have been known to always say a little prayer before the plane takes off and on landing. It’s somehow comforting. Also – million miles! I hope you go exciting places and it’s not all for work.

    • It’s got to be at least 3 million on all airlines…it’s mostly fun travel, now, thankfully! If you want to know more see my home page under Trippin’ where it’s all chronicled.

  24. Lisa Smith says:

    Iv’e been tried many flying phobia practices and from my experience the best thing to do is to lean all about aviation by books, internet and courses.

  25. Jennifer says:

    I see to get a fear of flying when I’m planning a trip. But once I’m on the way to the airport, not so much.

  26. The problem with most methods that try to help with fear of flying is that they use the cortex – the conscious area of the brain, and when stressed, the cortex starts shutting down, and when there is enough stress, our high level thinking (Executive Function) shuts down completely.

    So methods that rely on the cortex and any form of thinking, don’t hold up under stress.

    The answer is to employ the subcortex, which is not vulnerable to stress. The SOAR program teaches every client to train “unconscious procedural memory” to automatically do what is necessary to control high anxiety, fear, claustrophobia, and panic so that the method will work even when stressed.

  27. Ivy Baker says:

    My grandmother is really scared of flying. She wants to go on vacation to England later this year. So, I like that you pointed out that teaching her how planes work could help her not be so scared.

  28. Linda Hobden says:

    Flying itself doesn’t get me into panic mode – I’m more likely to feel anxiety in the airport as I hate the queuing, crowds & waiting about in general! I find listening to my music or a podcast through earphones whilst taking off/landing and during the flight relaxes me no end..unusual for me but I cannot relax by reading or watching a film!

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "How to overcome fear of flying"
  1. […] By the way, if, like so many people, you are now quite worried about flying, Capt. Tom Bunn has some tips for you in a piece for this week’s TIME. Capt. Tom is both a retired airline captain and a therapist; he founded SOAR, the fear of flying course that worked so well for me 15 years ago when the fear hit me out of nowhere. It’s worth a read. The course is excellent. I blogged about it and my experiences, HERE. […]

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