Fearful Flyers: What Not To Worry About.


Didn’t help much when you were a kid, at night, scared, and your mom said, “There’s no monster–go to sleep,” did it? Because fear doesn’t respond well to “shut up.”

So rather than dismissing the fears of white-knuckle flyers by saying, “There’s nothing to worry about,” I’ve taken to asking those fearful passengers, “What is it that worries you about flying?” That way we can actually examine their area of concern and shed a little light in their darkness, maybe helping them relax. It’ll be a long night otherwise, plus a lot of wasted fear that could have been vanquished with the flip of a light switch.

Here’s some of what I’ve been told by fearful flyers, plus what I’ve been able to pass along to them to help worry less, or even not at all. If you know someone who is afraid to fly, share this with them–it might help. If you have concerns about flying, share them with me. I want to be able to help you and the countless others who’d like to fly–or have partners or family who wish they’d fly–to understand what not to worry about when it comes to flying.

Welcome aboard!

From what I’ve gathered from nervous folks before or after a flight, several key worries seem to recur among the group. Most of these concerns center around a particular phase of flight (for example, take-off) or a flight sensation (say, turbulence, or a rapid descent) but the common denominator in them all is this: the unknown. Like the darkness in that scared kid’s bedroom. So let me shed some light on these areas to fill in the blanks for you, to unveil the unknown so you can relax. Because what you don’t know can help you.

First, of course, is The Take-Off. Seems like you just rocket down the runway in a thunderous roar, tilt back and climb off the runway, right?

If you only knew.

First, you should know that every parameter involved in the take-off, from aircraft weight to fuel weight to wind factors to runway slope to outside air temperature to aircraft center of gravity are all computed to the nearest hundredth–and then recomputed one more time before we reach the end of the runway.

That’s important for me–and for you–because we need to have the correct speed and thrust setting for the exact conditions. And think for a minute about both thrust settings and speeds.

Here’s the big boy engine–one of two, of course–on my jet, the 737-800. It can put out up to 27,000 pounds of thrust, but we seldom use more than 22,000 pounds per take-off.

So what? The “so what” is that means we have five tons of thrust to spare if we need it. We are actually over-powered if we need the extra kick. And consider this when you think of that: the design of the jet is that if we achieve a certain minimum speed (yes, that’s calculated and recalculated before flight) I can continue the take-off on just one big boy engine–easily. Or, if I’m below the maximum stopping speed (ditto the “recalculated” comment above) I can safely abort on the runway.

And in case you’re reading for detail, yes, the maximum stopping speed will ALWAYS be above the minimum single-engine take-off speed, so ultimately, the deck is stacked in our favor: we can take-off or stop under all conditions. Feeling more secure on take-off yet? Well wait–we’re not done rigging things our way.

There’s a safety margin built into the safety margin: we know what the stopping capability of the jet is–but we’ll knock 20% off of the performance, adding an additional safety margin to our stopping capability. In other words, if we know it takes 4,000 feet to stop at our precisely recalculated weight–we’ll require 5,000 feet of runway to do it.

But wait–we’re still not done stacking the deck in our favor.

Although we have thrust reversers that will throw out a 22 ton anchor to stop us–we won’t even count their effect and will calculate the stopping distance without them.

So let’s recap: on take-off, we have tons of extra thrust available if we need it. The aircraft is designed to fly–and fly well–on just one engine, once we reach the minimum take-off speed. And that speed is always below the maximum stopping speed based on factors biased toward a safe stop as I explained.

So we can stop or go, safely, no matter what. That’s all part of the design of your jet.

Everyone say "thanks" to the geek who designed our jet.

Those design limitsย  affect another in-flight boogie-man, turbulence. The engineers designed a load factor limit way above anything a rational person would ever expect.

That is, they took a G-limit that would probably give a horse an aneurysm, then again, added 50% to it. That’s the limit for operating the aircraft in turbulence. Wait for it . . .

. . . then they added another 20% to that for good measure. Your jet is designed to endure a shaking like Charro on crack and still go about its business. Although I’ve never asked a nervous flyer because I’m trying to calm them, not piss them off, if you are a white knuckle flyer, do you worry about your car falling apart whenever you cross railroad tracks? Probably not–even though your car is NOT designed with the stress tolerances of our jet. Just something to think about.

Now, let’s turn to the third big bagaboo: landing. There’s probably a lot about landing that you don’t know that would most likely make you feel more confident if you did.

First, once again, safety margins: the landing stopping distances are biased in our favor with 20% additional distance tacked on, plus our thrust reversers and their enormous power not even counted. Put that in your hip pocket and now let’s talk about weather.

It looks like pea soup from the cabin windows, doesn’t it? But not from where I sit.

It’s like x-ray vision: see the runway outline? It’s exactly overlaying the real runway, computed by a half dozen computers reading a handful of GPS systems reading a couple dozen satellites and figuring our position accurately to within a matter of feet. So, whether there’s pea soup from our cruise altitude to the ground, no matter: I can see accurately and we will land safely.

Or, if I’m not satisfied that the byzantine range of safe landing requirements are met, we have the fuel to go elsewhere. And the entire enroute portion of our flight, I’m constantly checking the destination weather, as well as the weather at potential divert options.

That’s one of the many things I’m doing on the flight deck so you can relax in back and enjoy the inflight entertainment (they were showing “The Office” last week). I have an eye on our “special clock”–fuel flow–which is our most meaningful measurement of how long we can fly. If things turn bad weatherwise at our destination, no problem: we’ll land at a safe and suitable alternate with lots of extra gas for unforeseen contingencies. That’s kind of the way I’m designed, after 25 years in this airline’s cockpits. And they back me 110% on that.

So let’s review the landing edge we’ve claimed for ourselves: we will have fuel to fly to our destination, shoot an approach and if it’s not satisfactory for any one of a hundred good reasons I can and do think of–we’re out of town, safely to an alternate with better conditions. Our stopping distance is biased in our favor. And I have been graciously granted x-ray vision by my airline (you should know that my airline, American Airlines, and Alaska are the only two using this “Heads Up Display” system) for all critical phases of flight.

Finally, there’s the big catch-all nervous flyer concern, and that is, not being in control. Right?

Wrong. You are in control just by choosing your flight. If it is on a major carrier–not a “regional” or “commuter” air carrier, you get me. Not just “me” as in me, but all of us and I’m typical of the major airline pilot: seven years as an Air Force pilot flying worldwide, twenty-five plus years in our cockpits, captain since 1991, and many, many thousands of pilot-in-command hours with the commensurate number of take-off and landings to match. Like all of our cockpit crews, “this ain’t my first rodeo.” You’ve chosen your crew well–by choosing a major U.S. airline.

You also chose well in your aircraft options by choosing a major airline with a huge maintenance and engineering department keeping the state-of-the-art jets healthy. And the airline has thousands of highly experienced and rigorously qualified pilots operating their fleet safely. Add to that your new-found insight into take-offs, turbulence and landing and you are in control as soon as you wisely book your flight.

That’s all it takes, and everything in regard to your flight safety is biased in your favor. Does that help shed a little more light on your darkest thoughts about flying?

If you are a fearful flyer, or if you know one, share this blog. Hopefully it makes one major point that helps folks relax in the air: there’s a lot of stuff to not worry about. If only your mom had explained when she told you that so many years ago.

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23 Responses to “Fearful Flyers: What Not To Worry About.”

  1. Great post as always. BTW, I spent nearly four very enjoyable years stationed at Kadena during the 80s, and even get over to Hickam on occasion. Interesting to know you were stationed at those locations during your years in the Air Force. I enjoy reading your blog!

  2. Enjoyed reading this post. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thank you for your informative and entertaining blog. All the best in the New Year to you and your family.

    Happy New Year!

    Giulia

    • The best to you as well, Giulia, and I hope your air travel was smooth and fun!

      • (giggle)

        …we won’t be making anyone’s blog post, if THAT is what you mean. ๐Ÿ™‚

        The flight went very well…even with two young children (4 and 3). They LOVE being in planes! AND we kept them very busy.

        Our vacation was wonderful (CUN)! Now it’s back to reality (YOW)…but I have been rejuvenated.

        Can’t wait to read more!

        Giulia

      • Just glad to hear the weather and all mechanical factors worked in your favor. That’s not always the case–and you’re brave to face the challenge with two little ones.

        Hmmmmm, Cancun with or without kids . . . tough choice.

  3. Here’s what I have discovered that people are afraid of.
    People really think that you takeoff and decend through clouds, or at night in pitch blackness, and just HOPE you dont hit a a mountain. When I explain STARS/SIDS to them they are AMAZED!!! They cant believe such things exist. Most have heard of ILS but they dont know about STAR/SIDS. They also dont understand the MEA’s involved on the
    V highways or J routes over the higher elevations. Once again they think u cruise along and hope for the best.

    • Well I can see why there’s still concern regardless of SIDS and STARS: many fatal crashes involve misread or mis-flown SIDS and STARS (case in point: 757 on STAR in Cali). But what they should know is that nowadays, my airline’s entire fleet has EGPWS (Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System). It’s based on GPS and knows where it is, and where any obstacles–terrain or man made–are located. The system displays the terrain, the safe areas and alerts automatically with a countdown to the conflict, providing plenty of time for corrective action.

  4. Fantastic post !!
    I am a fearful flyer but for some reason I still travel twice a year. (with major airlines of course)

    Each and every time I walk through the tunnel that leads you to the entry of the plane, my heart is racing and pounding fast.Sometimes I want to turn around and run back. But by the time I get to the entry way, the pilot and his crew they all have that Colgate smile and it eases my heart a little bit.

    This is a fantastic blog. Thanks
    keep up the good work.

  5. This is wonderful! Thanks for posting. I am going to share with my MANY fearful flyers!

  6. Great post, though I have to admit I’ve never been a scared flier. I’ve always figured, as you said, that there’s professionals flying it. Plus, they’re stuck in the same plane as me!

  7. elenafultz Says:

    Wow! I was never a fearful flyer as a child, but I think small bits of terror have rubbed off on me from other people. This makes the whole process sound controlled and manageable, instead of the picture I get from movies (a highly reliable source of information, I’m sure). Thanks!

  8. If I could give you more stars I would. This truly allays a lot of my fears…I am one of the white knuckle flyers.

  9. […] Didn't help much when you were a kid, at night, scared, and your mom said, "There's no monster–go to sleep," did it? Because fear doesn't respond well to "shut up." So rather than dismissing the fears of white-knuckle flyers by saying, "There's nothing to worry about," I've taken to asking those fearful passengers, "What is it that worries you about flying?" That way we can actually examine their area of concern and shed a little light in their … Read More […]

  10. reblogged your post because this is too excellent not to share….I think loads of people will benefit from your insights ๐Ÿ™‚ thank you!!

  11. I wish I had read this years ago. I have avoided travel due to my fear of flying. This christmas I flew to avoid a very lonely cold Christmas all alone. I actually did very well. The take-offs were so frightening that I can’t even talk about it yet. Actually I don’t really remember so maybe I developed another personality to deal with that. We had turbulance but the biggest problem was that our seatbelt signs were on and my four year old nephew had to go to the bathroom. We were granted a five minute bathroom break before we began our descent. As my nephew was sitting on the toilet he asked me were the poops go. I told him they go into a tank. I don’t think he believed me because I flushed while he was still on and he grabbed my arm and screamed. Descending was great because obviously the closer I am to the ground when we plunge nose first directly down, the better my survival rate.

    A week before the flight my brother (who has taken this trip many times} told me we would be able to see the Grand Canyon out the left of the plane. I asked what would happen if all the people on the right ran to the left to see. He told me the plane would barrel roll into the canyon. Thank God it was dark and no one knew.

    Seriously though, while we were flying I kept getting these weird sensations. It would feel like the engines were putting out less or we dropped a bit. I don’t know what that was and that was the scariest part. And my other big fear was that I would freak out up there and have a panic attack or something. I just kept my ear plugs in and watched Dinner For Schmucks.

    Thanks for the information.

  12. I found this fascinating! Thanks for your reassurance.

  13. […] favorite post so far is the one called Fearful Flyers: What Not to Worry About. JetHead goes into great detail about the safety engineering on big commercial jets ….and […]

  14. Allison Dickenson Says:

    I loved this post! I actually love all of your posts…you are a talented writer and have a great sense of humor. I am a fearful flyer, and I still end up on a plane quite a few times a year to visit family in Dallas, and almost always I travel with American Airlines since they have a direct flight from Knoxville. And even though I have the highest level of confidence in your aviational abilities, what scares me the most is the equipment. I know, I know, no worries…right? It’s safer than driving is it not? True story, but I still get scared. The whole time in flight I am worried that one of the wings is going to snap off. Seriously, this is what I worry about. And somehow I always get put next to the wing…always, never fails. I get to look out my little window and watch it bounce around out there, just waiting for it to pop off so we can crash and burn. Lol. I just can’t help it.

    The blog is great…keeps me laughing everyday!

    • Actually, over the wing is the smoothest seat in the house, since the plane pivots in both pitch and yaw just about at that spot. You’ll feel that a lot less near the wing root, and more so towards the tail.

      Take care and have a good flight!

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