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Flying Doesn’t Scare Me,
But Crashing Sure Does!

By Captain Ron Nielsen

After the first commercial airline crash in five years recently took place in Lexington, Kentucky, fearful flyers are much more likely to dwell on that crash. They’re likely to be focused on the fact that the pilot took the wrong runway and crashed the plane. Recent statistics about flying safety will not convince them that flying is the safest way to travel on the planet. The odds of being killed in a U.S. plane crash from 2000-2005 were 1 in 22.8 million, a 60 percent improvement from the ten-year period of 1990-1999. It’s getting safer and safer to fly!  If you’re a fearful flyer, you may hear those statistics, but you’re really thinking, “Oh yeah? Try to tell that to the 50 passengers who lost their lives in Lexington, Kentucky, on Comair 5191.”

Airplane Crashes Lead to Aviation Improvements: Do airplanes crash on occasion? Absolutely!  Is it likely that one on which you are a passenger will crash? Absolutely NOT!  You have a better chance of winning the lottery!  So it comes down to a question of where you place your thoughts. One pilot with more than 16,000 hours in the air had never even had so much as a scare during that time. In fact, one of the challenges of being a pilot is to remain vigilant after countless hours of having nothing go wrong—a phenomenon that has resulted in a whole new discipline of aviation called “human factors.”  And at first blush, it looks very much like this latest commercial aviation accident will fall into that category—not only from mistakes the cockpit crew may have made, but also other contributing factors like staffing in the control tower, airfield design and marking, etc.

Rest assured, however, that this accident will be investigated with a fine tooth comb, and changes within the aviation industry are likely to prevent any future occurrence with similar circumstances. This is why accidents in commercial aviation are so rare and becoming increasingly more so, even though the number of flights has increased dramatically. Granted, this provides little comfort to the surviving friends and relatives of those who died. However, if this same kind of diligence were to take place in the area of automobile safety, we would not experience more than 44,000 highway fatalities each year. Airplane crashes are “better” news because of the changes they bring about.

What’s a Fearful Flyer to Do? Every pilot does everything they can to insure a safe and successful outcome. Here’s what you can do to insure your safety and enjoyment as well:

  • Pay attention to the safety briefing that many people “tune out” at the beginning of every flight. Stay seated with your seat belt fastened when you’re not up using the restroom. Resist the temptation to get up when the seatbelt sign is on.

  • Admit you’re afraid and share your story with others. Find out you are not alone. Many people cover up their fear of flying by saying they hate to fly or they’re “bad flyers.”  The truth of the matter is that flying scares them to death!  But hating to fly sounds a lot better than being afraid of it.

  • Explore the “stories” you tell yourself about flying. Replace those myths you have acquired with the facts about flying and why it is so safe. There may be a mystique associated with flying, but airplanes take off, cruise above the clouds, and land safely because of years and years of industry experience, traditions, and layers upon layers of regulations and monitoring. Once you understand some of these aspects about flying, it is likely to seem less scary.

  • Find ways to cope and methods to distract your attention away from those “obsessive thought loops” that can lead to anxiety and panic attacks. Listen to unfamiliar audio tapes or music. Solve a sudoku puzzle, a challenge that can be particularly absorbing while diverting your thoughts away from those obsessive catastrophic ones. Watch a movie on your laptop and use a headset—get totally engrossed, again to break those obsessive thought patterns.

Pilot’s Life!  While there is the popular notion that pilots are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for the welfare of their passengers, the truth is that they have a vested interest in the outcome of every flight—their own survival. It’s not that pilots wouldn’t go to extraordinary lengths to insure your safe passage; they instinctively are motivated by that higher calling—self-preservation. And that works to everyone’s collective good even though it may be a little less romantic.

As Woody Allen says about death, “I don’t mind it; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  But, put into perspective, you don’t fear crashing and dying each and every time you get into your car yet based on statistics, you should!  Maybe you should be even more afraid of being a pedestrian—7,000 of them will be killed this year and yet there is no public outrage over this.

Living Without Limits: So do fearful flyers fear crashing? Absolutely!  Pilots do, too!  Crashing sucks, and everyone has a right to be afraid of such a tragic event. But no one should let it interfere with living a limitless life by unnecessarily worrying about something that is hundreds of times safer than walking down the street,  Further, you have the pilots solemn promise that they will stay focused on doing their best to stay current and proficient at what they do best—piloting!

Read other articles and learn more about Captain Ron Nielsen.

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