Have You Ever Been The Only Scared Passenger On A Plane?

A few weeks ago I answered a question from a reader who was terrified of flying, asking how best to deal with it. Unfortunately I didn’t have a good answer, other than being able to relate to the situation.

I think the only way to really get over a fear of flying is to keep flying and hope it eventually goes away, given that most people admit it’s an irrational fear.

And it’s an irrational fear I faced for a while, following my Royal Jordanian flight a few years back, where I was convinced (wrongly) that I was more or less dead. So while I don’t think I’m scared of flying anymore, that event causes me to still overanalyze every aspect of flying, and all the things that could go wrong.

And a lot can go wrong. What if a mechanic didn’t tighten a screw correctly? What if there’s something in the cargo hold that’s explosive? What if we’re over an ocean and a fire breaks out? These are all things which have happened, but at the same time they’re so rare that you just have to come to terms with how good your odds of being okay are.

Which brings me to my flight on Hainan Airlines yesterday, where I was briefly sweating. The reason I’m sharing this isn’t because I think anything was actually wrong, but rather to hopefully comfort those who are scared of flying and show it happens to everyone. I’ve flown almost five million miles, and I was literally borderline freaking out.

Why? Because I wasn’t in control, because I didn’t know what was going on, and because I was prematurely analyzing the situation. Give me as much turbulence as you want, I won’t be scared one bit. Give me a situation where everything seems fine and my mind starts wandering about possibilities of what could be wrong, and I’ll be borderline freaking out.

So what happened on yesterday’s flight? We took off from runway 24L at LAX, as I’ve done dozens of times before.

Hainan-Airlines-787

Typically when you fly to Asia you either fly out over the Pacific and fly straight over, or you hug the coastline for a while up to Alaska.

In this instance we took off from LAX, and did something very different. We turned right, and then turned right again. We began flying northeast, and we also began to level off.

Hainan-Airlines-787-1

Here’s the route for our flight, via Flightaware:

HU

Meanwhile here’s the more normal route to Asia, from the Japan Airlines flight departing ahead of us:

JL

Logically I should have assumed we were probably being vectored around for traffic, or something, though this is certainly a unique way to do so.

What was I thinking in practice? A million different things, the first of which was “hmmm, is there something wrong with the plane and they’re leveling off and trying to figure it out, to decide if we need to turn back to the airport or not? Did some alarm go off in the cockpit? Are they figuring out where they’re going to dump fuel?”

All of this is of course completely irrational. But that’s how my mind was wandering, and it caused my palms to sweat, and I even began to take deep breaths. I was making myself scared.

Again, I realize it was irrational, but at the same time, the more you know, the more out of control you can feel. To everyone else this was nothing out of the ordinary.

But when you know what “normal” is, and see something “not normal,” it’s easy to let your mind wander and assume the worst.

Hopefully it’s at least comforting to those who are infrequent flyers and are terrified of flying… it happens to all of us, just for different reasons.

To those who are frequent flyers, do you ever overanalyze situations while flying, to the point that you’re freaking yourself out? Is it just me? 😉

Comments

  1. I was on JL62 on Feb 01 (last week). Take a look at our landing pattern, where we entered CA, and specifically the LAX approach. It’s basically what you did but in reverse.

  2. Yeah, I am a lot like you. So many miles that I know what’s “normal” and whenever Abby Normal comes to visit, I get a little wonky. Glad to know even the best of us have a little OCD.

  3. JoshR — For what it’s worth, that’s pretty normal on approach, in my experience, since you land into the west (so you need to pass the airport flying east, and then turn around) and they often need to add a bit of spacing due to the amount of inbound traffic. Much rarer when departing LAX, though, since you take off into the west as well.

  4. We have a TON of military surrounding LAX to the north at Port Hueneme, Point Mugu/Channel Islands and then east to the desert at Edwards AFB and north of there at China Lake. And don’t forget they launch at Vandenberg AFB off the coast. Anything that routes awkwardly around SoCal might have something to do with that. They are launching a Delta IV rocket from Vandenberg AFB tomorrow, http://www.noozhawk.com/article/delta_iv_rocket_launch_planned_early_wednesday_from_vandenberg_afb

  5. My first thought would be that they are trying to avoid a storm or some weather issue so they take a longer route. It wouldn’t be uncommon.

  6. I’m not a nervous flier, but many years ago looked out of the window (747 in economy) on approach to LHR and watched in amazement as we flew past the tower at a couple of hundred feet and then started climbing. Going back around and landing about 30 minutes later gave me a lot of time to imagine scenarios, but it seemed to me nobody else around me had even noticed. Too sleepy I think, and I never told my flying partner. I’ll never know if the pilot missed the first approach or was flying past for someone in the tower to see if landing gear were down or something like that. Second approach and landing was uneventful after that weird go-around, and it’s one of the few times I was seriously worried.

  7. I used Cap. Tom Bunn’s SOAR DVD series to get over my fear of flying.

    http://www.fearofflying.com

    It’s not a perfect cure – I still feel a little vulnerable with every takeoff and landing – but it goes over some of the most common triggers (power-down after takeoff, turbulence, etc.) and explains why they are nothing to worry about. Also if covers some of the basic science of flight and the many safety precautions in modern aircraft (proximity warning, redundancies, glide ratio, etc.) It suggests taking flying lessons (my first flight lesson terrified me), and trying to meet the captain face-to-face before your flight (probably easier for premium-cabin passengers – preferential treatment, etc.)

    Personally, I think the captain’s intercom manner is just as important as a doctor’s bedside manner. I’d be loyal to any airline that prioritized it.

  8. I was on AA 105 from LHR to JFK 1 week ago. We took off, then leveled off at 15,000 feet, and then began to circle. It was very gently and smooth, you had to look at your map to realize we weren’t going anywhere. I asked the flight crew what was wrong and they said they didn’t have any information…but they looked ashen. This went on for 1/2 hour and it was a very scary 1/2, though again most passengers didn’t notice because the circling was so gently/they were watching TV. Eventually the pilot made an announcement, there was a problem with the navigational system used over the ocean but we were still on land and so safe, were returning to LHR. I try not to relive that 1/2 of not knowing anything.

  9. While I’ve never had a “freak out” as you say, internally or externally, I was on a flight recently (can’t remember which one exactly) and as always I had a window seat wing a good wing view. If I am flying economy I love to be just aft of the wing to see the flap extension/retraction and wingflex etc. As usual I watch the wing on approach very carefully and go through “the landing checklist” in my head. On this particular flight I was so sure that the landing gear had not been extended because I missed the loud noise on extension and there didn’t seem to be enough drag induced noise as is normal. I actually held onto the seat a little tighter as we were about to touch down. I wasn’t really panicked but the thought kept racing through my head for the last 5-10 seconds of flight. How’s that for irrational?

  10. security situations freak me out if i let them these days, especially because i’ve flown out of some much smaller airports in east and south asia during times of heightened terror threat awareness (such as around india’s republic day recently). it’s hard not to think about a baggage handler or security person being bribed or some such. but i usually put it out of mind almost as quickly as i think of it.

    i dunno, i used to get worked up wondering what if. then i realized that i should only worry about things i can control. sometimes you have to accept that if your time’s up, your time’s up. that could be while flying or while crossing the street.

    and as usual, riding in cars and taxis in some parts of asia has always been scarier and potentially deadlier than flying ever will be. nearly needed a fresh pair of trousers driving in tamil nadu last month.

  11. Like you, millions of miles have made me acutely aware of abnormalities in flight. One experience comes to mind. A missed approach night landing in fog into San Diego. At the last moment the pilot pulled up and we took a sharp right turn and eventually ended up at LAX. He overshot the single runway at Lindbergh. Oddly enough, no one else seemed to notice. The pilot said they had closed the airport but I found out later the airport remained open. This happened many years ago before the highly automated controls that exist today that assist pilots in landing. But even today, I sometimes flash back on final approach into San Diego and take a deep breath.

  12. The first time that it happened to me, was when I was looking at the nose cam of my CX 77W descending into Vancouver when I had the feeling that we were short and that perhaps we are going to land in the water any second now…this happened couple of days after the Asiana incident @ LAX

  13. I always get nervous whenever we have to land on runway 29 at EWR. Most people likely don’t even notice it, but it always freaks me out. Typically it is accompanied by strong winds so that doesn’t help.

  14. I was on Jetblue flight from SWF to MCO back in December. We took off and head back west over the hudson and south towards NYC. Started freaking out when we never climbed. Stayed at 4900 feet for the first 20 minutes as we head to the city. I did not say anything until we landed and told the pilot given the time we leave in now he should have let us know what was going on. My dad was a pilot for United and I used to fly all the time but like you its the quiet odd stuff that bothers me more.

  15. Interesting: looks like HU 7924 always seems to use that eastern flight path over inland CA, check out the last 3 days: http://flightaware.com/live/flight/CHH7924

    Given that it’s a ~noontime flight, I’m assuming the regular overseas vector it just really busy.

    But, yes, the same happens to me for a number of airports. ORD in particular has scared me more than it should over the last few years, because their never-ending runway reconfiguration means it’s entirely possible you’ll have a completely different approach. And, of course, I know the airports that have short/tricky runways (SNA and SAN are two of the worst), so I always hold my breath there.

    My last flight out of SNA was a night flight, and the Southwest captain actually went out of his way to explain what was going to happen: that we’d lower power right after takeoff because of night noise levels until we hit the ocean. So, the takeoff from SNA is *ridiculous*: they get to the end of the short 5,700-foot runway, apply the brakes, conk the engines to max, undo the brakes and take off like a wannabe 757, and then immediately after taking off lower the power!

  16. Love this article, I always psych myself out when flying. Recently i heard a knocking sound from the cargo hold on a 767 out of BRU. I was very nervous and almost wanted to inform a FA. Glad to see I’m not alone!

  17. For me the recovery has been primarily due to flying alot … From someone who ate nothing the whole long haul flights because of being scared at even the possibilty of terbulence to now that i enjoy every course they have to offer

  18. Ben – please do think for a minute before you post such headings for your blog posts. I highly doubt that you were the only one scared on the entire aircraft. Remember that there are another 200 or so passengers on board too, most of whom will be sitting in very cramped seating and more likely to feel trapped and not in control because of that

  19. I had a similar situation on the ground. My UA flight leaving SAN was headed out right before the curfew and there was a WN plane blocking the taxiway. We turned left and right and started taxiing down the runway in “the wrong” direction! I’ve never been more scared on a plane! Who’s ever heard of that?

  20. I go to the Far East a lot for business, but I can remember the first couple of times getting really freaked out on some short China Eastern flights from Shanghai to other small Chinese cities.
    It seems in that part of the world, and I especially notice it in Shanghai/Beijing, that you sometimes notice a burning or smoky smell in the cabin, I guess due to the pollution and smog in the atmosphere. Normally most noticeable on approach. Really made me worried until I realised what it was.

  21. 1. My flight with Alitalia Milan-Delhi some 9 years ago… some 5 minutes after taking off I guess we hit some bubble with less air, because engines became silent and the nose went steeply down. Anyway after few seconds everything turned back to normal.

    2. Flight Calcutta-Delhi with Kingfisher some 7 years ago – due to almost zero visibility we aborted landing and went steeply up. Than the pilot said: “Im sorry we had a missed approach. But still we have a fuel for one more attempt. This time the computer will do all the landing so I hope everything will be fine.” I guess the pilot was just joking, anyway I had my babies and my mom on the flight so I was really really scarred.

  22. I was on CX 885 from LAX to HKG a few weeks ago and we took almost the same departure route. I too was actually wondering if something was wrong. I’d never taken that route before. We’ll what route my flight today takes.

  23. I live in the western San Fernando Valley and as a planewatcher, I see all sorts of Asian bound flights fly right over my house. On occasion, I’ll see some random huge plane (777, 787 etc) taking the exact route as yours and it always confounds me. “Why is that Japan Airlines 787 flying that way?”. Then of course I have to check FlightAware to see it’s routing – lol. I guess it’s just something the flights occasionally have to do.

  24. LAX flight patterns can get weird, due to traffic and weather.

    Back before flight trackers, I was on a Qantas flight from PPT-LAX.

    As approach land, pilot comes on and announces we’re overflying Morro Bay. Morro Bay?!?!?!?!

    How is it that we’ve managed to fly north of our destination?

    Weather. Traffic. Weirdness happens.

  25. Nope. I work in aviation safety and thus very little bothers me. Usually, I am the calmest one in the plane.

    On routes I have flown frequently, it’s gotten to the point where several of the cabin crew recognize me. Or, more likely, they recognize my shirt since I tend to wear a shirt with the company logo on it while traveling. Once, I was seated in business and one of the attendants came up and asked me if I would mind sitting next to a lady who was kind of freaking out because of the turbulence we were encountering (which was really mild). Partly the flight attendant wanted someone in the aisle seat to help keep this lady from getting up and I think she wanted someone who was right there who could explain what the sounds were, what to expect.

    The passenger asked me how I could be so calm and I responded that I worked around airplanes (leaving out that my focus is on crash survivability; for obvious reasons, I never bring this up on a flight unless pressed to do so) knew what the plane was designed to handle, pointing out that we were nowhere close to that. It was her very first flight and she goes “Is it always this bad?” which I assured her that it wasn’t. Asking if I got scared, she pointed out that when she saw the wings rock, she thought they were coming off. “If I thought it weren’t safe to fly in this weather, would I have gotten onboard given what I do?” By the time we landed, she was relatively calm and was looking out the window and watching the flaps extend, etc.

    Walking her to her next gate, she asked what aspect of aviation safety I work in so I explained it and gave her my business card. A couple of days later, one of those “edible arrangements” baskets showed up along with a thank you card. Apparently, I did good. LOL

  26. I love to fly so I hope I never experience what you have experienced but when my thoughts seem to run in the wrong direction, such as thinking about what might be going wrong with the flight, I will put up a distraction for me. For example: I watch an interesting video, listen to music and sing along with it, start a conversation with my neighbor. So the point is to stop the train of thought and redirect it. Trying to analyze how you are being irrational in your thinking won’t work all the time because you are still thinking on the same subject.
    I also believe in the resurrection. So I figure if the plane is going down then it will be a few minutes of terror, then I’m in the paradise!

  27. So as I stated in a previous comment here, I planespot from my house in the western San Fernando Valley. Today I happened to look up and see a Hawaiian A330 heading north. North? I checked flightaware and sure enough it was HAL33 heading to OGG and the routing was to the San Francisco area before it made a hard left to Maui. What the heck?!

  28. A long time ago. B707 ORD to LAX with enroute stop in Arizona. Two female seat mates, very nervous. Explained each sound and by mid flight they were having a good time. As we started down to the Arizona stop a thunderstorm was visible of our starboard wing. As the PF carried the right wing low into the outflow, I got a bit tense while my seat mates were happy to return from the dangers of high altitude flight and return to earth. As I calculated the distance between the number four engine and the runway my internal tension increased. Then just as the starboard mains touched, I felt side G. Obviously the PF hadn’t corrected all of the yaw, the gear was going to collapse and we’d die in the fire ball! I don’t know what my face looked like but it scared the wits out of my seat mates!

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