The One Aspect Of Flying Which Still Creeps Me Out

As long time readers know, I had a period a few years back where I was scared of flying, after a bad experience on Royal Jordanian between Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Following that incident I was terrified of flying for nearly a year. Every time I’d get on a plane my palms would be sweaty and I’d think of all the things which can go wrong (to me flying is a miracle — there are lots of things which can go wrong). Fortunately I eventually got over my fear, but it took a couple hundred thousand miles of unpleasant flying before I felt at home in the air again.

A while back I addressed a reader question regarding dealing with a fear of flying. There’s a lot which goes through my head when I fly, so I simply wanted to reassure the reader that she wasn’t alone, and that the best way to tackle a fear of flying is to remember the statistics and to just keep flying.

Anyway, I figured I’d share one thing about flying which creeps me out to this day. It’s not extreme turbulence or aborted takeoffs or go arounds or being struck by lightning (all of which I’ve dealt with several times), but rather I’m creeped out by flying over large bodies of water without diversion points.

Crossing the Atlantic from the US to Europe is fine, as you’re typically not too far from the coast of Greenland, Iceland, etc. That’s comforting.

However, last night I flew Avianca from Bogota to Madrid, which has to be one of the longest Atlantic crossings out there. Just about the entire flight is overwater, and there aren’t many diversion points in the mid-Atlantic region.

BOG-MAD

Maybe there are some tiny civilizations in the middle of the ocean I’m not familiar with, but I think this is the longest stretch I’ve flown without a diversion point. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but on this route I don’t think there are any diversion points between the Caribbean and the islands off the coast of Africa and Europe.

Avianca-Airshow

It’s not that I’m actively scared or am convinced anything will go wrong, but rather what I theoretically struggle with is that if something does go wrong, you’re several hours from your nearest diversion point.

I suppose this is no different than flying between the US mainland and Hawaii (I think this was a slightly longer stretch, though), but there’s just something which feels uncomfortable about knowing there’s no diversion point. So whether we’re talking about a medical emergency or another type of emergency, it’s several hours of flying before you can get on the ground.

What it comes down to is that diversions happen all the time, whether they’re due to an engine overheating, smoke in the cockpit, an indicator light going off, etc. We’re just lucky that most of the time it doesn’t happen over water.

When I think about this I always remember  the Cathay Pacific video I posted a while back, where the crew was preparing for a water ditching after smoke was discovered in the cockpit.

They ended up diverting to Eareckson Air Station, which is a US Air Force Military Airport on the island of Shemya. I can’t even begin to imagine how terrifying that must have been.

CX-Diversion

Bottom line

Fortunately I’m not scared of flying anymore, and even the above doesn’t actually scare me. But it’s a “what if” scenario which is always in the back of my head. I can’t make a long oceanic crossing without subconsciously thinking to myself “well, if anything goes wrong now, we’re screwed.”

Anyone else always have this in the back of their mind when flying, or is it just me?

Comments

  1. The moment you say on that Royal Jordanian post ‘I am never flying with them again’, but then you ask the readers to vote on whether that would be a good route to fly yesterday?

  2. You were probably no more than ~2 hours from BDA or TER/SMA at any given point before mainland Europe was also an option.

  3. I havent given this much thought before this article. I guess it’ll just be another thing in the back of my head.

    I think AUS/NZ-US routes have a bunch of small islands to divert to but what about AUS/NZ to SCL and other points in SA? Dont think those routes have few, if any diversion points at all

  4. Engine reliability these days is incredible, which is one reason there’s 370-min ETOPS certifications available now on the latest aircraft models. That is, you’re able to fly up to 370min (6hrs, 10min) away from the nearest suitable diversion airport in a twin-engine aircraft, which was probably unthinkable not long ago. Nevertheless, despite my engineering background and comfort with the technical reliability, large bodies of water also freak me out still. Doesn’t matter if you have both engines running if you have a medical emergency, smoke in the cabin, or other issue. You could be still 6 hours away from landing anywhere. On the bright side, I don’t think there are many parts of the world where this would be the case – the only area that comes in mind is the Oceania-South America routing where LAN and Qantas fly.

  5. I take that back–a southern South America to South Africa flight does require a ETOPS rating of 330 minutes. But any Atlantic crossing to Europe, or even most of Africa, does not.

  6. I totally feel the same – not scared of any turbulence, weather etc. But I always have the feeling “what if” when over the ocean far away from diversion points.
    It was worst on LAX-PPT (Tahiti), where is not much land in between (and Hawaii is off the track). At least Air Tahiti (still) flies A343s, but still feels strange.

  7. @Dan Nainan

    I think the problem with that is that a lot of people, including me, feel that if we get into a car accident, we would be much more likely to survive than if we got into a plane accident.

  8. Same here. I hate flying over water, even on Europe flights. I try to sleep while we’re over water, just so I am not thinking about it.

  9. I think your pretty much on your own out there but remember you can die in a few inches of water so plunging into the ocean is no different. If anything goes wrong I just want it to be an instant action, not gliding for ages knowing it’s all going wrong. Flying is so unnatural, but that’s why I love it.

  10. the issue with the cars-are-more dangerous argument is that stastistacally while you are more likely to get into an accident on your car, the survival rate of those accidents hovers around 95%

    In a plane however, when things go wrong they go really really wrong.

  11. Reliability of aircraft is excellent and any sort of failure I would have full faith in redundancy (in case of a 3 or 4 engine aircraft) or ETOPS procedures. The main concern as you mentioned is smoke/fire on board. Long range aircraft (ETOPS in particular) are designed to protect major flying instruments and equipment in the event of a smoke incident. A lot of thought has gone into prevention of avionics smoke as well as enabling the flight crew to fly to the nearest diversion with ease in the unlikely event that it does happen.

    Also in the North Atlantic, the Azores provides a good option for diversion as well as Bermuda if flying further north.

  12. The Sydney to Buenos Aires flights used to be flown on a 4 engine aircraft not subject to ETOPS, that was truly the polar route and you would have been a long way from land at any stage, excluding ice.

    The AKL YVR flight misses land by a good chunk over the pacific, or the HKGLAX flights in the summer when they fly straight across the pacific.

    Don’t worry! The odds are in your favor.

  13. There is a reason physical education classes teach swimming.its not too late, take some swimming classes soon. These are not the days of the Titanic. Times have changed and there is equality. If you need to push some women out of the way to save yourself so be it. Hmm take some weight training and boxing classes too.

  14. Couldn’t the Citi prestige card or Amex platinum help you with the fear? Forgot the links

  15. Big fan of your blog, Ben. Please check your usage of which vs. that.

    It was distracting in this post, and took me out of the story you were telling.

  16. All of the above comments regarding engine, control and avionics reliability are correct. However, the technologies cannot indefinitely account for flaws in human and managerial behavior; i.e. negligence or carelessness in following maintenance SOCs. This is demonstrated by many of the aircraft incidents during the last two decades.

  17. Well Ben, whenever you are crossing the Atlantic you have Bermuda, Praia at Cape Verde, The Azores Island – Ponta Delgada Airport (PDL), there’s Las Palmas / Tenerife and Madeira Island.

    The ones where your fear may actually creep you out would be, imo, the South America to Oceania flights, as well as South America to Africa ( GRU-JNB or GRU/GIG to LAD)

  18. Not to worry you, but some transpolar routes like nyc to Hong Kong have a long overwater stretch too. Atleast you can divert to ice.

  19. As far as the comment about a bunch of small islands for diversion points for planes between the USA and Australia; there may be some diversion points, but whether you can land an A380 on one of them is a completely different matter.

    I’m more scared of the drive from home to the airport than I have *ever* been about getting on a plane.

  20. You would have to be at least a 5.5 hr flight from land to fly in the 787, one reason I am told that Qantas flies 744s on trans Antarctic routes is that they don’t have any ETOPS certifications that would allow a direct routing

  21. I do feel the same when crossing large bodies of water, I don’t mind it, I just feel a little uneasy at that midway point, and then the closer we get to land, I have a few more drinks and forget about it.

  22. I knew my long list of “Things to try and not think or worry about while flying” was missing something. Thanks!

  23. I recently flew ATL-JNB, which is one of the longest flights in the world (that happens to be mostly over water). It was in a Delta 777-200LR, a twin!

    As others point out, flying is the safest part of the trip… and, although this is unlikely, I’d rather crash-land into the relatively flat ocean than into the side of a mountain — much better odds of survival.

  24. The polar flights are scariest. If you put down, you will freeze to death in a short time.

    That and the fact pillows/blankets are not necessarily laundered between flights.

  25. I have the same (I know, fairly irrational!) fear. I recognize flying is by and large very safe, but as you say, knowing that there are multiple options for diversions if need be eases my mind about the “what if” scenarios.

    And sidenote – I would have had some lasting trauma had I been on that Cathay flight!

  26. Ben – Thanks for sharing this! I fly several thousands of miles yearly, very much enjoy flying, know how to swim well, yet I’m also so uneasy over large bodies of water. I know logically that it just doesn’t really matter (airplanes are relatively reliable, fuel reserves are in place to get to a landing point, crashing into land vs water doesn’t make a difference, etc) or there are more diversion points than I think. But I think the feeling stems from also knowing the insurmountable depth of the ocean or the “unknowness” of the vast area we’re flying over. I definitely rely on some wine or champagne on those flights 😉 Glad to know I’m not alone in feeling creeped out! Cheers!

  27. I never really had a fear of flying over water….until I read this article and the comments. 🙁

  28. The distance between the eastern Caribbean and the Azores, the longest stretch of that flight, is about the same as LAX to HNL.
    By the way, is the Star Aliance program better then Delta’s Sky team? I know there a newer planes on the SAliance team.
    Safe journeys.
    Antonio

  29. I have a similar concern about flying at night. There seem to be a lot of accidents which are attributable to the pilot’s lack of orientation which isn’t such an issue when they can see the horizon. I am not overly worried but there are airlines I wouldn’t fly at night.

    I actually have become a more avid watcher of “Air Crash Investigation” (called “Mayday” in some countries) since I became a frequent flyer. It seems perverse that I would want to hear about aviation accidents, but the program does show how far the industry has come in safety terms and give you an insight into what the real causes of accidents are.

  30. BOG-MAD passes almost directly over the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic as others have stated, you have 2 10000 feet fields and 1 8000 feet field. These airfields have a long history as scheduled and unscheduled stopover points for flight crossing the Atlantic.

    Lejes/TER would seems to be the one most used for unscheduled stopover, probably due to have least traffic of the 10K fields plus military SAR assets based there.

    Distance from from the eastern islands in the Caribbean to the Azores is about the same as SEA-HNL

  31. @Rudi

    If you fly LAX-PPT route on Air France (777-300ER), hen HNL is a diversion airport due to ETOPS limitations. If you track the flight on flightradar24 you will see the flight takes a more westerly route than Air Tahiti Nui, bringing it within its ETOPS diversion limit for HNL. Air Tahiti Nui’s A340s however fly pretty much straight line between LAX-PPT, over one of the remotest stretches of ocean in the world.

    I also flew JNB-SYD once and even though we were on a B747-400, when turbulence hit half-way through in the middle of the night, looking at where we were on the map, it felt like we were a very long way from land!

    Long over-ocean flights always give me food for thought.

  32. No need to worry –your seat is a flotation device and under your seat is a vest which has a light that will flash upon contact with water.
    Well, that’s what I heard . . .

  33. Regarding water , the most ‘remote’ flight I recall is EZE-SYD. It seemed to be quite close to Antarctica when I looked at the air show. Not sure about landing options for a 747 there.
    In respect of the RJ turbulent flight: sometimes pilots will try to communicate quickly, others will wait and explain after the event; rare though for there to be no explanation at all.
    I was on a Cathay flight, a Tristar, Taipei-Hong Kong, on which 20 -30 people were injured, a couple seriously , in a severe clear air event. The pilot took some time to talk with passengers and said by way of explanation/apology: “As you can imagine, it has been quite busy up here.” What is a 70 minute flight took ore than 2 hours that day: not sure if that was traffic or the pilot trying to avoid more weather on descent to Kai Tak.

  34. Lucky,

    Fly LAN fo Easter Island sometime. (789 dreamliner! from SCL!). I dare you!

    We were delayed by six hours. Due to Air Traffic Congestion. Meaning, in this case, there was one single plane several hours away from touching down. LAN airlines bought everyone day rooms at the hotel and two hotel meals.

    Pilots get final weather report and are 100% committed to land once they pass a ‘decision point’ or ‘point of no return’.

    It is so ridiculously remote that ATC will not even consider allowing another flight to divert to Easter Island…. Because it could crash, leave debris fail to vacate the runway, etc for the life-or-death plane full of passengers already last the decision point. (a few planes name ICL as a diversion point but this is carefully orchestrated, so that there is never a chance of more than one aircraft past the committment point.

    GREAT time there. No Hyatt or SPG points. Almost as much fun as the United UA154 Island.

    from airliners.net
    “The toughest for a regular airline flight is IPC – Easter Island. There is no diversion airport, either you complete the flight or fly on to PPT or return to SCL. At most, one aircraft can be enroute for IPC at a time. You cannot take off from SCL or PPT untill the preceding aircraft reports clear of the IPC runway. Now that is isolated!!!”

    here is an Etops 138 no-go circle around it:
    http://gc.kls2.com/cgi-bin/gcmap?PATH=ipc&PATH-COLOR=red&MARKER=1&ETOPS=138

  35. Jesus!! Get over it Herr Schlappig. While I respect sharing your feelings, you fly too much to worry about a double engine failure. Just imagine if someone was firing AAA and SAMs at you. You will feel a lot better about your prospects of getting from A to B on a commercial jet.

    Even if the worst happens, to qoute from a movie, “Everybody’s got to die some time.” Have another glass of champagne. Peace.

  36. All aircraft that fly these routes are ETOPS certified.
    If an aircraft is certified as ETOPS 100, it can fly for 100 minutes with a single engine. The A350 currently has the highest ETOPS certification of any airliner (it has ETOPS 370) but there should still be diversion points for ETOPS 180 aircraft.

  37. I don’t remember the statistics, but having an accident / incident related to plane mechanics or human error is really a lot less likely during cruise than takeoff, landing or even taxi. And considering you get to cruise altitude / speed in about 20 minutes you are still pretty close to land then. Remember: the lower you are, it´s less time the pilot has to react or get the plane back in control.

  38. @ Dave
    Car accident is much more likely than a plane crash.
    A fatal car accident is also much more likely than a fatal plane crash.
    The comparison still holds.

    Also for the people who say they know how to swim. Good luck with that. Even if you have a softish touchdown and get out without injury, it is still going to be hours and hours before help arrives. You either get in a raft or you’ll drown. Ability to swim probably won’t help.

  39. being over large bodies of water is what scares me most about flying too! this reminds me of an air transat flight, which lost all its fuel in the middle of the atlantic. it glided for a while before coming in for a very fast landing at 203 knots on one of the azores. thankfully everyone got out safely. although the thought of it seems creepy… if they hadnt been so lucky…

  40. I don’t think it would be that difficult to survive a plane crash into the ocean, it would be the sharks lurking below that would spell our doom.

  41. No joke, Lucky, I have the same phobia!

    I never worry flying SFO-Europe or SFO-Asia because there are plenty of diversion points en route (Northern Canada, Greenland, Alaska, etc.) But the twos routes I hate most are IAH-LOS and IAH-LAD. As you note there are no diversion spots in the mid-Atlantic – you are basically on your own when you leave the farthest eastern islands in the Caribbean until you get to the closest Western point in Africa.

    On the plus side, I’m not aware of a flight that had to ditch because it was unable to divert, but then again we may never know since there is only one Sully.

  42. ” So whether we’re talking about a medical emergency or another type of emergency, it’s several hours of flying before you can get on the ground.”

    Been faced with that exact situation. I make it a point on long haul flights to tell the flight attendants as I board that I’m medically trained (to keep it brief, I used to fly as part of the medical crew on air ambulances) and have had to help a few times. One was a flight out of Frankfurt that ended up diverting into Iceland because one of the passengers decided to have a massive coronary and do his level best to die on us. That was a 90 minute diversion but really….we were too busy to notice.

    That was an interesting experience not because of the severity of the case or how long it took to get on the ground. It was interesting because while we were trying to get him off the plane in Iceland, one of the ambulance crew decided to pick a fight with me over the treatment rendered (literally down the line international standard care BTW). I ended up briefly detained in the airport because he accused me of being “hostile” but he lost his job when his own coworkers (along with the captain and cabin crew) who witnessed it pointed out that he was the belligerent party.

    “On the plus side, I’m not aware of a flight that had to ditch because it was unable to divert”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pan_Am_Flight_6
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ALM_Flight_980 (although this was more of a “didn’t divert soon enough” case than anything else)

  43. Being a regular on the Qantas service to dubai and London, one is rarely far from land all the way up through the Indian Ocean. Coupled with the quad jet A380 there is no feeling of fear. Now the Pacific transit to SFO, Lax, DFW are entirely different. There are plenty of small islands around the place but would they be able to take an A380 or B777. Best solution is to have an extra glass of champagne and sleep

  44. Felt this way a bit before HKG-LAX on CX and before LAX-PPT and back. Fortunately that was on TN which currently flies the 4 engine A340s (never a crash for 340s), so that was reassuring. When they move to 787s in the future it’ll certainly be a bit more nervewrecking. I remember looking at diversion spots along the way and don’t think there are any!

  45. Hey there! I recently flew South African Airways from Washington, D.C. to Accra, Ghana. So, same situation as you, but slightly different direction. It’s about a 10+ hour flight from North America down to the west coast of Africa, most of it crossing the Atlantic Ocean. I don’t imagine this water region to have too many (or any at all) diversion points. I don’t see any tiny dots of islands on the atlas or on the flight path map. So do you know if there are, in fact, any diversion points on this particular crossing? I’m just trying to remember the flight over the Atlantic on this route was about (at least) 8 hours, if I’m not mistaken. But then again, we were flying over the Atlantic at night, so I was kind of in an out as I took Gravol to knock me out of my nervous misery! Any answers here?

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