How to Conquer Your Fear of Flying

Companies are targeting nervous flyers with aircraft simulators and therapy workshops aimed at easing anxiety.

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I’m familiar with the statistics: there’s a greater chance of dying in a car crash than a plane crash (the odds are 1 in 5,000 for the former, 1 in 11 million for the latter). But that doesn’t change the fact that my stomach turns for days, even weeks, before boarding a flight. What if my plane crashes and I leave my children motherless? Or, worse, what if we all go down together? On board, I break out in a cold sweat every time the seatbelt sign illuminates; even the lightest of turbulence has me gripping my armrests.

As many as 25 percent of people feel nervous about flying, according to some estimates. “The biggest fear people have is that they’re going to panic – they’re going to have a big emotional experience and not be able to get away from it,” says Ian Shulman, an Oakville, Ont.-based clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety and phobias.

According to Shulman, understanding the operational aspects of a typical flight can help, which is why I turned to uFly Simulator, a flight simulator facility in Mississauga, Ont., to help ease my anxiety. While the uFly experience is geared mainly towards aviation enthusiasts, owner Claudio Teixeira launched a Fear of Flying program when he saw how many people were anxious about or just downright terrified of flying.

On an unusually warm day in March, I drive out to Mississauga to meet with uFly’s Luigi Salvi, a pilot with more than 20 years’ experience. We spend two hours in the simulator, which feels exactly like being in an actual cockpit. Salvi patiently explains the purpose of almost every knob and button on the flight deck, of which there are many. He also tells me that 99 percent of flights run on auto-pilot – it doesn’t get much safer than that.

But what I really want to talk about is dreaded turbulence and weather-related fears. Here’s what Salvi had to say:

When you’re travelling at 575 mph in a metal tube, even light turbulence is enough to startle a nervous flyer. But there’s nothing to fear.

Turbulence is nothing more than a nuisance

When you’re travelling at 575 mph in a metal tube, even light turbulence is enough to startle a nervous flyer. But there’s nothing to fear. Salvi likens turbulence to riding on a boat with waves nearby or being in a car on a bumpy road. “On a lake or road, you can actually see the waves or bumps and so you can prepare yourself psychologically,” he explains.

There are varying forms of turbulence

Some have fancy names, such as Temperature Inversion Turbulence (caused by atmosphere), but no form of turbulence is dangerous. Not even severe turbulence has Salvi worried – planes are built to get past the bumps. Still, where possible, pilots rely on reports from other aircraft to avoid it.

An illuminated seatbelt sign doesn’t signal danger

No need to panic when you hear the ‘ding.’ It’s simply there to prevent passengers from flying out of their seats during a bumpy ride.

Lightning is no biggie

I live in fear of lighting striking my plane, but Salvi insists it’s nothing to worry about. Airplanes are designed to conduct electricity with no harm to passengers or crew.

Six weeks following my uFly experience, I find myself on a flight from Toronto to Miami. The ride is mostly smooth save some light turbulence near the end; as if on cue, my palms begin to sweat and my heart beats rapidly.

Just as I’m about to plot an escape route, I imagine being on a bumpy cottage road on a beautiful summer’s day where I welcome the uneven gravel road – it signals we’re getting close to a blissful weekend in Muskoka. I apply the same logic to my current situation. Turbulence is nothing more than a bump in the road, I tell myself, and it calms me. Am I in a Zen-like state? Not quite. But a bit of visualization goes a long way.

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