Travel Inspiring Reads – Conquering the Fear of Flying with “Ask the Pilot”

I admit it.  No, I confess it.  I am a nervous flyer.  The more I fly, the nervouser I get.  Is it that the odds are infinitesimally less in my favor?  Is it that I can better recognize abnormal sounds?  Or is it just the fault of that off-duty flight attendant gripping our shared armrest during turbulence over northern Florida?  Surely, it is non-sense to worry about being propelled at 35,000 ft of altitude in a metal cylinder loaded with fuel, right??

It is probably a little bit of everything and, maybe, some superstition mixed in for good measure…  I totally get the concept of aerodynamics. It is a basic concept and one does not have to be half a rocket scientist to grasp the physics involved.  You know, roll down the window of a moving car and put your hand out.  As you tilt your hand in different ways, you can find that one position where all of a sudden your arm is about to fly up and back.  That’s how a plane flies (OK, maybe grossly over-simplified). It is all so elementary that technically a plane can glide down on no engines (this actually happened to an A330 in 2001 and it ended up landing at an island in the Azores).  Clearly, this is not the recommended way to fly but it illustrates the point.

Enter, stage left, Patrick Smith’s “Ask the Pilot,” a no non-sense look through the many bad thoughts a nervous flyer can have.  With the authority lent to him by his experience as a passenger and cargo pilot, he walks the reader through all these mis-conceptions or fears.

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My favorite section of the book is the one that deals with turbulence.  Of all the things to worry about when flying, turbulence is about the most normal thing, to the point many pilots don’t even feel turbulence we passengers fret about.  As Smith points out, “A pilot worries about turbulence the way a sailor might worry about the waves.”  Turbulence is simply crossing wind currents.  For me, the problem begins because that first shaking startles me.  And then, if it continues, it is almost like I don’t have a chance to recover from being startled.  Let it go long enough (and not too violently enough) and I can come back down from the “scare.”  As Smith puts is somewhat comically (except I wasn’t smiling when I read it!):  “In the mind’ eye of a rider in coach, the plane is plummeting… In reality vertical displacement is infrequently more than fifty feet. and the plane will not be snatched away and stomped into the ground.”  Oh, OK.

He doesn’t completely soft pedal the matter and does share than serious turbulence is possible and can be damaging but stresses it is infrequent.  He also covers items like wake turbulence, hitting a bird during takeoff or landing, and other important topics like why is the pilot walking around the plane doing that when it barely seems he is inspecting anything (it is not the only check that is happening and that quick visual is like you looking at your car’s tires before a road trip).

Not everything he cover is about fear.  He covers topics like how JFK‘s (formerly Idlewood) design came about.  The briefing babble.  Pilots’ pay.  Unions.  Flight numbers.  He explains why it sounds like engines rev up immediately after landing (he explains how it is not a 180 degree reversal of engine power).  He uses great humor as he shares anecdotes such as the time a cargo plane crew member dumped, not thinking straight, a bag of dry ice into the toilet…  A volcano-like fountain of blue toilet liquid filling the restroom and beginning to flow all over the floor of the main level.  (They survived.)

The book appealed to me as I had heard it did a great job calming this nervous flyer.  What I discovered was a fun read that I highly recommend to any flyer out there (frequent or not!).

Are you a nervous flyer??  Am I the only one?? 🙂


  1. For sure you are not the only one, I am the second one! I will read the book.

  2. I am totally the same way – and it is worse on the long-haul flights. I’ll have to check that book out.

  3. By all means, get Patrick’s book. He and I have worked together to help fearful fliers for years. Patrick’s book gives you all the information you need about how flying works. My book, “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying” leads you step-by-step through the process of establishing automatic control of anxiety, panic, and claustrophobia when flying.

    Raul is right. Pilots are so used to turbulence that we may not notice it. The amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for release stress hormones, ignores what a person is used to. But since passengers don’t fly as often as pilots do, their amygdala releases a shot of stress hormones every time the plane makes a noise, bumps, or drops. Patrick explains you are safe. I teach you how to FEEL safe.

  4. I think he needs to add an extra chapter to deal with the Malaysia situation once we know what happened, if we ever do. Looks like an interesting book. I experienced scary turbulence flying into Houston a couple of years ago and was convinced it would be my last flight. It would have been comforting to know this information before that flight.
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