Fear of flying: an occupational hazard?

Himalayan peaks from the air © Joe Bindloss

I admit it. I’m scared of flying. Not hyperventilating, popping tranquilisers, telling everyone on board I saw ‘something on the wing’ scared of flying. Just generally uneasy, from several days before a trip, to the moment the wheels touch down on the tarmac at the end of the flight.

This is not an ideal phobia to have for a jobbing travel writer, you might think. And you’d be right. It’s a definite inconvenience that casts a shadow over the start and end of any trip. But talking to fellow travel writers, particularly those who have been doing the job for a long time, it’s not that unusual.

Plane flying into Lukla airport
Dropping in the tiny airstrip at Lukla © Joe Bindloss

Some of the fear comes with age. As a giddy 20-something fresh out of journalism school, flying local airlines with ageing, hand-me-down fleets into such perilous airstrips as Tegucigalpa in Honduras and Lukla in Nepal just felt exciting. After you’ve been doing it for a few decades, the thrill of barrelling into a remote, visual approach-only airport in high winds definitely wanes.

The first thing to make clear is that loving travel and being afraid of flying can happily coexist. I’m as passionate about travel today as when I took my first unaccompanied trip as a teenager in the early 1990s. It’s the getting there part that is the challenge. I explain it to people like this: there is no better feeling than being somewhere else; actually physically travelling there on the other hand…

Flying into Leh in Ladakh
Mountains underwing on the approach to Leh © Joe Bindloss

And I still rate particular flights as some of my favourite life experiences. The descent into Leh in Ladkah, for example, or dropping into bush airstrips in Kenya by Cessna Caravan. And few things can rival the sense of adventure that comes from rattling around the tribal territories of Northeast India on old Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. That doesn’t make the commuter flight from London City to Amsterdam Schiphol any easier on the nerves.

Sadly, it’s a phobia that seems almost willfully immune to the effects of logic. Statistically, flying has never been safer, even discounting catastrophic events such as the loss of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 in March 2019. The 2018 air safety report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) revealed a slight decrease from 2017, but an overall increase in air safety based on the last five years.

If accidents had continued at the same rate as in 2013, there would have been 18 fatal accidents in 2018, instead of the 11 that actually occurred. Statistically, there was one accident for every 5.4 million flights, and the vast majority of these incidents did not involve fatalities. That should be comforting for those of us afflicted by aviophobia.

It isn’t.

Close terrain flying into Paro
Villages but no runway on the final approach to Paro © Joe Bindloss

Yet anxiety in the air is strangely unpredictable. Flying into Paro in Bhutan in March along one of the world’s most challenging flight routes – traversing the Himalaya, then a bombing raid-style descent following a winding mountain valley – I felt mostly elation, despite the mountains being almost close enough to touch. Conversely, the flight home from Kathmandu to London, with heavy chop over the Hindu Kush, was a nail-biting ordeal.

But with age also comes acceptance. With who knows how many hundred flights under my belt, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never feel fully comfortable in the air. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that flying is a small inconvenience for the reward of reaching the most wonderful places in the world.

So I’ll keep on getting through flights with a combination of long drinks and the distraction of action movies. And I’ll keep on enjoying the warm blast of air and the waft of aviation fuel as the airplane doors open onto somewhere new and amazing at the end of the flight.

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