Travelling by plane can be a scary experience for people of all ages and backgrounds, particularly if they've not flown before. It is not something to be ashamed of: it is no different from the personal fears and dislikes of other things that very many people have. For some, understanding something about how aircraft work and what happens during a flight may help to overcome a fear which is based on the unknown or on not being in control. This article will seek to help you do that and help you to prepare for a trip by air.
It should be stated initially and clearly that accidents involving aircraft are extremely rare. It is this fact that makes the media coverage of such incidents so prevalent. Despite what you may think, air travel is the safest form of transportation available to the traveller besides high-speed rail: you are far more likely to be involved in an accident on your way to the airport than you are whilst in the air.
Airlines and pilots take safety very seriously - and even if they were minded to cut corners, they are tightly regulated by government agencies to ensure standards. Any pilot will not begin a flight if there is any doubt about the fitness of the aircraft or the weather - as the pilots' saying goes, "takeoff is optional, but landing is compulsory!"
- See also: Flight and health
- I can fly. I am not afraid. – The Charter Trip (1980), a classic in Swedish cinema
A rudimentary understanding of what causes your plane to fly can assist in allaying anxiety. A plane's wing is shaped to direct more air underneath it than above it, creating an area of low air pressure above the wing; this creates lift, causing an upward force on the wings. When the force of the lift exactly balances the weight of the aircraft, the plane will fly level; if the lift exceeds the weight, it will climb; and if weight exceeds lift, it will descend. Lift is proportional to air speed: the faster a plane travels at a given altitude, the more lift its wings generate. So to make an aircraft climb the pilot increases the engine power. To make it descend, engine power is reduced. These basic principles of physics are what underpin every flight: unless there is a catastrophic failure of an aircraft's structure (which is extremely rare indeed), a plane cannot 'just fall out of the sky' any more than water can flow uphill.
Most aircraft, including all airliners (but not helicopters and some military jets), are also inherently stable. The forces acting on them - lift, weight, thrust and drag - tend to balance each other out, meaning the plane will fly straight and level unless the pilot does something to alter that. For instance, if the pilot increases power, the aircraft will climb; but eventually the speed will reduce, meaning lift will reduce, meaning the plane will level off. Even if the pilot let go of the controls altogether, the plane would eventually reach this straight-and-level equilibrium. There are limits beyond which the plane won't correct itself automatically, for instance if it flies too slowly or climbs too steeply it will stall (meaning the wing no longer generates lift). A stall is perfectly recoverable, and are only deliberately created in testing new aircraft and training new pilots (so they can recognise the symptoms and learn how to react). All modern airliners have automatic systems which either alert the pilots to these situations well in advance, or stop them from happening altogether.
A typical flight
It might also help nervous flyers to understand what happens during a typical flight. All of these procedures are standard and extensively understood and practised by all pilots. Commercial flights are also guided throughout the journey by air traffic controllers on the ground, who ensure aircraft stay on course and remain well separated from each other (usually by several miles). Air traffic controllers also assist pilots with the safest and most comfortable journey from the moment the plane begins taxiing on the runway to the point when it arrives at the gate at which point passengers disembark.
A commercial aircraft has at least two people on the flight deck: the pilot and the first officer. There may also be a second officer, and longer flights will have an additional pilot and first officer to allow the first team time to rest. Both the pilot and first officer "fly" the plane with responsibilities allocated to both. The singular pilot in this section refers to the pilot flying.
Before an aircraft can take off, it has to taxi (i.e. move on the ground under its own power) from the airport terminal to the runway. Aircraft always take off into a headwind, as this increases airspeed and so reduces the length of the take-off run, so the plane will taxi to the downwind end of the runway. At some small airports this may only take moments, but at larger ones it can take several minutes. At one extreme, the far end of one runway at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam is 9 km (5.5 mi) from the terminal and takes 15 to 20 minutes to taxi to and from. Aircraft move slowly on the ground with taxi speeds ranging from 10 to 40 km/h (6 to 24 mph).
During taxi, the pilots will deploy flaps and slats on the aircraft wings; the motors moving the flaps and slats make a distinct whining sound. In freezing temperatures, aircraft will need to be "de-iced" before reaching the runway. The plane will be sprayed with an anti-freeze solution to remove built-up snow and ice, as these can disrupt the airflow over the wings and reduce lift. Once in the air, the engines will provide hot air to prevent ice and snow from re-forming on the wings.
When cleared for take-off, the pilot will taxi the aircraft into position at the start of the runway. It's normal for the pilot to increase engine power to ensure both engines are producing the same amount of power. Finally, the pilot will apply full take-off power; this usually means a rapid acceleration and increase in engine noise. When the aircraft has reached the correct speed (i.e., when it's travelling fast enough to generate the lift it needs to fly), the pilot will raise the nose and the plane will lift off from the runway. The speed required to take-off depends on the size and weight of the plane and weather conditions at the airport, but these factors are worked out precisely in advance. There is always enough runway left to complete the takeoff.
As the aircraft travels down the runway, you may hear and feel bumps as the aircraft's undercarriage crosses the runway lights or uneven parts of the runway. Such noises are to be expected and are not a cause for alarm. Equally, when the aircraft lifts off there is often a noticeable bump. This is a normal event caused by the hydraulics in the landing gear reaching their maximum extension as the plane leaves the ground.
On rare occasions, the pilots may decide to reject (abort) a takeoff, usually due to a fault with one of the aircraft's systems. The maximum speed to safely reject a takeoff is precisely calculated before every flight. If the fault develops after the aircraft has passed the maximum safe speed, the pilot will only reject the takeoff if the fault is serious (e.g. engine failure). If the fault is minor they will continue the take off and come back to land, since stopping at such high speeds within the remaining runway is very hard on the undercarriage and often results in overheating brakes and blown tires. Unless the pilot does something idiotic like trying to reject the take-off above take-off speed, there is no chance a rejected takeoff will result in the aircraft running off the end of the runway.
Once airborne and climbing, the pilot will raise the landing gear, which makes a bumping sound. Since full power is only needed for take off, the pilot will reduce power to the aircraft's engines and as a result the noise in the cabin may decrease. The flaps and slats on the wings will also be retracted. It is also normal for planes to climb steeply and to turn, sometimes sharply, shortly after takeoff. These are standard procedures to turn the plane onto its course as soon as possible, and to minimize noise for people living near the airport.
Depending on the length of the flight, it may then take 15-20 minutes for the plane to climb to its cruising altitude. The pilot will typically allow the flight attendants to leave their seats once the plane has cleared 10,000 feet (3000 meters) but it is common for the seat-belt light to remain lit for passengers until the plane reaches its cruise altitude. While the climb is often very smooth, occasional jolts (perhaps as the plane climbs through clouds) can still be expected.
As it cruises, the plane rides upon an invisible cushion of air that has been pushed down by the shape of the wing. When there are bumps in this 'cushion' caused by gusts of wind, the plane may jolt slightly as it follows the shape of the air - this is turbulence. Turbulence may occur in both cloudy and clear skies and is completely normal; aircraft are designed to deal with these bumps and other than fastening your seat belt, there is no action that needs to be taken. Significant turbulence ahead can be detected on the plane's radar, and if it is the pilot will switch the seat belt sign back on. This may mean a very bumpy ride for a few minutes but there is no cause for alarm. If there is really severe turbulence ahead (for instance in thunder clouds) the pilot will normally divert around it. Some turbulence may cause the plane's wings to bend or flex a little: this is a deliberate design feature which actually allows the aircraft to withstand turbulence more effectively, just as a tree bends in the wind.
During cruise, the autopilot uses programmed instructions to fly the plane. The (human) pilots monitor the autopilot, and make corrections to it as required.
Descent and approach
As the plane approaches its destination, it will begin to descend. The pilot will reduce engine power, sometimes so that the engines are only idling and barely making any noise. The steepness of this descent varies depending upon the airport and the aircraft. The pilot will typically switch the seat belt sign on as the aircraft begins to descend, although flight attendants won't typically be seated until the aircraft has descended through 10,000 feet (3000 meters). During the descent, the spoilers on top of the wings may open slightly; the spoilers decrease lift and act as brakes to prevent the aircraft from going too fast.
Aircraft always land into the wind, which helps slow the plane down. So depending on the direction from which you approach the airport, the plane may have to make a series of turns to line up with the runway. These are usually carried out at slow speed and can feel quite sharp as a result.
As the plane begins its initial approach into the airport, the pilots will deploy the flaps and slats on the wings; the flap motors make a distinctive whining sound. The flaps will be deployed in several stages and to a greater extent than at take-off. The purposes of the flaps and slats is to increase wing surface area and therefore increase lift while at lower speeds. The pilots will also lower the landing gear; this makes a low thudding noise.
The approach to land can feel unstable. This is because the air near the ground is often more turbulent than it is at altitude. If there is a crosswind, the pilot may also have to bank and turn the aircraft slightly to keep it on course.
In some cases the aircraft will have to land in low cloud or fog; and you may not see the ground until you have almost landed. Most airports have instrument approach systems to help guide aircraft towards the airport and the runway; landings at major international airports with modern airliners can be safely conducted with as little as 50 m (150 ft) of visibility. But again, there are strict rules that pilots must (and do) stick to when landing in bad weather. If the weather is too bad, the pilot may decide to 'hold' (fly in circles) and wait for an improvement, or divert to another airport where the weather is better. All aircraft must carry at least enough fuel to fly to their destination, hold for up to 30 minutes and then divert to another suitable airport.
Just before the aircraft 'touches down' on the runway, the pilot flying will idle the engines and flare the aircraft by raising the nose, allowing the main landing gear to touch down first and take the weight of the aircraft before the nose landing gear touches down. The touchdown may be accompanied by a jolt and an audible 'thud' as plane's landing gear touches the ground. If the runway is wet, the pilot often lands deliberately firmly to minimize the risk of skidding. Spoilers on the wings will open to stop the aircraft generating lift and keep it firmly on the runway. To help slow the aircraft down, the pilot will engage reverse thrust: the direction of the engine's output is changed and the engines will power up again, slowing the plane down rather than pushing it forward. At some airports, the aircraft may slow down very sharply. This is simply to ensure it can turn off the runway at the right point, and/or means that there is another aircraft on approach which needs to land.
In some rare cases, you may experience a go-around: when the aircraft takes off again just before landing. This occurs when the pilots decide to reject landing because of poor visibility, the aircraft is not in line with the runway or gets blown off course, or a runway obstruction. As a result, you will hear the engines power up once more and feel the engines' thrust to perhaps a greater degree than you did at take-off. The pilot will partially retract the flaps and raise the landing gear to help the aircraft climb. Once at a higher altitude, the aircraft will be turned around and the landing will be attempted again. Should this happen to you, you should not be alarmed - it is a common procedure and well-practised by pilots.
Every year, millions of flights take place without incident. The few serious aircraft accidents there are receive a large amount of media attention because they are so rare and because such an accident affects a large number of people; the same can be said about the media coverage of any rare or wide-ranging event (mass murders, shark attacks, national elections, etc.). All accidents that do occur are thoroughly investigated to identify the cause and to prevent similar accidents occurring in the future.
Commercial aircraft are designed and tested to operate in conditions far more severe than those encountered on nearly any actual flight. For example, one test involves filling an aircraft with volunteers and testing whether the entire aircraft can be evacuated within 90 seconds with half the exits blocked and only emergency lighting. Aircraft are also maintained to strict and regular schedules. If any essential equipment on an aircraft has even minor problems, the plane is not allowed to take off until it is fixed. However, with all the precautions there is always a chance something may go wrong with the aircraft you are aboard. You should however, be assured that pilots are trained (and refreshed regularly) on how to handle common faults on board, and every commercial aircraft is built with redundancies and 'fail-safes' in mind. Even in the very rare case that all engines fail and can't be restarted, the pilots can still glide the aircraft to a suitable landing place; the 1983 "Gimli Glider" (Air Canada flight 143) and the 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" (US Airways flight 1549) are both testaments that it is possible to do without fatalities or serious injuries.
If any foreseeable conditions arise that might endanger flights, chances are, flights are not even allowed to start or strict rules are put in place to avoid such an occurrence. A particular example of this was the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, that released a volcanic ash-cloud that - although it was deemed probably harmless - left all European flights grounded for days just in case. To date no airplane has ever crashed due to a volcanic ash-cloud. Likewise, when the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone was recalled in October 2016 after faulty batteries caused them to randomly explode, airlines and regulators were quick to ban the phone in any condition aboard aircraft. An explosion or fire aboard an aircraft is a very dangerous situation, as you can't exactly evacuate the aircraft and call the fire brigade while flying at 35,000 feet.
Even with all the fail-safes and extensive flight training, pilot error is still the number one cause of aircraft accidents worldwide. To reduce the chance of errors, pilots use checklists to ensure they have done essential tasks, as well as using quick reference guides to handle on-board issues and emergencies. A heavy emphasis in pilot training today is put on cockpit resource management (CRM), that is, the soft skills such as communication, decision-making, problem-solving and task-sharing needed to fly a commercial airliner. The introduction of CRM in the late 1970s to early 1980s was a large contributing factor in driving down the number of fatal airliner accidents.
There are extensive measures in place to prevent deliberate acts of sabotage on-board aircraft, such as hijackings and bombings. Metal detectors, X-ray machines and explosive detection dogs are all used to make sure that nothing dangerous can be taken aboard an aircraft. Governments and airlines also have no-fly lists to make sure that dangerous or potentially dangerous passengers cannot buy airline tickets and board an aircraft. Airport and airline staff also take aviation security seriously; all airport police carry firearms (even in countries where regular beat police officers are unarmed) and are not afraid to tackle a person to the ground and drag them away in handcuffs for something as simple as making a joke. Israeli aviation security is particularly thorough and enjoys a reputation of ruthless efficiency even though some question the means by which it is achieved. As a testament to this, Ben Gurion Airport is considered one of the safest in the world and flag carrier El Al has not had a successful hijacking since 1968 despite probably more attempts than at any other airline. Unlike most aviation security, the Israeli doctrine places great emphasis on finding the person who has bad intentions rather than the bomb itself. This still makes the line of questioning uncomfortable and somewhat intrusive, but it should assuage your concerns about safety and security.
Commercial air travel is regarded as one of the safest forms of transport in the world. Every day, millions of people fly around the world and arrive safely at their destinations. Accidents become major news events in part because they are so rare.
Between 2006 and 2015 there were 227 million flights worldwide by large commercial airliners. Only 386 of those resulted in a serious accident and 65 resulted in on-board deaths. In that ten year period worldwide, 3191 people died as a result of an air accident; for comparison, 34,000 people die annually from road accidents in the United States alone. While road deaths are trending (steeply) upwards in some regions, air deaths have been on a global downward trend for decades.
In the developed world, there is no statistically significant difference in accident rates between different aircraft models or between different airlines.
This page has been created to provide helpful advice to those people who suffer from a fear of flying. There are many techniques for overcoming a fear of flying and many airlines run courses for this purpose. Here is a selection of ways in which you might alleviate your anxieties.
Before the flight
Even before booking your ticket for a flight, it is worth considering how you will feel once on board. Some passengers prefer window seats whilst others prefer one towards the centre of the cabin. On large planes, however, a seat in the middle of a row could mean that you are several metres from a window to peer out of. Generally, the larger the aircraft that you are flying on, the smoother the flight will be, though factors such as storms will make even extremely large aircraft experience turbulence.
Some people are nervous flying on propeller-driven aircraft, thinking they are older or more dangerous. Most actually have turboprop engines - essentially a jet engine driving a propeller - and are just as modern and no less safe than jets. They are cheaper to operate on short journeys, although they are slower and often noisier.
Once your ticket is booked, it is well worth notifying your airline of your fear, both on the day of your flight and beforehand. Airlines work very hard to make their passengers feel safe and comfortable, and can do much to make you feel better.
Aboard the plane
Once you're aboard, it can be well worth having some form of distraction with you to avoid flying phobia. Many airlines offer in-flight entertainment systems, but books and magazines can also be good to take your mind off things. Sleep too can be a good way to pass the time whilst flying, although you are not advised to take any medication that may make you drowsy or sleepy. It is also ill-advised to counter your fear of flying with a large helping of 'Dutch courage': excessive alcohol or drug use normally causes more problems than it solves and can sometimes end in passengers being thrown off their flights altogether. Additionally, alcohol contributes to dehydration: your body already loses water faster than usual due to factors like dry cabin air and sweating. Resulting dehydration causes discomfort (dry eyes and throat is one example), so it's recommended to drink some water every now and then, and to be moderate with tea, coffee, and alcohol. If your vice is nicotine, note that smoking is banned on nearly all commercial flights worldwide. Don't think you can get away with it; the smoke detectors on aircraft are sensitive enough to pick up burnt toast at the other end of the cabin. On longer flights it's important to keep your circulation going: standing up, walking in the aisle, perhaps doing some simple stretching helps.
Try not to keep looking at your watch or a clock while flying. It will make the flight feel longer, especially on long haul flights.
Turbulence is a completely normal part of flying. It can help to think of your plane as travelling along an invisible 'road' made of air and that the turbulence you feel is pot-holes in this 'road'. Turbulence is rarely dangerous, although it can sometimes be unexpected (This is why wearing seat belts at all times is recommended). The length of turbulence is variable from just a few minutes to throughout the whole flight.
Like any large piece of machinery, an aircraft makes mechanical noises along with 'clunks' and 'thuds'. These are entirely normal and should be seen as a positive indicator - your plane is functioning correctly!
Airbus A320 and A330 families of aircraft are well known for producing a "barking dog" sound, especially during engine start-up and taxi. Again, this is completely normal - the noise comes from the power transfer unit (PTU), which equalises pressure between the aircraft's two engine-powered hydraulic systems. Other sounds that you may hear are whining sounds, whistling sounds and loud banging sounds.
To turn an aircraft, the pilot cannot just use the rudder as you would in a boat. S/he also has to bank it - to raise one wing while lowering the other, making the aircraft turn in the direction of the lowered wing. This should be smooth and gentle, and the angle of bank doesn't normally exceed about 30 degrees.
As noted above, many airlines run courses and programs for people who suffer a fear of flying. Some are listed below:
- Air France
- Flying with Confidence - British Airways
- Fearless Flyers - QANTAS
- VALK - KLM
- Flying Without Fear - Virgin Atlantic