I am strapped to my seat. Helpless to do anything except to mumble my prayers. I look calm with my eyes closed and hands clasped on my lap. Unbeknown to my seatmates, I am absolutely terrified. Once in a while, I peer around and see everyone simply going about their business. One is reading a newspaper, another is writing on his Sodoku game book, and most are asleep (or maybe pretending just like me). A voice comes over the PA system. The doors are shut, people scurry about, and we begin to move.
I am on board a plane and we are ready to depart. Everyone is ready except me. I can never be ready enough to say, “I’m okay. We can fly and I’ll stay calm all throughout.”
I’ve always loved flying when I was a kid, not that we took a great many flights and all of them were just either to Hongkong or Singapore. I especially liked the take-offs when the engines revv-up and the plane goes speeding down the runway then eventually takes flight. I feel a gleeful adrenalin rush as the nose points to the sky and the ground drops away. But when I grew up, I developed a fear of flying. Maybe because I’ve seen too many movies on plane crashes or I’ve just gotten plainly paranoid. But despite of my fear, I’ve never avoided air travel and have never really had a panic attack even when flying alone.
What Am I Afraid Of?
1. The feeling of nothingness below me. It’s strange, but I’ve done some indoor wall climbing and even the Via Ferrata at Mt. Kinabalu and have never been afraid. Maybe because I’m on a harness and strapped to a cable. I don’t have fear of heights either as I cross hanging bridges, monkey bridges, ride ziplines, and go mountain climbing. Perhaps because unlike a boat where the ocean supports the vessel, clouds don’t support a plane. The feeling of being suspended on air with nothing to catch you terrifies me. Boats and even ships sometimes turn-off their engines when they see an enormous wave up ahead to keep their vessels upright and afloat. They simply ride the wave. But jets cannot turn-off their engines to simply ride any turbulence or wind shear. I read at a website that should engine failure occur in jets, they don’t simply drop down. The jet simply glides at it slowly loses altitude. There’s supposed to be enough time for the pilot to try to get the engine going again. It’s this logic that actually makes me think I’d feel safe in a ship. After all, engine or no engine, there’s the ocean to keep it upright. Plus you can always launch a lifeboat and sail away. You can’t escape from a dropping airplane with a parachute.I even think the whole idea of aerodynamics is one big miracle.
2. Turbulence. Inspite of the endless assurances from the aviation experts that turbulence will not a cause a plane to crash, all that shaking and dropping, especially when in an updraft (where the plane is violently sucked-up then dropped; which I felt once on a ride to Osaka), starts my heart pumping. I close my eyes, lean against my seat, and try to think happy thoughts. If it’s kinda long (more than 30 seconds), I grab my arm rest and start praying.
3. Engine sounds. Okay laugh at me. But whenever the engine suddenly hums a little quieter, I sometimes think it’s gonna stop. Taking so many flights on an Airbus 319/320 has already gotten me used to the sounds the aircarft makes from the time it begins to taxi to the time it speeds down the runway to take-off.
4. Claustrophobia. Paying a little amount to get front row or emergency exit seats is a small price to pay not just for the extra leg room but for the extra visual and breathing space. Cebu Pacific planes are kinda notorious for their maximized seating capacity. On a flight back to Manila from Bangkok, three hefty Russian guys were seated behind me and one guy was asking to be transferred to another seat as he looked like he was about to burst from seat. In spite of the 14-hour flight from Manila-Vancouver-LA, I felt totally relaxed as it was a large aircraft. Small aircraft absolutely terrify me. The smallest one I’ve taken was a Zest turbo-prop plane bound for Caticlan. I had to stoop to enter and it was so cramped. The fact that it was a Chinese-made plane just increased my anxiety.
How I Cope
I’ve got my system down pat.
2 hours before the flight. I check-in. I check-in early to give me enough time to relax myself at the airport lounge. I have no appetite and simply want to drink lots and lots of water. I attempt to sit quietly at one corner or If I am traveling with someone, chat him or her up. Otherwise, I pace around the airport, peering at shops, perusing menus, or simply reading the flight announcement boards. I also go to the rest room a lot.
30 minutes before boarding time. I find an empty row at boarding gate and sit quietly. My pulse quickens a bit but drinking some water calms me. f for any reason, boarding time is delayed with no prior announcement, I get fidgety and a million thoughts run through my head— is there something wrong with the aircraft? isn’t it ready yet? As soon as boarding announcements I made, I take 2 tablets of benadryl to relax me and make me sleep. I also have a bottle of water with me to take on board. I let everyone go ahead as I don’t like lining-up especially at the cramped aisle of the plane.
Inside the plane. I take my seat, buckle up, and try to sleep. At take-off, somehow feeling the aircraft rather than looking at it relaxes me. With my eyes shut, I feel the plane barreling down the runway. It lifts off the ground. I peer at my watch to see what time it is. I know that take-offs are crucial and it would take about 15 minutes for the seat-belt sign to go off. Only then will I heave a sigh of relief. If it takes more than that, I get worried. I try to get some shut-eye, even for short-haul flights. All throughout the flight, I wait for the captain’s announcement of the flight path, weather conditions, etc. It comforts me to know that there is someone human in full control of this big mass of metal somehow managing to float among the clouds. I really appreciate captains who speak clearly and audibly. In my Cebu Pacific flight from Shanghai last July, I really liked how the captain told us where we are at the moment, the places we would be flying over, and the flying conditions. He spoke very clearly and calmly as he told us that the weather was good and we were expected to arrive in Manila a few minutes in advanced of the expected arrival.
30 minutes before landing. I go to the restroom to freshen-up. Once on a rainy flight from Davao to Manila, the plane went through turbulence while I was peeing. When I got back to my seat, my friend told me that the flight attendant was looking for me. It was sheer terror as the plane felt like it was riding through large waves. It was the final descent already and I was desperately looking out the window trying to site the lights that would signify we were close to landing.
Final Destination. But my most panicking moments did not at all happen in the plane. I was with my mountaineering group and we were bound for Bacolod on a Cebu Pacific flight. The Saturday afternoon flight had already been delayed for a couple of hours due to the weather conditions in Bacolod. This of course already set me on red alert. Finally, we were told to board, we were at the tail end of the line when we noticed a commotion in front and people started turning back. The flight had been cancelled and instead there would be a special flight for us the next morning at around 8 am. We were back, checked-in and waited at the lounge. Then the delays started all over again. It was already 8am and the 7:30 am flight had not initiated boarding procedures. I was the loo when the announcement came, “Due to weather conditions, all flights to Bacolod are delayed. Please wait for further announcements.” I read the writing on the wall or perhaps I remembered scenarios from “Final Destiny.” I went to the counter and told the crew I was not going to take the flight and to please have my luggage off-loaded. The nice lady tried to convince me to stay put as she had gotten news that the 7:30 am flight had just been cleared for boarding. And it was. The announcement came and the people started lining-up. But I wasn’t going to take any chances. I described my bag, gave my details, and she radioed someone. At the check-in counter, there was my bag waiting for me. I got my terminal fee refunded at a small office behind the payment booths. I also got a partial refund of my plane ticket.
Frequent air travel have reduced my anxiety and fears a big deal. Some flights have had me skip taking my pills. While some, I slept almost the entire trip, lying down on an empty row.