Treating my fear of flying with… flying!

My relationship to aircraft and flying is somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand, I’ve been fascinated by planes, airports and flying since childhood. I’ve been using flight simulators for nearly 25 years, and today I’m even earning part of my money with that. On the other hand, my first real flight happened only ten years ago, and, honestly, it was a bit terrifying back then. All the simulations did not prepare me for the movements, the turbulence, the noises, the narrow economy class cabin, and, most of all, the feeling of not being in control.

First flying lesson
The view is great, but it can raise some uncomfortable questions for a nervous flyer.

I still remember the first takeoff I ever experienced. I was going from Hamburg, Germany to Amman, Jordan, because I had to take part in a computer science conference there. I was mildly excited when we taxiied to the runway and I was yelling a bit when I felt pulled upwards for the first time. A bit ashamed of my reaction, I glanced around, and the comforting smile of an old lady made me relax. It was even possible to enjoy a view of Earth I never had seen in reality before. It was interesting how similar Earth looked in comparison to the simulations, but, at the same time, so much prettier.

I was able to enhance this feeling during the next takeoff (I had to change planes in Istanbul), by listening to some uplifting music. It was a great experience. But somehow, for years to come, it was the last time I felt this way – because after the initial excitement, I asked questions. I recognized terrifying screeching sounds on the ground (I now know it was simply hydraulics), I felt cramped between all the other people, I just hated the angle while flying turns (and why do we turn for 20 minutes above the airport?), I was scared when we approached another airport with the ocean only a few dozen feet below us (oh dear, we won’t hit the water, will we?), and I nearly panicked during the small corrections in final approach (the flight attendant watching a bit worried in my direction). Unfortunately, these fears did not become better, and they happened whenever I was forced to fly.

My professional involvement with flight simulation started a few years later. Instead of just playing flying somehow without understanding, I now had to gain knowledge about flying. I had to understand why planes fly, how flights are planned, how navigation works, and so on. This slowly helped me to gain back control. I was able to better understand what happened in the plane and in the various phases of flight. Flying got OK again.

Ikarus C42C
Time to conquer that fear by learning to fly this airplane.

Then, somehow, in early 2017 I went crazy – I went to an information event at our local flight school and signed up for a trial lesson in a small Comco-Ikarus C42C ultralight. They also have gyrocopters, but I wanted a closed cabin, wings and, well, a look and feel of what I consider an ordinary small aircraft. A few days later, the flight happened, and of course I felt the same nervousness I had whenever I entered an airport, but after a short introduction, I made it into the plane, my flight instructor let me taxi to the runway, he then took off, and it was my task to keep the wings level. Oh, how I screamed when we were shaken around! From my simulations, I knew the instruments and some theory, but again I was overwhelmed by the feeling of flight. Most of the time my instructor had to control the plane while I calmed down and took some photos, but sometimes I took control.

After we landed, I went back home. And then there was a strange feeling. An inner warmth flooded me, and a wide smile appeared upon my face. I guess I felt high. There was a strange of mixture of “Oh wow, we survived!“ and “I have to do this again.“ And so I did.

I signed up for the full flight training course a few days later. Since then, I went flying a few times in 2017 (due to time constraints, less than I wanted). In the first lessons I was still yelling when something felt strange, and I’m really thankful for my instructor’s patience. But I slowly got more confidence, I got used to the feeling, and I am now even able to “fly a real turn” as my instructor calls it, when my angle is too shallow. I even did some successful landings already.

Cleaning airplane
Learning to fly means learning how to clean the airplane too.

I recently passed the theory exam of my flight training. After an intense week week 60 hours of lessons about navigation, meteorology, technology, air law and special conditions – like those I was initially afraid of, such as engine failure during takeoff – and a 3.5 hour written exam, I now feel relieved and well-informed. For basically all of my initial fears I now had a logical explanation.

In the upcoming weeks and months, I have to add many more practical hours, and at some point a first solo flight will come. Sometimes I am still worried about this, especially when another general aviation plane crash is in the news. Then I ask myself: isn’t all of this crazy, dangerous, and stupid? What if I have a black-out during final, without the correcting hands of my instructor?

But then I remember the positive feelings I have after our lessons. I remember why the plane flies and under which conditions. And I remember that I’m not a person who takes unnecessary risks. I don’t need to rush. It’s a hobby, for fun, not a job or a competition where I need to perform better than others.

So in the end, I see that I indeed can have control – control over my flying, and by flying also control over my fear of flying.

6 Comments

  • Hi Mario,
    I remember you from the org and X-Aviation forums. 🙂
    I am arb65912 in org forums, SSG Team member.

    Great article.
    Believe it or not, I have a bit of similar situation.

    I loved aviation since I was a kid as all of use.
    I recently went back to real life flight training taking lessons.
    I am always concern about safety and I love my instructor job who is very though and explain all questions I have but …

    We discussed the wing detaching from recent accident with Piper Arrow when instructor and student were practicing touch and go.
    Yes, I understand the probability is marginal but it CAN happen and it just sits in my head.

    My last lesson was in P-28151 Warrior and we were practicing stalls.
    Before the flight he actually grabbed the wing close to the end tip and pushed and pulled on it and said that IF he saw any indication of the detectable movement or fuselage skin movement while doing that, it would a definite a NO GO situation.

    Then we just went up and had a great time but the question is still in my head.
    How the wing can get detached from the plane like that?
    It was at Embry Riddle University, acft was not old, went through all inspections and maintenance on time etc.

    My instructor suspects that somehow the wing/fuselage was overstressed and not reported.
    maybe someone did some aerobatic flight, or had a super rough landing etc.
    Nobody will know unless NTSB will be able to determine the cause but it will take a long months if not longer…

    Getting back to your great article.
    The love for flying in my case just made me go 2 days after I have read about the accident…
    Brave people in my opinion are not those who do not feel the fear but these who despite of fear do things. 🙂

    Thank you again for this great article and hope others will chip in soon.

    AJ

    • Thanks for your kind comment, AJ. I recognize your photo from the SSG sub-forum ^^

      Yes, the Arrow wing failure is somewhat terrifying. Or the collision of a Cirrus with another small plane today in Germany. Or… many incidents. One always hopes that one will never experience this. And always the question: How could that happen? How could it have been prevented? :/

  • Mario– keep up the lessons, earn your pilot license, and you will get over the fear. The more you know, the better you will feel, until the positives consistently outweigh the negatives. See my article, “Barf,” in these pages a few years ago, for my story of overcoming airsickness and fear of flying– that I had despite my love of aviation.

    • Thanks for your comment! Your article was a good read and indeed feeling sick can be related to years, too. Thankfully I do not get sick while in the plane. Only when I have longer breaks between flights, like during last winter, I feel uneasy before going to the airport. Then the fear returns, at least until I’ve been ten or fifteen minutes in the air. After that all goes well. The next flights are then no big issue anymore.

  • Just came back from N14 after another great flying lesson this time in C172N and read the comments here so here is my next dose of share.
    Great article on barfing by the way…

    Weather was beautiful… except the METAR in surrounding airports reported 15+ winds and gusts up to 25.
    My instructor gave a great lesson of risk management and pointed out that go/no go decision has be made based on aircraft and PIC limits which in case of the latter have to carefully evaluated.

    I asked if he was trying to scare me, he answered, no, he just wanted me to be aware.
    Of course I liked that but at the same time I started feeling a bit nervous.

    I am lucky not get motion sickness despite being 61 so we went.
    It was bumpy but manageable (for my instructor).
    I did not take off or land but was the lesson worth the money?
    I think it was.
    He was explaining and demonstrating things that without crosswind of that magnitude would not be possible.

    What I have noticed that I feel the same as Mario, I get more nervous when the breaks between flights are longer.
    On the other hand I can also notice that that big spike in blood pressure when I get to the airport ready for the lesson is getting constantly smaller.
    During the first flights I was getting a headaches, my blood pressure skyrocketed (I could tell the feeling ) and I would need a long time to wind down.

    I guess the only way to make things easier and less stressful (even if it is a very positive stress) is to keep doing them….

    • Thanks for sharing your latest experience.

      “My instructor gave a great lesson of risk management and pointed out that go/no go decision has be made based on aircraft and PIC limits which in case of the latter have to carefully evaluated.”

      My instructor told me something similar last Thursday. After we had some short cross-country flights in the previous lessons, to practice VFR navigation, this time we practiced traffic patterns at our uncontrolled home airport (uncontrolled in Germany usually means that there’s still some guy in a building giving wind and runway information to you, and sometimes makes you aware of other traffic, but it’s still your own responsibility to act).

      So we were on crosswind, and noticed another plane ready to depart on the runway (at least they announced this status on the radio). When we were on base, the plane was still sitting at the runway and I slowly got nervous: “What is this guy waiting for?” I delayed my entry to final for quite a while, even though my instructor told me that I still should turn into final. Okay, well, I did, but when we were in final, the other plane was still not departing.

      In the end, I decided to go for the grass runway left of our asphalt runway instead, and this went fine, and we made several more traffic patterns this day.

      After our flight ended, my instructor told me that I should trust him when he asks me to turn to final. In this context, he also mentioned personal limits for decision making, and that the whole situation was totally fine for him, and that, if necessary, he would have made a decision to abort in good time. So his personal limits allowed for later decisions than mine.

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