Controlling Anxiety In the Air and On the Ground

When we control what happens, we control anxiety about what happens.

Posted Sep 28, 2018

Arousal is regulated by the autonomic nervous system. The first four letters of the name—auto—make it clear regulation should take place automatically. But automatic regulation requires development, and development is based on relationships, mainly relationships early in life.

When arousal is not regulated automatically, we try to prevent unwanted arousal by being in control. We arrange things the way we want them. We hope we can keep them that way, for if something uncontrolled releases stress hormones, we feel upset until the stress hormones burn off, which takes a couple of minutes.

In a car, a good driver is optimistic that if anything goes wrong, being in control will allow them to avoid an accident. In a plane, an anxious flier releases stress hormones by thinking the plane may go out of control.

Since control means safety, let’s take a close look at control. Most anxious fliers don’t realize how much control pilots have. Where do airline pilots feel safer? On the ground in their car? Or in the air in their plane?

I’ve often asked anxious fliers, when they meet their pilot, to ask whether the pilot feels more in control in the cockpit of their plane of behind the steering wheel of their car. I recommend that because I know what the answer will be. Pilots feel safer in the air than in a car because they have far, far more control in the cockpit.

Think of the on-ramp to an Interstate Highway. Cars are allowed on the highway system without regulation. Airplanes are allowed onto an airway only where there is room for them. Cars are allowed to go at various speeds. Airplanes are required to maintain an assigned speed. Lacking regulation, the highway gets jammed, traffic stops, and drivers who are following too close rear-end other cars. Regulated, planes are spaced one behind another and maintain a constant speed. Ever hear of a plane rear-ending another plane? I think not.

Cars are not watched on radar nor is their operation directed by a controlling agency. Airliners are watched constantly on radar and are directed by Air Traffic Control.

Drivers are allowed on the road regardless of experience. Airline pilots must have a minimum of 1500 hours of experience.

Drivers are not supervised. A supervisory pilot flies with the pilot until satisfied the pilot can operate independently.

Unless noticed by police, no one notes a driver’s performance on the road. A FAA check pilot or a company check pilot can observe a pilot’s performance on any flight without advance warning.

A driver’s skills are not ordinarily retested. A pilot’s skills are retested in a flight simulator every year, and in the air every year.

A poorly performing driver may be alone in the car with no one present to report performance problems to authorities. Pilots always fly with another pilot who can report performance problems to supervisors.

Drivers are subject to alcohol testing only if pulled over by law enforcement or following an accident. Pilots are tested for alcohol - and drug - use without warning.

Automobile engines are not as reliable as aircraft engines. Huge expense goes into jet engine reliability. Jet engines cost between twelve and thirty-five million dollars. One fan blade on an airliner’s engine costs as much as the average car.

Cars have only one engine. If an engine fails, the car stops. Airliners have two or more engines. If one engine fails, the plane flies fine with the other engine/s.

If a car has a flat tire, the car needs to stop. The tire needs to be changed. If an airliner has a flat tire, the adjacent tire carries the load. The plane operates normally.

If a car has a fire, it may be destroyed. If an airliner has a fire, built-in fire extinguishers put out the fire.

If the navigation system on a car goes out, there is no backup. If a navigation system on a plane goes out there are several other navigation systems that can be used.

If the brakes on a car fail, the driver may not be able to stop well enough with the car’s emergency brake. In an airline, there are several layers of backup so that if one brake system failed, another, and another, and another brake system can be used to provide normal braking action.

On the highway, as a car is driven at 60 mph, other cars approach at 60 mph. A crash means decelerating from 60 mph to zero in a fraction of a second due to the impact with the other car. On an airliner, in a crash, the plane decelerates slowly until coming to a stop because there is no other vehicle involved.

The total closure speed between your car and an oncoming car s around 120 mph. On a curving road, a car may come into view just seconds before it passes by. The spacing as the car passes by may be eight to twelve feet. In the air, pilots see all other planes on radar when they are twenty miles away. If there is any possibility of collision, the pilots of both planes are notified, and are told how to maneuver to avoid collision. But this system is merely a backup, because—unlike highway traffic that is chaotic—air traffic is organized, directed, and monitored on radar by air traffic controllers.

If planes pass less than a thousand feet apart, it is considered a “near-miss” and is reported, and if in the media, is described as life-threatening. If cars pass eight to twelve feet apart, it is considered normal, and we think nothing of it.

All in all, pilots have far, far more control in a plane. If a maneuver is needed to avoid a collision, the plane can move up, down, left, or right or a combination of these. A car can can only go left or right, and usually only right. A car’s evasive maneuver is also restricted by the available paved roadway An airliner is not restricted at all.

Knowing how controlled flying is can, if you trust the person who is in control, control fear of flying. One of the most powerful ways to control flight anxiety is to meet the captain of your flight. Tell the gate agent you are an anxious flier. Ask the gate agent to let you board early so you can try to meet the captain. Then, once on board, ask a flight attendant to go up to the cockpit and ask the captain if you can briefly visit the cockpit.