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The Fear of Flying Tip That Went Viral

Fifteen million TikTok viewers learn to trust their plane will stay in the air.

Key points

  • When we see a plane up in the sky, we can't see anything holding it up. We can easily imagine it falling.
  • Bernouilli's principle explains what keeps a plane in the air. But the explanation is too intellectual to be of comfort emotionally.
  • Picturing a plane suspended in gelatin controls our imagination of it falling and makes us feel better when flying.

We say, “seeing is believing.” When we see a plane up in the sky, we can't see anything holding it up. We can easily imagine it falling. The imagination of falling triggers the release of stress hormones which cause anxious feelings. Then, it is not just "seeing is believing." It is also "feeling is believing," a combination that makes getting on a plane difficult, if not impossible. A solution to this problem just went viral.

When I began doing fear of flying courses in 1982, I offered Bernoulli's theorem as a way to explain why the plane stays up. But the theorem, being intellectual, made no difference emotionally. To help my anxious fliers picture something holding the plane up, I came up with "The Jell-O Exercise." I asked them to imagine that, as the plane goes faster and faster down the runway, it makes the air thicker and thicker. Finally, as the plane goes into the air, the air is as thick as gelatin.

Why gelatin?

Gelatin desserts often have fruit suspended in them. If you pick up a plate of gelatin and shake it, the fruit stays suspended. You can’t shake the fruit loose. Now, instead of fruit, imagine your gelatin dessert has a toy airplane suspended in it. No matter how hard you shake the gelatin, the airplane stays suspected.

The same is true for an airliner. Though turbulence can shake a plane, the plane can’t fall. This visualization, though not perfect technically, works emotionally. Flying is a lot more comfortable when you picture something holding your plane up.

The "Jell-O Exercise" was added to the SOAR Fear of Flying program twenty-five years ago. Since then, feedback from clients has been enthusiastic. Here is the video I use to teach the exercise.

A problem arose when my book, SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying, was about to be published. Kraft Foods would not permit us to use the term Jell-O. So "The Jell-O Exercise" became "The Gelatin Exercise." The following is how the exercise is described in the book.

Visualize the “Solidness” of Air – The “Gelatin” Exercise

"The plane is so heavy. I just can't see how air can hold something up that is so big and heavy."

On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager was the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. It was said he “broke the sound barrier” because, until then, it was theorized that air might become as solid as a brick wall when approaching the speed of sound. It isn’t solid – but it is thick! Since airliners cruise close to the speed of sound, the air supporting the plane can be compared to gelatin.

As speed through air increases, passage becomes more difficult. When you’re walking through air at five miles-per-hour, it’s effortless; biking through air at 25 MPH requires all the effort a non-racer can muster. In a car, at 50 MPH, if you put your hand out the window and push forward, it takes the same effort as putting your hand underwater in a swimming pool and pushing forward. This means, to a vehicle penetrating it, 50 MPH air is as thick as water in a pool. At 80 MPH, air becomes like oil or molasses. At takeoff speed, between 140 and 200 MPH, as far as the plane is concerned, air has been transformed into something as solid as gelatin.

Imagine a plate of gelatin in front of you. A cube of pineapple is suspended in the gelatin. Pick up the plate and shake it. No matter how hard you shake, you can't dislodge the pineapple from the gelatin. Now, replace the pineapple with a toy airplane. Again, shake the gelatin. As with the pineapple, there’s nothing you can do to make the airplane plunge. The gelatin holding the toy airplane sits on a plate. The gelatin-like air holding the real airplane sits on the earth. Turbulence cannot break the hold of the gelatin. In gelatin-thick air, it is not possible to fall.

Once a plane reaches “gelatin speed,” it has to go where it is pointed. Imagine poking bare shish-kabob skewers into the gelatin behind the toy airplane. Put the tips against the rear of the engines. When you apply force, you can make the toy plane cut forward through the gelatin. This is what happens in flight. Engines make the plane cut forward through the gelatin-like air. The plane can only go where it is pointed. Flying is as simple as accelerating to gelatin speed on the runway and pointing the nose where the plane needs to go. That's it. An accident can happen under only two circumstances: 1) The plane is pointed wrong, such as at a mountain (of course, as you’ve learned, there are warnings to prevent that); 2) The plane goes too slowly, and the air is no longer gelatin-like. That never happens with professional pilots. Nevertheless, there are warnings if the plane begins to fly too slowly.

If your concern persists that the plane could fall, buy some gelatin mix – Knox, Jell-O, or in Australia, the most popular brand is Aeroplane Jelly – a small model airplane and some skewers. Place the toy in the gelatin, allowing it to set there. Once it’s set, simulate the engines pushing the plane forward by placing the skewers against the rear of the toy plane’s engines and pushing.

When on board and taking a flight, don’t wait for turbulence to begin “thinking gelatin.” Picture the air getting thicker and thicker as you accelerate. Know the plane is in gelatin-like air before the nose is even lifted off the runway. Think of your toy airplane, safely suspended in gelatin, just as you are. You can jiggle in it, but you can’t fall through it.

The Gelatin Exercise Goes Viral

This week, a Newsweek headline said, “Woman's Jelly Trick That 'Cured' Her Fear of Flying Viewed 15 Million Times.” Australian social influencer Anna Paul put a very appealing presentation of the Gelatin Exercise on TikTok. However you like your gelatin dessert and whatever you call it, use this tip to feel safer in the air.