Fearful Flyers Take Hope

If you think you’re incurable, SOAR might be just the thing.

January 29th, 2014

ACCORDING TO A REPORT that came out a few weeks ago, 2013 was, worldwide, the safest year in the entire history of commercial aviation.

This wasn’t a fluke; 2013 was the high point of a trend that began some two decades ago. The past ten years especially have been astonishingly disaster-free — not just in America but across most of the world. There have been a few terrible accidents — Air France 441, for instance — just as there always will be, but for the most part, air travel has never been as safe as it is right now.

How we got to this point is chiefly the result of three things: better crew training, better technology, and, naive as this will sound to some, the collaborative efforts between air carriers, regulators, and organizations like ICAO, ALPA, and other advocacy groups. Through these efforts we have have engineered away what used to be the most common causes of air disasters.

You almost wouldn’t know it, however, surfing the Web or clicking on the television. The media’s habit — and by media I’m referring to both commercial and social media — of overhyping even the most minor malfunction has convinced many people that accidents are in fact more common, and that flying has become more dangerous, when exactly the opposite is true.

Consider for a moment the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco last summer, and what a gigantic news story that was for a comparatively small-scale accident. Three people were killed, and that’s a tragedy; it’s a tragedy when anybody dies in a plane crash. But this was not a catastrophe on the order of the type we once saw with alarming frequency — with 200, 300, even 500 casualties. Yet the media treated it like one.

Imagine for a minute that the Asiana jet had flipped over, exploded, and that 250 people had been killed instead of three. How would the news coverage have been different? Mulling it over, I come to the depressing conclusion that it wouldn’t have differed at all.

Thus we lose an important sense of scale and perspective when it comes to air safety. Go back, for example, to the year 1985. In a twelve month span, 27 — twenty-seven! — major crashes had resulted in the deaths of 2,400 people. These included the Air-India bombing over the North Atlantic, with 329 casualties, and, two months later, the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123 outside Tokyo, with 520 dead (the second and fifth deadliest accidents in aviation history happening 49 days apart). Also in 1985 were the Arrow Air disaster in Newfoundland that killed more than 240 U.S. servicemen, the infamous British Airtours 737 fire, and the crash of a Delta L-1011 in Dallas that killed 137.

Of course, for many people it makes no difference. A certain number of apprehensive flyers are going to remain apprehensive flyers, regardless of “perspective” or statistics. Last year might have been the safest on record, but that means little to the hardcore aerophobe.

And there are more of them out there than one might expect. A third of Americans admit to some form of flight-related anxiety, ranging from mild nervousness to an outright inability to step on board a plane. That’s a lot of people.

I’m well acquainted with this fact, having spent the past eleven years fielding questions from members of the traveling public, including no shortage of fearful flyers. I give it my best, but there’s only so much I can do. My approach is entirely informational: I can tell you how planes do and don’t fly. I can explain the realities of things like turbulence, windshear, and whether or not a Boeing is safer than an Airbus (not really). My columns, my posts, and my book have been helpful to plenty of people. But for many others, their fear of flying simply isn’t rational, and all the straight talk in the world isn’t going to matter.

Enter Tom Bunn, retired airline captain and, unlike me, a licensed therapist who can venture where I cannot.

Tom, who flew for United and Pan Am, is founder of the successful SOAR program, which since 1982 has helped thousands of people overcome their fear of flying. Tom has a new book out, and if you’re one of those for whom stats and explanations won’t do the trick, it could be exactly the medicine you need. Click the picture below for ordering info.

SOAR cover

Plenty of you, I’m sure, will have questions for Tom. I recently asked him a few of my own…

Q: Time and time again I receive mail from people who’ve developed a later-in-life fear of flying — people in their twenties, thirties or forties who never had a problem previously. What is happening here? Where does this come from and why is it so common?  

The average ago of onset is twenty-seven, and the trigger isn’t necessarily any sort of uncomfortable flight experience.

Developing flight anxiety may look like a step backward, it develops as a person becomes more mature. When a teenager goes out for the evening and a parent tells the kid to be careful, the teenager can’t relate. At such a young age, we think disastrous things happen only to other people, and far away. As you get older and wiser, you realize something actually could happen to you. Some of us grow into that realization and don’t have trouble with flying. Others suddenly feel a greater need for safety, control, avoidance, or escape.

And people begin to see that things are not simple. Things are not black and white; neither are they “safe and unsafe.” Like other things, safety is relative. This realization that safety is not absolute complicates things. We start looking for more control, and for some this reaches a point of panic. For them, the desire for absolute safety, more control, and a means of escape make flying difficult, if not impossible.

Tom Bunn with USAF jet

Q: It often seems to me that for many people, what is ostensibly a fear of flying is, in reality, a deeper fear of something else, merely manifesting itself in a way that’s convenient.

Serious flight anxiety develops only if there is an underlying problem. We are supposed to regulate anxiety unconsciously automatically. This ability is developed — or fails to be developed — in  the first two years of life. Its development depends on secure relationships. The mother-child relationship is the most important one. This is because the mother is, initially, the child’s whole world. The level of security that develops with her will later on be applied to the world at large.

If this first relationship does not result in what psychologist call “secure attachment” (to the mother), regulation of anxiety is going to be a problem when the person becomes an adult. The person needs either absolute safety, complete control, or immediate escape to feel emotionally secure. These needs are often not limited to flying. A person may need to control other people. They may need to sit only at the end of a row in a theater or in church. Going to a high floor in a building may be difficult.

Try the successful SOAR program…

Q: In decades past, commercial flying was something only a small portion of the population regularly partook in. Many people were fearful of the experience simply by virtue of being so wholly unfamiliar with it. Nowadays, on the other hand, pretty much everybody flies, and the experience is taken for granted. How has this affected the overall number of phobic flyers? What trends have you seen?

The stats have held pretty steady over the years. One person in three is either troubled by flying or unable to fly. Ironically, at the same time, flying itself has gotten a lot safer. Emotionally, it doesn’t seem to matter how rare accidents are. Whether the chance of crashing is one in a million or, as it currently is, one in twenty-three million. The anxious flier still obsesses. As long as there is any chance of crashing, they see no way to know their flight isn’t going to be the one. Again, we see the need for absolute safety. Lack of absolute safety leads  to fear and anxiety.

Q: When I first started writing and taking questions from the public, I was startled to learn how many people are severely frightened by turbulence. Although rough air causes injuries on occasion, pilots see it mainly as a comfort and convenience issue, not a safety issue per se. Yet thousands, or even millions of people, are deathly afraid of it.

I can easily convince a person that run-of-the-mill turbulence is harmless. But even though they realize this intellectually, it still frightens them. To understand why, we need to look at how the brain works. A part of the brain, the amygdala, releases stress hormones whenever it senses anything non-routine. This is a defense mechanism, calling our attention to something out of the ordinary so that we can analyze the situation and respond as needed.

In turbulence, the amygdala regards each and every drop as a separate, non-routine event. Every time the plane drops, a shot of stress hormones is released. As the stress hormones accumulate, there is an increase in heart rate and breathing rate, and general tension in the body. A psychologist might speak of this as an increased level of arousal. A secure passenger might respond to increased arousal with curiosity. But to many people increased arousal equals fear.

So far as I can see, the only adequate answer is to train the anxious passenger’s amygdala to do what a crew member’s amygdala does: when there is turbulence, ignore it, and not produce stress hormones. No stress hormones means no problem. In the book I take the reader step-by-step through the process of training the amygdala.

I also invite people to get the free SOAR application, which includes a G-force meter. Being able to get a reading of the actual forces turbulence is putting on the plane keeps the mind honest. For instance, a person who perceives a plane is falling or plummeting will realize it is descending only slightly, if at all.



Maybe your amygdala’s got you down, or maybe you’re just mystified and confused by the workings of commercial aviation. For best results, arm yourself with a copy of Tom’s book and a copy of Patrick Smith’s Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel

CC and Soar Combo



(Canadian, Australian, and UK purchase options are here)


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13 Responses to “Fearful Flyers Take Hope”
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  1. mark says:

    Who are British Airtours? Surely you mean British Airways

  2. Yvonne_E says:

    I was fearful of stepping onto a plane. I am in my late 40’s, flew for the first time about 4 years ago. I have come to the conclusion that flying is safer than ground travel. I wish I hadn’t waited until I was in my 40’s to fly!

  3. […] di riferimento tornava, statistiche alla mano, su quanto volare (su un aereo di linea) sia oggi enormemente più sicuro che anche solo una ventina di anni fa (e su come questo dipenda solo in piccola parte dagli […]

  4. Eric_G says:

    I recently re-discovered askthepilot.com after a few years. In the time between when I lost track your website I have spent a lot of time educating myself about nuclear power. From just about every measure, nuclear power is far and away the safest form of electricity production, yet the public perception is that we’re all going to die because of radiation. The facts are that coal power plants emit more radiation than any nuclear power plant, completely unregulated, and that airline front line employees are exposed to far more radiation from the Sun and cosmic sources than nuclear power plant employees’ permitted annual radiation exposure (again, with no monitoring or regulation).

    It seems like we humans are fairly bad at measuring risk. The media’s incompetence in research doesn’t help either.

    • Simon says:

      Although I entirely agree with you that the public’s capability at assessing risks is generally poor, I think you might be putting a bit too much faith in nuclear technology.

      As a physicist (who actually got his Master’s in nuclear physics) I can assure you I’m not biased against nuclear energy. No Sir.

      But when I hear people say things like “nuclear reactors produce less radiation than coal plants” I realize they have fallen to industry propaganda rather than been educated by facts. Of course a coal plant emits ionizing radiation with its exhaust because of certain unstable isotops that contains (you’d find the same in the exhaust of any garbage incinerator facility by the way). And it’s also true that nuclear power pants don’t do that because their “exhaust” is basically steam (from cooling towers) or warm water that both stem from a secondary or tertiary circuit that has never come into contact with any isotopes that the reactor produces. But that said, it’s ludicrous to compare the radiation output of the two exhausts. Just because the radiation doesn’t leave the smokestack doesn’t make it doesn’t exist. Those heavily armored drums that leave nuclear plants and are driven to storage facilities on a regular basis contain few spent fuel rods and huge amounts of shielding. Because that’s where the radiation and all the nasty stuff is. The storage of spent fuel is a tremendous challenge because of the stunning amount of heat and radiation as well as the contamination and proliferation possibilities it presents. And that my friend, although well hidden, is the dirty end of nuclear power. It’s a largely unsolved issue, too. At least if by solve we’re talking about sustainable and safe solutions (i.e. long-term sealing, proliferation safety, transmutation, etc.). So next time they want to sell you that baloney about coal plants producing more radiation, just consider this. And for the record, I hate coal plants. But facts remain facts either way.

      • Eric_G says:

        Are you afraid of those containers? Can I ask why, when they are monitored, tracked, cataloged, and inventoried? And consider that cancer rates and other health matters are statistically no different around nuclear power plants (where the dry casks and spent fuel pools are), and that nuclear plant workers are typically healthier than the general population despite living near and working in nuclear power plants.

        So I guess thanks for proving my point.

  5. Annie says:

    It’s been nearly four years since my last flight where I had a full-blown panic attack with a gurney and paramedics waiting for me on the runway. I’m not as fearful of flying as I am of a total breakdown on the plane. I suffer panic attacks fairly regularly, but can leave a theater, mall, etc. I would give anything to be able to fly again. Finally retired, have the money, time, but not the constitution.

  6. Kathy Ziegler says:

    30 some years ago I took my last flight. Many of my flights have been frightening. The first was emergency landing, second the electrical wasn’t functioning. (That was when someone called me a Jinx) Third, 10 oxygen masks fell, the pilot came out and looked at the seats of every person. The last and final was a flight out of Heathrow. Our plane took a slight nose dive. I looked out the window and there was a large jet right over us. I could see the bolts. I would love to fly…I would love to go to Europe. But everyone thinks I am a jinx and I am assuming the next flight would go down

  7. Lynn says:

    I found SOAR several years ago. At one time I dreaded an upcoming flight from the moment the commitment was made to go on a trip (let alone booking the ticket)! After studying the SOAR material, becoming involved with the program and the support available, and taking many more trips… I can now say I miss flying!

    Both Mr. Bunn and Mr. Smith have helped me learn about flying- from reputable sources vs. the malarkey that the media would have you believe. I highly recommend any fearful flyer consider these options.

  8. KevinT says:

    Kudos on the cross-promotion. I suspect many other authors’ amygdalas would be too stressed out (or their psyches overall too insecure) to ever attempt such a thing. You’re a stand-up guy Patrick!

  9. Eirik says:

    Fear of flying as you get older may be related to getting a wife and children and youre afraid of losing them. Or that something happen when youre out flying leaving your family behind.

    In addition, as you get older life itself is more stressful with a hectic job, mortgage and bills and anything else life throws at you. People develop depression and anxiety and the fear of not being able to control the outcome.
    Put those in an airplane, which they are totally not able to control and you`ll see a nervous passenger.

    My friend hated flying. Or that means, the thought of flying. 6 months after she signed up for Captain Bunn`s newsletters, she flew from Seattle to New York, and then from there to London.
    Quite a rough start for someone who could easily drive across the US instead of flying. I dont know many people who love flying more than she does now. If she could fly from JFK to Newark instead of taking a cab, I bet she would do it.

  10. Erich Schmidt says:

    Excellent. Keep up the great work, both of you.