Aerophobia the fear of flying

What is aerophobia?

By Paul Tizzard co founder of Virgin Atlantic’s Flying without Fear programme

Aerophobia is the name for fear of flying and different sources suggest it affects between 1 in 3 and 1 in 5 people.  However, I found that it is not just a fear of aircraft or flying but a whole mixed bag of fears cobbled together.  It is very rare that someone will just have a fear of flying as it tends to be fused with fear of heights, or fear of enclosed spaces, or fear of dying, or fear of movement, or fear of loss of control or fear of anything aviation related. So, although the fear of flying is actually medically deemed a simple phobia, in fact, fear of flying has more complex elements. 


Fear or anxiety tends to show itself quite similarly in all of us regardless of what the fear is.  So, if you suffer from Octophobia(fear of the number eight) or fear of flying, your body will show similar symptoms when you are scared. 

You will probably find that if you are stood at a party telling someone your fears; fear of flying will get you more sympathy than saying you suffer from the fear of the number eight. 

I am not saying that the anxiety that a person suffers is more or less with fear of flying compared to eights; it is just that non nervous people seem to be a little bit more understanding if there is a slight chance of dying from the thing you fear. Apparently it is quite hard to die from an attack of numerical figures as far as we are aware. 

If you have a phobia or other anxiety disorder, or 'Overcoming Anxiety Programme' can help you.

Why can some people fly more easily than others? And what factors are there that make people afraid to fly?

Fear of flying is a simple phobia but with many complex factors. There are many elements to it and millions of reasons why the fear develops in the first place.  Why do some people fear dentists when others do not?  Why do some people take massive risks with their business ventures while others look on aghast?  Why are some people ‘adrenaline junkies’ while others won’t go to Thorpe Park?  The reality is that we evaluate risk in different ways. The way I live my life may be completely different to the way you chose to live yours. I consider certain things to be too risky and just won’t do them. You, on the other hand might not think twice about those same things, and vice-versa. 

Why do we feel fear?

Our brains are amazing survival computers. We are all born with the ability to feel fear so we have to conclude evolution left it there for a reason.  Fear is a life saver.  The instinct that helps you to sense a car too near you by the road side and makes your body jump before you have had time to think about it. That is amazing and automatic.  Some people actually put themselves into activities where all of us would experience fear but they find a way to channel it. For example, you ask a good actor and they will tell you that they worry if they are not anxious before a performance. The fear chemicals we have inherited from our ancestors sharpen us, make us alert and keep us alive. 

So fear in this sense is a good thing. When it comes to fear of flying, I would actually class it as perfectly logical to have a fear of flying at first. We are not birds. We know that we were not born flying. So I think it perfectly natural for people to fear flying initially because it is so far removed from anything else we do. It is not natural.  We have to fly so high where we can’t breathe normally, at speeds our fragile bodies can’t cope with in a big cigar tube with doors that won’t open.  What is normal about that?!However, once we start to find out more and realise all the safety measures, training, procedures and back ups in place – we then need to question why we are hanging onto the fear. 

Common reasons people are afraid to fly

The main reasons we have found people fear flying could be grouped crudely into several areas. The real biggies are turbulence, enclosed spaces, crashing and lack of control. Most of the thousands of questions we receive centre around these areas. Often, there are a lot of myths around flying. 

The most intelligent person can fear flying even though they ‘know’ at one level it is safe. I have a theory. It is like there are different parts to us. One part believes that flying is the safest form of transport. Another part perceives that there is a danger associated with flying.  Both parts are right but not equal. 

There is a slight danger so that part of us that thinks that is right. It is the balance of risks we need to consider.  The non fearful consider there could be a risk but that part of their thinking is tiny.  The fearful ‘know’ there is a risk and that part is massive.  The trouble is then that the fear now controls us rather than serves us. 

You are not alone

A couple of comments from other sufferers you may relate to:

‘But I flew for years and then got it all of a sudden.’  Clients are often gob smacked that this can happen.  Is it less logical because it was a slow starter fear? 

‘Every time I go near to booking a flight, I see myself quite clearly smashing into the side of a mountain and dying slowly.’  ‘I can’t see to shake the fear of flying,’ they add still confused.  Does it make sense to you to keep practising how you will die in your mind and then wonder why you don’t want to fly?

Who is affected by aerophobia?

Fear of flying can affect anyone.  Either gender, old or young makes no difference.  As I have said before, fear of flying is often not actually the problem in all cases.  Often, the trigger for a fear of flying is completely unrelated such as having children, parents getting older, stress at work: There are as many triggers as there are people.

Some people believe that they were born a nervous flyer whereas in fact, none of us were.  At some point in our life, we learned how to be scared of flying. Fear is a natural and healthy part of our survival system. It is when fear starts to rule our lives that it becomes unhealthy. It is perfectly natural to fear something that we perhaps don’t understand or don’t like the feelings it generates. 

Some people say to me that they don’t like the movement of things like roller coasters or fairgrounds which is why they don’t like flying. These are two completely different things. Your average train journey to work experiences more ‘turbulence’ than you will ever feel on board an aircraft.

What treatments are available?

Google this question and you will be presented with hundreds of ways to treat the fear.  There is no right way to deal with the fear as we are all different.  For example, two people with ostensibly the same fear can go to the same therapist for help and one will be helped and the other won’t.

Personally, I don’t believe that any therapy is better than another. It either works or it doesn’t. 

The main therapies that people seem to gravitate towards are: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy; Neuro Linguistic Programming; Hypnotherapy; Counselling and Thought Field Therapy.

The truth about flying - why we shouldn’t be afraid

It is the safest form of transport. Fact.  It is not completely safe – nothing is 100% safe.

If you are to be assaulted, it is most likely by someone that you know!  This fact does not stop you visiting your relatives though does it? We don’t perceive it as a risk even though there is one.  We drive our cars without checking them. We get onto a bus which only has one driver and no back up systems and don’t even do a conscious risk assessment. 

In aviation, the aircraft are stronger than they ever need to be; the pilots are tested several times a year which they have to pass to keep their licence. Would you pass your driving test again? 

There are back systems for everything and often many of them. There are even a minimum of two pilots in case one pops her clogs! Everything in the aviation world centres around safety because without safety they have no business.

What can people do to help themselves?

There are lots of simple things that you can do.

Stop listening to that ‘well-meaning’ relative who zeroes in on you with your fear of flying to tell you about their most recent ‘near death flying experience.’ 

Don’t read the papers about any incident that occurs. Aircraft incidents are so rare that they always make the news.  Read good quality factual information about flying not the papers. Air pocket is a mythical term made up by an innovative journalist at some point. It doesn’t exist. 

Monitor your own thought patterns. If we have a fear of anything, we will tend to filter in information ‘out there’ that supports the fear. It is just something our brain does automatically. Clever but not useful right now.  Buy a new red fiat one day then notice how many are ‘suddenly’ on the motorway the next day!  ‘Gosh, I wouldn’t have bought the car if I had known it was so common!’  Even though there are the same numbers on the road as the day before you are now paying attention to it, so it seems so much more.  When we have a fear of something we pay attention to all things linked to it, so we notice more of it. 

Watch what you say to yourself. For example, ‘I was just about to book my holiday flight when on the way there, I heard a radio story about an aircraft crash in that country I had never heard of before and I knew then…It was a sign I shouldn’t be flying!’  As the cliché goes, ‘you cannot afford the luxury of one negative thought.’It is easy to find reasons to not do something and of course, you can manage around not flying if you really want to. A fear of anything limits our life choices. A fear of flying is no different. It is no longer a luxury afforded only to a certain class of person. It is there for us all to visit places that were not possible for our Grandparents or even parents without a lot of expense and hassle. So focus on the reasons to do it!

Lastly, think about that pilot flying the aircraft. Does he or she get on thinking this is a bit risky and I hope to see my family again!?  The atmosphere in a flight deck is calm and considered. It is not the high drama that Hollywood would have you believe.

Are there any further resources we recommend?

Virgin Atlantic Flying Without Fear course has been going since November 1997 so if you want a group course, there is none better. 

If you are looking for 1-1 help, the last government provided funding for CBT training which you could be referred through your GP. 

We wrote our own book recently called Flying without fear: 101 questions answered. This is a summary of the top questions we were asked over a one year period. We also released an I Phone App which is soon to be available in other formats such as Android. This has specific algorithms built in to help you prepare yourself for flying, in particular a large emphasis on counter conditioning – in other words, relaxing while thinking about the thing that scares you.

Finally, statistics

There are many statistics out there. My two favourites: Every day, in the world, there are 3,500 people killed on the roads (according to the Institute of Advanced Motorists) Makes you think when you compare it to the tiny number of aviation fatalities. 

The other favourite is that at any one time, there are over a million people in the air.  If your newspaper said, ‘Today 1 million people landed safely’ and it said that every day, no-one would buy that newspaper!

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