Five reasons to relax on an airplane

Statistics suggest that 1 in 3 people are anxious or fearful of flying.

I am one those people.

Every time I get on an airplane I have the classic symptoms: rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, a purse full of anti-anxiety medications and those darting eyes that look toward every minor squeak outside of the plane as I find my seat. 

Overcoming a fear of flying may be difficult for some, but wary passengers can rest easy as features and standards of airplanes make them safe for the sky.

Photo courtesy of David James Clarke

Fastening my seat belt, I repeat the statistics over in my head. As the airplane taxis out to the runway, I know in my mind that my chances of being involved in an airplane accident are 1 in 11 million — but the butterflies in my stomach always tell a different story.

While my love of travelling keeps me from chickening out at the check-in counter, images of fireballs run through my mind and white knuckles after a bit of turbulence make it difficult for me to relax while in the air.

Determined to conquer my fear before my next trip overseas, I hunted down industry professionals to put to rest the myths and to give me some reasons to relax during my next flight.

My hunt turned out to give me more than I bargained for. The next thing I knew I was being dared to take control of a tiny Cessna, 6,000 feet in the air, to experience firsthand why it is nearly impossible for an airplane to crash.

Here is what I found out — with shaking hands — as I grasped the pilot’s steering wheel.

Airplanes will fly without engines

Shocking, I know, but it is true. Flight instructor Ian Stevenson of Mount Royal University’s aviation program demonstrated this by taking me up in a small plane and turning off the engine at 6,000 feet. As the tiny propeller stopped spinning in front of my wide eyes, my hands reached to brace for the fall — and nothing happened.

Aerodynamics make it possible for the plane to simply glide through the air with no horsepower. Pilots are trained to land in these kinds of situations.

While it is extremely rare that this would ever happen, especially on commercial aircraft, which have more than one engine, it’s a relief to know that an airplane will never just drop out of the sky.

Airplanes are built to high standards

Airplanes go through several rounds of testing and inspection before leaving the runway.

“Aircrafts pass many levels of inspections not only by the companies who build them, but also by government agencies and the airlines that fly them,” says Leon Cygman, the assistant chair of aviation at MRU. “They are designed and then thoroughly tested to see if they can withstand heavy winds, strong turbulence and all kinds of weather.”

Nervous fliers who tense up when the wings shake on the runway can rest easy — their flexibility is what makes them so strong, Cygman says. He gives the analogy of trying to break a cooked spaghetti noodle by applying pressure to the end of it.

Airplanes have many safety features built-in

Commercial aircrafts are the mini-vans of the sky in terms of safety. They are equipped with enough features to make any soccer mom rest easy during her trip.

Radar technology helps to inform pilots about their distance from any other object in the sky and let them know how far they are from the ground in situations where visibility may be limited. All systems are checked multiple times by pilots before each flight — regardless of the size of the plane or the airline.

“The checks and balances that go into a flight are based on the safety of the passengers,” Cygman says. “No airline wants to see their logo crashed in the field somewhere. So it is in their best interest to follow all safety procedures.”

Pilots are trained to high standards

Most pilots are required to have at least 4,000 hours of flight time under their belt before being considered for a position at a commercial airline, Stevenson says. He eases my nerves as he informs me that he has well surpassed that amount.

“Pilots go through mandatory regular safety checks where they are put into simulators and are tested on what to do in hazardous situations,” Cygman says.

There is always a backup plan

Before taking off in the single-engine Cessna plane, Stevenson put my mind at ease by explaining that — unlike cars — there is always a backup plan in an airplane.

By this he means that there is always a safety net in case something goes wrong. There are typically two engines, two pilots and a pile of maneuvers that can be executed to prevent a crash in an emergency.

Cygman agrees, adding that today’s planes are equipped with computers that can control the plane once in the air and perform a landing itself if need be.

Soaring high above the Calgary skyline with my hands on the pilot’s wheel, my nerves began to calm as I found my groove amongst the clouds. As Stevenson regained control and prepared to land the tiny plane, I let out a sigh of relief — sure that the next time I soared high above the clouds I would be able to relax knowing that I was in good hands.

tbrown@cjournal.ca