I've always had a strange irrational fear of flying.

I know that flying is still the safest way to travel, but it just seems like while I'm on a plane, every little bump or noise would worry me.

I just went through a little spate of travelling, though, with 8 flights in the last month, and I've managed to figure out how to make it endurable.

One thing that made a huge difference, strangely enough, is Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Flight Simulator had the exact plane model that I flew on for one of my trips, and the simulation detail is uncanny. The sound in the simulator is exactly what I remember the plane sounding like (although I guess most jet engines probably sound similar). But what was reassuring is taking the plane in Flight Simulator up to a decent altitude, and then experimenting with the plane.

Kill the throttle, let the plane go into a bit of a dive, then bring the engines back up and pull out of it. No problem. Hard bank, no problem. Play with the flaps.. put the gear down.. there's really nothing you can do, as long as you're a good distance from the ground, that a pilot isn't going to be able to fix.

So the next flight I was on, when I heard the engines cut power, instead of thinking "uh oh", I remembered doing the same thing in Flight Simulator, and the effect it had. No problem.

The other thing I learned is to watch the flight attendants. There are lots of things that happen during a normal flight - noises, turbulence, sudden course changes.. but if it's normal, then the flight attendants won't pay any attention to it. They've been through it.

Turbulence is rough air. Flying through turbulence bounces the plane around a bit. Of course the engineers that design these planes know what they're likely to encounter, so turbulence isn't going to be a problem during flight. It can make for a rough landing, though, if the plane gets blown around just as it's about to touch down, but at that point if anything did go wrong it's just going to make for a messy landing.

Learning more about what the plane is capable of is a big help. Here's a great Flying FAQ (written by a pilot) that answers a lot of questions about what's normal and how these things work.

To me there are three parts to flight.. Takeoff, Landing, and the rest of it. About 70% of crashes occur during takeoff or landing, but it's the part in between that I find the most uncomfortable. I'm not really sure why that is; I think it's just knowing that my well being depends on the machine I'm in not failing. If a car breaks down, you roll to a stop. If a ship sinks, you can always swim, but if the structural integrity of a plane fails, your seat cushion turning into a flotation device isn't going to safe you.

All you really have to depend on here are the standards that the FAA and the manufacturers of the aircraft set for maintenance. If the procedures are being followed, then the aircraft are inspected and serviced often enough that a plane is simply not going to fail unexpectedly.

So what's the risk? The risk is that the service wasn't done properly; that the dude who inspected the plane last missed something. Hey, it could happen (and I think it has happened).

To summarize, the risks are:

  • Terrorists - not likely. It happens, but not often enough to worry about.
  • Equipment Failure - also not likely, given the inspections and safety procedures.
  • Pilot Error - possible, but only on takeoff or landing, since during the flight, there's plenty of time to correct any errors.
  • Tower Error - air traffic controllers send you into another plane. Also possible, but again doesn't happen often enough to concern me.

The worst part, now, about flying, is sitting in a cramped chair for 5 hours with no Internet access.

One positive about flying is something that I thought the major airlines would have done away with years ago: You can bring your own food onto an airplane. It just seems like a perfect opportunity to sell expensive snacks to a captive audience, but none of the airlines I've flown on have ever had a problem with me bringing my own stuff on board.

(Lots more good reading here).