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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, April 20, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

Are you afraid to fly? (PHOTO: shutterstock.com )

Captains, flight attendants aim to ground flying fears


Although many studies report that the chance of dying in a plane crash are one in 11 million – which is statistically much lower than the likelihood of dying in a car wreck – many people still feel anxious about flying.

For some airplane passengers, it's tough to relinquish control to another navigator. Also, many believe that if a plane crashes they will automatically die, even though surviving a crash is a common occurrence thanks to modern safety devices including evacuation slides, turbine engines and advanced landing gear.

Bret Fett has been a commercial airline pilot for 12 years and he believes safety knowledge is key to fighting flying fears.

"I was terrified of flying when I first started. It's basically a fear of the unknown. The less you know about something, the bigger fear you'll have, but even when the engine stops in midair, the airplane won't fall out of the sky," says Fett.

Despite airplane improvements and statistics that reflect safe air travel – in 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 32,788 auto fatalities in this country, but not one fatality for the airlines in 2010 or 2011 – many passengers still find themselves scrunching their eyes shut and grabbing armrests during take-offs and landings.

Fond du Lac's Nina Schmidt is one of these people. Schmidt, an artist and the mother of three young children, flies about once a year to show her paintings in galleries outside of Wisconsin. Soon, she will fly to Philadelphia.

"I usually read a book on the flight – something light and funny – and try to remember to breathe," says Schmidt.

The thought of leaving kids behind is perhaps one of the leading reasons why adults feel anxious or become fearful of flying after their children are born.

"I don't think I would worry about flying at all if I didn't have kids waiting at home for me that I worry about getting back to," says Schmidt.

Other reasons why people feel anxious in airplanes include claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights) and agoraphobia (panic attacks sometimes related to not being able to escape confined places).

Previous bad experiences and exposure to media coverage of crashes in the past also contribute to fears.

Reading, watching a movie, meditating (or simply deep breathing) and thinking positive thoughts are all strategies to dissolve airplane stress. Talking to the pilot and flight attendants might help, too.

Captain Andrew (last name withheld at the request of his employer), a Milwaukee-based pilot who has worked for a major airline for 30 years, has comforting information for fearful flyers.

"One reason we train at our training center – about twice per year – is to ensure when something does go wrong, which is very, very rare in the actual operation, we are prepared to handle it," he says.

The fact that simulation flying really works proved to be true a few years ago for Andrew. While in cruise flight, the left engine on his 737 started compressor stalling and flames were shooting out of both ends of the engine.

"Since it was at night, the sight was quite alarming to my passengers as well as fight attendants," says Andrew. "When I saw the left engine instruments literally 'dancing' back and forth I recognized the problem and sort of laughed to myself and thought, 'Man I just did this two weeks ago in the simulator!'"

Two weeks earlier, Andrew had practiced almost the exact same emergency in a simulator at the training facility and he was able to make a safe emergency landing when it happened in real life.

"We ran the appropriate checklists, ultimately shutting down the left engine, informed the company, passengers and controlling FAA agencies of our intentions, diverted to Atlanta and accomplished a single engine emergency landing. It was a very busy 15-20 minutes," he says.

However, regardless of the arduous training that pilots undergo, Andrew still empathizes with fearful flyers.

"Flying can be a stressful experience. From getting up early at home and getting the family ready to go, to finding a parking spot, to getting in the endless lines from check-in to security – the whole process can produce anxiety in and of itself," he says.

Hence, arriving to the airport early, taking a cab instead of driving, wearing comfortable clothing, packing smaller bags and bringing snacks and water can help alleviate stress that might get layered on top of the anxiety.

Anne Heid has been a flight attendant with a major airline for 25 years and comes in contact with people who are fearful of flying. She tries to identify these passengers as quickly as possible and provide relaxation strategies if necessary.

"If I notice a customer who looks scared I always walk up to them with a calming smile and reassure them that we're going to be safe. I tell them to take some deep breaths to calm their anxiety, and tell them to read or listen to music to try and distract their fears," says Heid. "Most people have a fear of take-off and landings. Once we're airborne, they seem to relax." Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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