By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jan 11, 2013 at 9:03 AM Photography:

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."Michelle Foshey Thull worked as a flight attendant for 10 years and she would tell nervous passengers comforting flying factoids.

"I would explain that on the aircraft there are at least two back-ups on stuff. Like, if the hydraulics go out, they can hand crank down the landing gear. And most planes can fly on one engine. Usually when people realize that they calm down," says Thull.

Tragedies like Sept. 11 and the would-be shoe bomber have made the airplane cabin even tenser for some. Also, many passengers worry unnecessarily because they are misinformed about turbulence and think that it's a sign something is wrong instead of a natural part of air travel.

"From a pilot's perspective, as long as every one is in their seats with seat belts fastened, turbulence is really a non-event. It may be scary, but every airplane is able to handle the most severe turbulence," says Andrew. "You have to think of the jet stream as a river of air moving through the sky; sometimes you cross the river and it gets rough in the middle and then smooths out later."

After three decades as a pilot, Andrew has found that interacting with fearful flyers as the captain does not calm their nerves. Instead, he arrives early at the gate and spends time speaking to the gate agent so he is seen by the passengers. If passengers want to speak to him, he is happy to chat.

"I stand in the door of the cockpit for a while also greeting some as they get on board. I make timely announcements giving as much information as I have available," he says. "I find that these actions seem to put my passengers in a better frame of mind and hopefully relieves any anxiety some of them may have."

Drinking alcohol to relieve stress might do the trick in small amounts, but passengers need to remember that the effects are intensified at higher altitudes and because of the pressurization of the cabin, they will feel intoxicated more quickly in the air than on the ground.

"Some people like to have a drink to help calm their nerves, but having several drinks doesn't do you any good when you end up at your destination drunk and dehydrated," says Heid.

According to Beth De Bord, who was a flight attendant with now-defunct Midwest Airlines from 2004 to '07, alcohol and prescription drugs affect people up to 10 times more in the air than on the ground.

"Any drug ingested on the ground, upon entering 35,000 feet altitude has 10 times the effect. Anyone drinking or taking valium might find themselves loopy, funny, asleep or belligerent," she says.

Meredith Whiteman was a passenger on a flight three years ago to New York when an inebriated man became angry and disorderly.

"It was really scary. You realize you are trapped in a space with this outrageously drunk person and it's not like they can kick him out," she says.

According to Whiteman, the man was restrained by a male flight attendant and eventually fell asleep.

The best way to overcome flying fears, according to Andrew, is to remember the simple fact that flying is safe.

"This past year was one of the safest on record in aviation history. There is a whole system in place to do everything possible to ensure air travel is and remains safe," he says.

"As the captain, I take my responsibilities to my passengers and my crew very, very seriously. I will not fly if I am not completely satisfied with the condition of the aircraft as well as any other conditions which may affect the flight I am in command of. Simply put, I wouldn't fly the flight if I didn't think it was safe."

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.