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Home > Air Turbulence > How can I stop the fear of air turbulence when I am on the plane?
How can I stop the fear of air turbulence when I am on the plane?
Weather - Air Turbulence
Tuesday, 28 April 2015 06:08

Understanding Air Turbulence

Hi Capt Lim,

How can I stop the fear of air turbulence when I am on the plane?


Hi Sami,

I have explained this topic numerous times in this website as well as in my book, Life in the Skies.

For example, in one of the chapter of my book, I wrote this to calm some passengers who are afraid that turbulence may be dangerous and cause the wings to snap off. I reproduce here…

“On long-haul flights, unfortunately, it is almost impossible to avoid turbulence. While pilots try their best to steer clear of the conditions that cause turbulence by deviating off the route or climbing and descending, there are times when they still get caught in normal turbulence that’s not easily observable.

During turbulence, if you look outside the window, you might see the wings flexing a little and the engine shaking slightly on the pylon. Do not be alarmed, as they are designed to do just that – the wings won’t actually snap off, neither will the engines drop off.

Please note that a pilot can fly safely through turbulence. It is generally more an issue of discomfort rather than safety, as long as you have your seatbelts fastened.

Can a plane wing break off? Not in the normal range of turbulence that planes are designed to withstand, only in the most extreme cases where enough force is applied. But the wings of a plane are incredibly strong and it’s unlikely for a plane to be caught in such extreme turbulence.”

I quote from Capt Tom Bunn, one of the gurus on fear of flying. He is more scientific in explaining this particular fear…

“Turbulence is the number one problem people have with what is called fear of flying. First, though what they see is the inside of the plane, what they imagine it the plane high up, and highly vulnerable. Second, they can't see anything holding the plane up. Though their rational brain may understand that air can hold the plane up, their emotional brain says "seeing is believing." The emotional brain - which is primarily visual - can't see anything holding the plane up. With nothing to hold it up, the plane should fall.

That's for starters. Then, when the plane drops in turbulence, the amygdala - the part of the brain that releases stress hormones - reacts. It is supposed to. If you were on a stepladder, lost your balance, and started to fall, the amygdala would zap you with stress hormones to make you aware of the problem.

It would be OK if the turbulence consisted of just one drop. But, no, turbulence means one drop after another after another. You get literally bombarded with stress hormones. When stress hormones build up, the ability to think normally fades, and then disappears. Something akin to temporary schizophrenia takes place. Reality testing vanishes. Whatever you have in mind is accepted as real. If, when the plane drops you imagine the plane might fall.

Imagination is not recognized as such. Though you are imagining the plane is falling, you accept that imagination as real. You believe the plane is falling.

There are two types of memory cells in the amygdala: quick learning memory cells, and slow learning memory cells. When two things happen at the same time, or in quick succession, the rapid learning cells link the two things together. But, if the first thing happens several times without the second thing happening, the quick learning cells do quick relearning; they unlink the two things.

The slow learning cells need the two things to happen at the same time or in quick succession several times before linking them together in the mind. Then, after linking them, if the two things stop happening together, the slow learning cells are slow to relearn that there is no connection between the two things.

In trauma, if something life-threatening happens, the quick learning cells link whatever is going on with the life-threat information. And, because it is a life-threatening situation, the slow learning cells also link together what is going on with the information that it is life-threatening. If the situation repeats a few times and nothing traumatic happens, the quick learning cells accept that. But, not the slow learning cells. They, as it were, refuse to ever accept that what once was convincingly life-threatening is not.

What does this tell us about turbulence? Once you have been in turbulence and believed you were in a life-threatening situation, the slow learning memory cells in the amygdala will continue - though not as strongly as at first - to react to turbulence.

This, I believe, explains why, no matter how I try to explain that turbulence is not a safety problem, anxious fliers who have had a bad encounter with turbulence still fear it.”

Hope that my explanation and those more scientific ones by Captain Tom Bunn would help you to understand why you should not be afraid of turbulence. Knowledge is power! Knowledge can help you to reduce your fear of turbulence!

Air Turbulence - Fear of Flying


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