Hate to Fly? Just Wait Till You’re Older

“The rear of the plane seemed to fishtail in the wind, and I had visions of the entire craft splintering and all of us tumbling out into the sky.”

By Dave Riley

I TOOK MY FIRST FLIGHT when I was sixteen in a small four-seater owned by two acquaintances. They heard that a high school friend and I were going from Bangor to Boston, and because they needed some flying time, they said they would fly us there for just ten bucks each. (Those were different economic times. A gallon of gas for a car cost only nineteen cents, a postage stamp three cents, and a loaf of bread sixteen cents.)

We took off from a small airport across the Penobscot in Brewer. As we taxied out, I expected to see a sleek asphalt runway, but no way.   It was composed of loose gravel and small rocks, and as we gained speed the little craft shook and bounced all over. My friend John and I thought this was a real hoot. I recall laughing and joking.

But as I said, I was only sixteen. Aging, however, does something to flyers. At sixteen we think we are bullet-proof. At sixty (or seventy or eighty), not so much. Dr. R. Reid Wilson, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, says fear of flying increases with age. He says that, on average, it first grabs us when we are twenty-seven. The implication is that after that, it’s all downhill — admittedly an unfortunate metaphor.

planeDon Sherman, editor of Travel4Seniors, a guy who for years has flown regularly in his work, says he has a long aviation history, but lately he has air travel concerns. Decades ago, he writes, flying in clunky old Navy SNJs, PBYs, R4Ds and other vintage craft never bothered him. However, now in his advanced years, he needs to fight getting knocking knees in the air.

PEOPLE WHO HAVE STUDIED THE SUBJECT suggest there are at least two reasons why twenty-seven or thereabouts is a likely age for the onset of the white knuckle syndrome.

Responsibilities. By the age of twenty-seven most of us have families. When we get on a plane we worry about how they will do if the craft goes down and we are no longer there to help them.

Experience. At 16, for example, we are probably not big followers of the news and even if we are, we haven’t seen many reports of air crashes. By twenty-seven, however, we have read about and seen enough TV reports about air disasters to believe they are a real threat to us.

For some there is a third impetus: having lived through a truly frightening event on a plane — a landing in which you skid across the runway, a cabin inexplicably filling with smoke at 30,000 feet. After that, one’s confidence in air travel is likely to be forever shaken.

Our frightening experience happened later in life, shortly before we retired. Mrs. R. and I flew from a small airport in Walla Walla in eastern Washington to Portland, Oregon. Small, rural airports tend to be served by small aircraft. Our flight was in a turboprop called a Metro, which, according to Wikipedia, was the stalwart of such giants of the aviation industry as Bearskin Airlines, Key Lime Air, and Perimeter Aviation.

Unlike the huge Jet Blue craft that would take us from Portland to California, the Metro was a tiny thing that seated only nineteen. It was so small that it had only one seat on either side of the aisle, and passengers had to stoop to walk to their seat.

When we got to the airport it was rainy with high winds, and there were regular flashes of lightning. Eventually we took off and the flight wasn’t as rough as I expected — it was much worse. We were buffeted by frightening turbulence, so much so that for much of the flight, every passenger on board was clutching the metal rail on the seat immediately in front. At least one passenger was crying quite audibly. The rear of the plane seemed to fishtail in the wind, and I had visions of the entire craft splintering and all of us tumbling out into the sky. Periodically, we would go through several moments of relative calm, and then, without warning, the entire plane would bounce, much like a powerboat hitting a wave. Eventually, thankfully, we reached Portland. But flying, even in huge jets, has never been the same for us ever since.

ON ONE LIST OF THE TOP 100 PHOBIAS, fear of flying ranks right up there as number nine, affecting more than twenty-five million Americans, old and young. Other citations say it afflicts well over one-hundred million of us. Yet statistics prove irrefutably that you are more likely to be killed driving to the airport than on the actual flight itself. You can’t tell that to someone who has an ingrained case of aerophobia. In personal argumentation, facts lose to emotion every time. But research by University of Michigan safety experts Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan demonstrates that if you drive just 10.8 miles on an interstate, you expose yourself to the same risk of fatality as taking a domestic flight.

If you’re one of those superior beings who thinks fear of flying is a silly foible, take a look at the BDN article Sarah Smiley posted back in December of 2013.  I hope she’s over it by now, but regardless, her experience back then should convince anyone that for some people the fear is real and there’s nothing silly about it.



Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.