MY NAME IS Ian and I am an airport alcoholic. I’m a nervous flier and I get tragic and poetic when I’m drunk, so plane wrecks seem noble and profound instead of scary.
Unfortunately alcohol on a plane is prohibitively expensive on domestic routes and sometimes unavailable if you are flying in the Middle East.
So what I do to calm myself in those sober moments when flying between Cairo and Tunis—when my plane is midair and about to explode for no discernible reason—is plan exactly how I’m going to survive when catastrophe strikes.
The engines roar and I’m pinned to the back of my seat. I’m flying EgyptAir, which is fondly referred to as EgyptScare by anyone who flies it frequently. We pick up speed and then altitude. I’m not a religious man, but I begin to bargain with God.
For example: Dear God, please get me through this flight. I promise it will be the last one I ever take. I’ll use long-haul buses and ocean freighters from here on out. Also, I will start being nicer to people. I will give strangers hugs and I’ll call my mother.
Then turbulence. Just a little wiggle. My stomach hardly drops but I grab my armrests like I might otherwise be ripped from my seat, then I paste my face against the window and watch the wing while waiting for it to fall off. We will tumble downwards and I will scream and flail until we hit something hard.
Nothing happens and the turbulence stops, so I assume karma means I get a few extra moments to plan my escape from and survival of the inevitable catastrophe, which is just moments away.
I think about grabbing a blanket and strapping it to my back like a parachute. I think about timing my free-fall and trying the tuck-and-roll method ninjas use when leaping from high places. Or if I stay inside the cabin of the plane as it barrels downward, I’ll just jump exactly when we hit, offsetting the force of the impact. These all seem like very good ideas to me.
Then the plane jitters again and I go back to bargaining.
Every time I land safely at my destination, I feel brave and resolute and defiant. I say to myself, see, no reason to fear. And then I go about my trip.
But every time I go back to the airport, it’s a repeat scenario. So I have begun to address this issue as one of fear management as opposed to practice and refinement of survival techniques.
In light of this, I hit the books on the subject and here’s the knowledge I found that has helped calm my nerves on recent flights:
1. Know the Odds
According to OAG Aviation, an analytical service provider for commercial airlines, you have a 1 in 5.4 million chance of being involved in a plane accident with at least one fatality on any given flight. According to Plane Crash Info a website tracking airline crash statistics, that means a passenger would have to take one flight every day for 21,000 years before they would be involved in a fatal wreck.
And to put it into perspective: according to the National Safety Council, you have a 1 in 272 chance of dying in a car wreck or a 1 in 51,199 chance of dying in what they call a ‘cataclysmic storm’. If that isn’t something to cheer about, I don’t know what is.
2. Choose Your Airline
According to the same institution (OAG), your choice of airline has a big impact on accident rate. The top 25 airlines with the lowest rates are also the largest ones: for example, Delta, KLM, and United. Flying on one of the 25 airlines with the worst accident records, on the other hand, increases your chance of being involved in an accident by over thirty times. Domestic airlines in Africa, for example, tend to wreck more frequently.
For me, it’s a matter of common sense. I try to fly airlines with higher safety standards and ones from countries with regulatory agencies. Worst-case scenario, you’re stuck on one of the scariest airlines in the world. You still only have a 1 in over 150,000 chance of crashing.
3. Sit Near an Exit
The most common causes of death in a plane crash besides the initial impact are fire and smoke inhalation. For peace of mind: sit near an exit and in the aisle. You’ll have a better chance of getting out in case something did go wrong. And anyway, there is not enough air pressure at 35,000 feet to suck you out of the plane if one of the exit doors was ripped off in midair (which had always been my hesitation in sitting by one).
4. Sit in the Back of the Plane
This is not necessarily contradictory to the advice immediately preceding it: there are exits at the back of the plane as well. And according to Popular Mechanics, which analyzed 36 years of seating charts from plane wrecks, people who sit in the back of the airplane have a 40% higher chance of survival. Suddenly the last row, the one back by the lavatories, seems like better real estate than first class.
5. Wear your Seatbelt
According to an ambiguous ‘How to Survive a Plane Crash’ article I read online, one that cited none of its statistics, every centimeter of slack in your seatbelt triples the g-force of the impact as experienced by your body. Even if this isn’t true, the notion is calming and so I choose to believe it. So wear that seat belt tight and wear it while you’re sleeping!
6. Rule of Plus Three/Minus Eight
In an interview with Time, Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life, discussed what he learned at an FAA workshop on surviving plane crashes.
One startling statistic he revealed: research shows 80% of all plane crashes occur in the first three minutes or final eight of your flight. His suggestion? Don’t get on the plane, take off your shoes, put your headphones in, and fall asleep right away. Wait until you are safely in the air.
And if you tend to fall asleep during flights, set an alarm and get up before landing. Eleven minutes of awareness could save your life. You don’t want to be groggy or disorientated if you are trying to find the exit.
7. Know How to Brace for Impact
The best way to calm your nerves before flying is to inform yourself on how to survive if something did go wrong. So if the plane is going to crash, your posture can make all the difference in the world. Keep your head low to avoid any blunt trauma from debris flying around the cabin.
Put your hands on the seat back in front of you and then rest your head firmly on them. Maintain this position all the way through impact. This will help prevent head trauma, as the seat back will provide a softer surface as support for your head and neck. As opposed to, say, your tray table.
At the end of the day, flying is scary for some and not for others. I’m one of the people that will always be afraid of it no matter what I know. But I’ve found that controlling risk factors, like proximity to an exit, help limit the amount of fear I feel. So I manage what fear I can.
But if you are on a transoceanic flight and you hear what sounds like a small child in the back of the plane crying, rest assured that it’s just me wrestling with all my midair demons. And I’ll be fine so long as someone brings me a beer.
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