Up in the Air

There are many cures for the fear of flying – the trick is finding one that works


In August of 2009  I found myself in the back row of a Delta Connection commuter plane dipping and weaving its way through a line of New Jersey thunderclouds when a full blown panic attack set in. The back row is a paradoxical place for a phobic flyer. It’s the furthest point from a plane’s centre of gravity, and turbulence often feels much worse back there than it does in the front or around the wings. Yet according to a study in Popular Mechanics, the back row is the place to be. In 2007, the magazine sifted through thousands of unanalyzed data points provided by the National Transportation Safety Board and finally determined that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there was one part of the airplane safer than the rest. The further back you sat, they concluded, the more likely you were to survive a plane crash.

The odds of surviving a plane crash have risen dramatically in the past few decades and some ninety-five per cent of people involved in a crash with a fatality actually live through it, although who survives depends a lot on timing, location, and how you are dressed (hint: wear tight clothing, preferably tight leather). According to the International Transport Association, the odds of a passenger being involved in an accident of any kind is 1 in 1.2 million. Your odds of dying are significantly less than that already remote figure. All these stats, however, are beside my more pressing point, which is that, on that night in August, 2009, I became convinced that my death in a fiery plane crash was imminent. My cheeks turned hot and my ears were buzzing as the plane shook from side to side and then dropped what felt like a couple hundred feet. I could hear myself struggling to take a deep breath—it must have sounded something like a panting dog—but my inner voice clamored with vindication: I had been right all along; I was going to die in a plane crash.

“Cabin crew, please take your seats immediately,” the Captain said.

A jolt hit the plane and I felt my stomach sink. The woman next to me grasped my hand and started praying quietly, reciting Hail Marys and Our Fathers at a fast clip. She got out her cell phone and called her husband, leaving a voicemail saying that, if she didn’t see him again, well, she loved him. I couldn’t reach for my cell. My one free hand was too tightly clasped to the armrest.

I started to talk myself down from the ledge of insanity. “If this plane makes it down to the ground safely,” I said to myself, “you don’t ever have to fly again.” If the episode were a disaster movie, this would be the part where, just before the climactic event, the protagonist would chat about the vacation he’s going to take when the impossibly difficult mission is over.

But the end was anticlimactic. After the plane dropped, it leveled off into a smooth descent and touched down flawlessly. My seatmate ungrasped my hand and we didn’t exchange a word. Perhaps she was a little embarrassed by her reaction to the turbulence. I wasn’t. I was giddy to be alive, although a little daunted by the prospect of returning to Edmonton from New York without flying.

Captain Tom Bunn is a retired pilot and therapist based in Connecticut who specializes in treating fearful fliers like me. When I told him about the episode, he wasn’t surprised that my knowledge of statistics had so little effect on my fear. “Your fear isn’t so much that the plane is going to crash,” he said. “It’s that you’re going to crash psychologically. You can’t keep your mind off the fact that you don’t have control. Even if you’ve practiced relaxation  exercises, once turbulence hits and the plane starts shaking, you can’t stop thinking about it.”

Bunn said people like me (an estimated ten to twenty per cent of the population suffer from severe fear of flying at some point in their lives) need the ability “to control or escape” uncomfortable situations. “People often ask me why they can get on their motorcycle but can’t get on an airplane.” Bunn thinks the answer lies in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of executive function—something he calls “your inner CEO.” When he said this, I cringed, picturing a mini-Donald Trump stomping around in my mind, making the rest of my brain feel small and insignificant. The more he talked, though, the more the analogy made sense. “When you’re driving a motorcycle, you’re making decisions now, and now, and now. Your inner CEO is assessing threats, making commitments, and developing a plan of action.” But once the door of the airplane cockpit shuts, Bunn told me, there’s simply no room or role for that executive function. It’s shut out. In other words, said Bunn, “You have no control over the situation.”

For most people, this is not an issue. Any unusual noise or turbulence is assessed by the prefrontal cortex and dismissed as not relevant. But fearful fliers, for whatever reason, cannot get their CEO to leave the office. Once the amygdala—the part of the brain that senses fear—starts sending stress hormones, “it doesn’t matter how many pills you’ve popped or drinks you’ve had,” Bunn said, “You’ve got problems.”

When my fear of flying first set in ten years ago, I sought solace in facts, statistics, and logic. But even statistics can get murky. “You are more likely to die on your drive to the airport than in an airplane crash,” I read on a fear of flying discussion board. Perhaps, but professional statisticians rarely get behind broad pronouncements such as this. Professor Arnold Barnett of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has pointed out how difficult it is to actually quantify airline safety. Are we to measure the relative safety of different forms of transport in distance traveled or in hours per journey? Hull loss per 100,00 departures? Maybe the numbers of passengers who arrived versus the number of passengers who died? All of these calculations lead to different pictures of airline safety relative to other modes of transport. Depending on how you measure safety, air travel might look far safer than ground transportation, or slightly more dangerous. If you’re looking for comfort in statistics, in other words, you have to be careful you don’t pick the wrong set.

For example, if you take the number of deaths per one billion passenger journeys—the airline insurance industry standard—you would see that there are more deaths (117 per billion) on airliners than there are by rail (twenty per billion). The problem with this metric, however, is that one train journey, even if it’s a local subway trip, has the same statistical value as a transatlantic flight to Siberia. Barnett cautions against this measurement and has instead opted for the grim, yet more reassuring, calculation of “death risk per randomly chosen flight.” If you take this as your metric, then, according to U.S. figures for flights between 2003 and 2008, your risk of dying on a flight is about one in twenty-three million. To put that in context, according to Barnett, there’s a greater possibility that a randomly chosen four-year-old will grow up to become a U.S. president than die in a plane crash.

Given those odds, why was I seriously considering taking the Greyhound back to Edmonton in the summer of 2009? I could blame it on an overactive inner CEO. But that would mean ignoring nearly a decade of history that began with a global cataclysm and ended with me on a series of flights that would have tested the mettle of the hardiest of fliers.

When the second plane struck the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. on September 11, 2001, I was directly underneath the buildings, at the WTC subway stop, on my way to work at the World Almanac and Book of Facts. It was a job with few surprises: there are no emergencies in the almanac business. I always looked forward to this part of the commute because many Brooklynites work in Lower Manhattan and the train would empty out, giving me a few minutes to sit down and read a book. My reading list had recently changed; by 2001, it was clear that the paper-bound almanac was going the way of the fax machine, so I had decided to go to graduate school. I carried around a workbook on analogies, constantly testing myself in preparation for the Graduate Record Exam. Taking one of the now-free subway seats, as usual, I spread out my workbook, but people came crushing through the doors, not in a panic, but in quiet determination. Someone bumped up against my book and briefly apologized. I felt slightly annoyed but got back to the task at hand. I kept reading. Corpulent is to slim as overweight is to lanky. Diamond is to ring as light bulb is to lamp.

Even though I was a recent arrival to New York, I had developed a technique for shutting out external stimuli. Long before my inner CEO started throwing fits at 30,000 feet, he was quietly managing life in the big city so efficiently that I didn’t register what was going on that day until half an hour later, when I emerged above ground uptown.

When I got to Penn Station it seemed like I had stepped on to the set of a disaster movie. People were stopped on the sidewalks, jaws dropping open as they stared down 8th Avenue to watch the first tower collapse. The lack of panic made me think it was an incredible stunt, and I continued on to work a little further uptown. Thinking back on it, it’s amazing how much calm there was during such a full-blown catastrophe. This is now commonplace in 9/11 literature, of course, but it’s often chalked up—mistakenly, I believe—to some sort of innate fortitude on the part of New Yorkers themselves. Disaster scholars have found the most common reactions to a major catastrophe are altruism and cooperation, not panic.

One week later, I was on a plane halfway across the United States, going to visit family in Oklahoma. I don’t recall the slightest bit of fear, but I do recall a bizarre announcement from the cockpit that, in the event of an attack by box-cutter-wielding terrorists, passengers should use the airline’s pillows as shields while overtaking the terrorists.

It was only two months later, after I returned from a wedding in California, that fear of flying began to wreak havoc on my life. I flew into John F. Kennedy Airport shortly before American Airlines Flight 587 crashed on a beach in Queens. It was a disaster that had nothing to with 9/11, but the two events became connected in my mind. I had flown right after 9/11, and now a plane had crashed near the same airport on the same day I was flying. A pattern of encroaching disasters seemed to be emerging—the proverbial tightening noose—and somehow I became convinced I wouldn’t be so lucky as to avoid the next one. At the same time, I knew this was crazy talk. It was the line of reasoning late-night AM radio callers use when explaining conspiracy theories. Still, when it came time to leave New York for graduate school in Texas, I rented a car, preferring three days on the road to three hours of anxiety in the air.

A year after 9/11, I was settling into life as a graduate student in Austin. When I chose conferences, I picked those I could drive to. I made plans to fly to California to see a friend, but backed out at the last minute. A premonition of dread turned into the beginnings of a panic attack the night before the trip. I was too busy, I told him on the phone, although he quickly figured out the real reason, and tried to taunt me into getting on the next flight. “When your plane gets here, and you’re stuck in Texas, you’re going to feel like shit,” he said. “Just man up and get on the next flight.”

Macho Tough Love, Therapy #1, was therapeutically ineffective. I watched planes overhead, almost hoping for one to burst into flames to prove to my friend I wasn’t crazy. But after my scheduled departure and arrival flights made it to their destinations without crashing, I knew it was time to find some help.

I combed through the list of mental health providers whose cost would be picked up by my insurance plan. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and alternative medicine practitioners. Where was a person supposed to even start? There were hundreds of names and a handful of acronyms: Ph.D., M.D., PsyD, M.S.W., LCSW. The modern mental health patient has a therapeutic smorgasbord at his disposal. Do you begin with an appetizer of Freudian talking cure and follow it up with some neurochemistry for the entree? Perhaps you gorge on the most clinical of the bunch—the behaviorists, a terrifying group who will lead you directly to your phobia and expose you to it repeatedly until you are either cured or insane. Having no context from which to assess the array of choices, I followed a rigorous intellectual process and went with the name with the longest list of titles.

Lisa R. was an M.D. with the added bonus of a Ph.D. in psychiatry, but getting in to see her was no problem. She had no secretary and seemed surprised that a new patient would be calling her. She held late-night office hours in a condo on the fringes of Austin. I rang her bell and could see a slight, pixieish woman with greying hair through a side window, walking gingerly toward the door in a purple jogging suit and cross-trainers. She seemed to have just awoken from a nap.

She gave me a limp handshake, asked me to sit down, and had me repeat my reasons for coming to see her. At first, she made copious notes on a yellow legal pad, but, after about ten minutes, she stopped writing, and gazed a spot on the wall only slightly above my head.

“When are you flying?” she finally said.

“One week,” I said. I was going to Florida for Spring Break.

She wrote out three prescriptions, all with a refill. For the time being, she said, I should medicate. When I got back, I should try Emotional Freedom Technique, hypnotherapy, or even yoga. For now, though, only pills would do.

“Don’t wait until you’re having a panic attack to take one,” she said. “Be on top of it. If you feel anxiety, take one immediately.” She showed me how to stick the pill in between the lining of the lip and the gums, where it dissolves almost immediately into the blood stream. There was something disturbingly unprofessional about how she pulled out her lower lip and simulated putting a pill into her mouth.

I walked into the pharmacy feeling a slight sense of shame, as if I was doing something on the threshold of lawlessness. Perhaps I was projecting, but I detected a note of disapproval from the way the pharmacist asked me, almost in a whisper, if I had ever taken these drugs before, examining me from over his eyeglasses.

I told him I hadn’t and he sighed. A few minutes later, he came back with three bottles of drugs: Ambien, Klonopin, and Xanax. He warned me against taking the last two at the same time, since they were essentially the same thing: a class of drugs known as  benzodiazepines.

When the day of the flight arrived, I dumped a few pills in my jeans pocket. Watching the lines for check-in and security, I felt my cheeks get hot and my feet go numb. I made it through and stood at the window inspecting the plane. Inside that aluminum tube were miles of wires ready to short-circuit and start a fire. The vertical stabilizer, what was it made of? How much stress could it take before it broke off? The runway might be littered with something sharp enough to cause a blowout, starting off a chain of events leading to an accident like the one that brought down the Concorde in Paris in 1999. The more I inspected the plane, the more possibilities for a crash came to mind. I wanted to back out of this flight, too, but pride pushed me on to the plane.

I reached in my pocket, and stuck a pill into my gums the way Lisa had shown me, shortly before take off. It was a breeze, a smooth ride the entire way without a hint of turbulence. A week later, however, storm clouds had formed and there were delays at the airport in Miami. Standing in line to board the flight home, I reached in my pocket and picked out two pills, one orange and one white. Take-off was bumpy and I gripped the hand rests, waiting for the magic of the benzodiazepines to kick in, but nothing happened.

The captain came on and said that we were reaching our cruising altitude and that the rest of the ride would be smooth. Something about the way he urged the passengers to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight calmed me down. The seatbelt light went off with a ding and then the beverage cart came around. I ordered a Bloody Mary, downed it and rested my head against the window, watching the plane cruise effortlessly across the Gulf of Mexico.

The next day, I got a call from a friend about plans we had made on the way home from the airport. I was confused. I couldn’t remember the conversation. I couldn’t remember the ride home from the airport. I couldn’t remember anything after gulping down the Bloody Mary and resting my head against the plane. There was a sixteen-hour void in my memory bank, as if I had died for a short period and then come back to life. The thought of repeating the experience of literally losing a piece of myself was more frightening than flying, which, at least in theory, could be treated. Therapy #2, Modern Neurochemistry, would have to be a worst-case scenario tool.

My experience with Therapy #3, Emotional Freedom Technique, didn’t last very long. EFT was developed in the early nineteen-nineties by a Californian named Gary Craig, who took the basics of acupuncture and turned it into a form of psychobabble. The idea is that by tapping with your fingers along meridians in your body, you will release negative energy. It seemed like quackery, but it was covered by my insurance policy so I decided to try it.

While you tap, you also repeat an affirmation that deals with the trauma or phobia you are trying to overcome. My EFT trainer, Amy, worked with me on a mantra. Amy’s office was full of beads and crystals. She played a CD of Amazonian wind-pipes. “What are you most afraid of?” she asked.

“Take-off,” I said.

We walked through an imaginary flight while she tapped on my forehead, cheeks, chin, and arms. Finally, she settled on a mantra that I had to repeat over and over: “I will get on the airplane and arrive safely.”

While I repeated this line, the tapping continued down the arms. She started all over again, and I started to get annoyed. The tapping under the eye socket was particularly bothersome. After round four, the only thing I was able to repeat in my mind was “I need to get the hell out of here.”

When I told Amy I would reschedule after I got back from my next trip, she told me she wasn’t sure I was ready to fly after one EFT session. She thought I might want to delay my travel plans until I was totally confident in my tapping abilities. I decided to suspend my disbelief and work on the mantra and the tapping until my next flight. Plus, I had plenty of Xanax and Klonopin left over from my visit with Lisa. Between Therapy #2 and Therapy #3, I was pretty sure I’d make it through the flights; they were just quick jaunts from Austin to New Orleans.

On the first flight, I popped a Xanax and found my way to a window seat, where I commenced tapping and saying my phrase: “I will get on the plane and arrive safely.”  A man two seats over read a newspaper, but he kept looking at me out of the corner of his eye. I know this because I, too, was looking at him from the corner of my eye, worried that he might become worried about my tapping and have me escorted off the plane.

During take-off, my tapping got harder. The temple and chin pressure points got sore and I began to feel ridiculous, especially after the captain came on and said that the flight was so short that we wouldn’t even have time for a drink. I was promised emotional freedom, but what I got was emotional distraction, which was good enough for a forty-minute flight in perfect weather.

My brush with paramedical therapy made me hungry for the exactitude of science. For Therapy #4, I wanted someone who specialized in phobias, so I sought out the Laboratory for the Study of Anxiety Disorders at the University of Texas at Austin. The lab is run by Michael Telch, an expert in phobias. I seemed like a good fit. I took their online survey, and awaited a phone call or an email. Based on the battery of questions, it seemed that I had phobia-lite, whereas Telch’s lab often deals with people who are completely incapacitated and can’t even bear to leave the house.

Telch is a great believer in exposure therapy. If you’re scared of spiders, Telch gradually brings a spider closer and closer, until it’s crawling on your head. It seemed pretty basic, but I didn’t see how it would translate into therapy for fear of flying.

It was around this time that I called Capt. Bunn for the first time. Apart from designing a fear of flying course on CD, Bunn is available for short—and expensive—one-on-one sessions. If you think you might back out of a flight—as I did a few times—Bunn will talk you through it, and give you enough confidence to get on board. Bunn says he had started out doing exposure therapy in the early nineteen-eighties when he flew for Pan Am. “You just sit there on the ground in an airplane with a bunch of scared fliers,” he said. “It doesn’t really work. After the ‘graduation flight,’ some people were so scared they never flew again.”

As a result, Bunn developed a course called SOAR, a hybrid of many psychological approaches. He tries to get fearful fliers to replace the negative images they associate with flying for positive ones through “strengthening exercises.” I bought his CDs and listened to them in the car, trying to turn the dark cloud of my fear into happy thoughts. If you’re scared of turbulence, he said, think of your airplane as a little plastic airplane in the middle of a cup of Jell-O. It might shake and wiggle, but it will never crash. He also tried to get me to imagine the flight as a cartoon: the turbulence was some segment of a Looney Tunes strip with Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. I wanted to believe in SOAR, but these analogies seemed forced. For it to work, you had to truly believe in it.

My inner CEO had always been a bit of a rebel, and it felt like I was being force-fed some childish images instead of dealing with the real problem. But what was the real problem? I didn’t know, and that’s what led me to Therapy #5, The Talking Cure.

For Therapy #5, I found a licensed Social Worker at the University of Texas who specialized in post-traumatic stress disorder, and we seemed to hit it off. The social worker, Andrew P., was a slightly overweight guy who smiled a lot. We were about the same age—around thirty—and it seemed like, in another context, we would be buddies. At first, Andrew suspected that I had PTSD and tried some cognitive work to deal with it. He told me to drive to the airport, park as close as I could to the terminal, and simply watch airplanes take off and land until the sense of dread was gone.

I found a dirt road just beyond a perimeter fence, and managed to get close enough to a landing strip that I would sometimes have to cover my ears from the noise of the departing planes. I did this a few times, but it only provoked a new source of anxiety. In those first few years after 9/11, everyone was paranoid about another terrorist attack, and some of that paranoia started to affect me in a strange way; I thought that my repeated trips to this dirt road would be noticed by security and I would seem suspicious. This meant I was unable to wholly focus on the planes landing and taking off.

At times, my fear of flying started to provoke awkward questions. As part of Capt. Bunn’s SOAR course, I had a letter of introduction that would permit me to meet the pilot as I boarded the plane. I told a flight attendant I was a nervous flier and I hoped I could meet the captain. I waited near the entrance until the entire plane had boarded. Finally, the pilot stepped out and looked at me quizzically. “How can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m an extremely anxious flier and it was suggested to me that meeting the captain might calm my fears,” I said.

“Right,” he said. “How do you say that in Arabic?”

I must have suddenly looked panic-stricken because he slapped me on the shoulder and said everything was going to be just great. Perhaps a few bumps on the way up, but nothing to worry about.

I told Andrew that the trips to the airport didn’t seem to have much of an effect, that I was just as nervous before flying as I had ever been. He threw out his initial diagnosis of PTSD and started asking me about my childhood. I remain unsure if this was Andrew’s attempt at psychoanalysis (he refused to be interviewed for this story) but, before I knew it, we were plumbing the recesses of my earliest memories. When I mentioned that my father had died when I was five years old, at the age of thirty-six, he seemed shocked.

The  next week, it was all about my father. Perhaps, Andrew suggested, my phobia of flying was a transference of my fear of dying at a young age like my dad. Perhaps my fear of flying was simply a question of coming to terms with the death of my father. He seemed more enthusiastic about this Freudian turn in the therapy than I did. He even gave me homework: my task was to write a letter to my father, explaining my deepest fears and regrets to him. Like a good student, I completed my task, but catharsis was not forthcoming. And again I wondered if my lack of a breakthrough was the fault of my own skepticism—if my inner CEO had become an overzealous literary critic, deconstructing everything to the point that he could believe in nothing.

But maybe it wasn’t me at all: perhaps Andrew had fallen prey to some clichéd trope of pyschoanalysis. Why did everything have to boil down to metanarratives like the Oedipal complex? As I saw it, it wasn’t that complicated: I had developed a phobia of flying and, unlike many phobics, I understood that my fear was completely irrational and I wanted to get rid of it. Andrew, however, thought he had tapped into something deeper. I had another, bigger, trip coming up—this one to Europe for an entire year—so I went back, hoping for a breakthrough. This time, though, he dropped a bomb on me.

“If I seemed taken aback about your dad, it’s because my dad died at the same age,” he said.

Suddenly, all manner of therapy seemed like a messy subjective system that said more about the therapist than it did the patient. Had we been working through my psychological problems or Andrew’s?  I didn’t want to find out. At this point, after Therapy #5, I just wanted more pills.

I went back to Dr. Lisa for another refill of Xanax, Klonopin, and Ambien. I would be in Paris for a year, and if I needed to knock myself out to stay on the flight, I would do it. What choice did I have? This time, the idea of blacking out —of losing part of my life forever—actually seemed appealing. As the date of departure grew closer, the more anxious I became. It seemed impossible that I would be able to spend eight hours on a plane without completely losing my mind.

A week before departure day, I got a rare phone call from my aunt, a reborn fundamentalist Christian who makes the periodic attempts at converting the largely apathetic Episcopalians in my family. She had heard that I had refused to get on a flight because I thought it was going to crash. Her first push came in the form of DVDs and CDs that touted a sort of Christian self-help ethos. The next phone call carried an invitation to her church; I accepted with the enthusiasm of an anthropologist being asked to a pipe-smoking ceremony with a lost tribe in New Guinea. My aunt, somehow, and for reasons I chose not to investigate, had become quite close to the televangelist Richard Roberts, who had presided over my uncle’s funeral. I expected her church to resemble Roberts himself: gaudy, kitschy, and completely fake. I had expected gold-tinted glass and purple velvet thrones.

But it wasn’t a church at all. The “Worship Center” was more SoHo than Southern Fundamentalist, with its espresso bar and stained concrete floors. An alt-rock Christian band warmed up the crowd and then a preacher named Bill, a guy with the build of a linebacker and closely cropped hair, took the stage and tried out a few jokes. This, I decided on the spot, would be Therapy #6, Conversion.

After working on the crowd for awhile, Bill rolled up his sleeves and got serious. “If there’s anyone here tonight who’s ready to receive the Lord Jesus Christ into their soul, I ask you to come forward,” he said.

A few people came forward.

“If there’s anyone here tonight in need a of prayer, please come forward,” Bill said.

More people came forward. It began to look like a rugby scrum on the dais.

My aunt squeezed my hand, letting me know that this was my turn. “Praise the Lord,” she said.

I couldn’t move. I wanted to flee but felt trapped, a sensation, I noted ironically, that I often felt on an airplane.

Up front, Bill put his hands on the shoulders of the people who had come forward and then closed his eyes. He began to cast out demons and fill people with Holy Ghost power. “Amen!” people shouted. One of my aunt’s friends asked if she could “pray on me.”

“Sure, why not?” I said. The whole service got very touchy-feely, but who knew, maybe it would work? There is some scholarly evidence to suggest the laying on of hands can actually enact a kind of healing. Even the tapping of EFT has shown some positive results for those willing to believe it is going to work. And no one believed harder than these charismatic Pentecostals. Next to me, someone started speaking in tongues, his eyelids clenched together in the utmost concentration. I felt a little jealous that a group of people could be so earnest in their beliefs that they would risk appearing so silly.

Looking over this scene, I thought of Pascal’s Wager. “God is, or He is not,” wrote Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century philosopher. In choosing to believe or not to believe, we are making a sort of bet: “But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separates us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.” In the end, you have to believe or not believe. Given that situation, says Pascal, why not bet on the proposition with the biggest up-side: eternal salvation.

It seemed to me that Cognitive-Behaviorists, EFT practitioners, psychoanalysts, and evangelical Christians had all made their wager. They had gone all-in for the belief that the dark forces roiling around in the psyche could be brought to heel through some practice in the human mind. As a skeptic, I had grown accustomed to looking down my nose at such blind faith. But Pascal tells us not to judge anyone who has made such a wager: “Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it.”

Was I not to wager at all? That would be impossible. You had to wager, so why not bet on the side with the statistical odds in its favour? Twenty-three million to one—those were pretty good odds. Statistics, however, also work in strange, paradoxical ways, since anxious fliers become fixated on the one instead of the twenty-three million. “You start to say, ‘well, I will be the one’,” says Bunn.

Although the rate of accidents is at a record low,  Arnold Barnett acknowledges that there may be problems in the future with overloaded runway traffic and more terrorism. The safety of air travel, Barnett says, has created a paradox. “You might say they’ve done all these things to harden aviation since 9/11. Well, that’s true, but paradoxically that can actually increase the risk of aviation terrorism. Because, if they can hit us at the places where we’ve done everything we can to reduce vulnerability, and succeed, you can say that the national demoralization will be greater than it would be if you hit a target that no one believes you can protect.”

Still, “the risk is remarkably low,” he said. “It’s not something we should worry about. There’s no benefit to living in fear. Basically we have to take certain risks in life if we want lives worth living.”

Last summer, I finally engaged in my own all-in wager with my fear of flying. It was time. After years of trying every “cure” I could find, it was time. I planned to fly with my wife and two-year-old son from Edmonton to Ecuador, then on to Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. Ten flights in thirty days. Our first South American destination, Quito, has an infamous airport with a landing strip deemed obsolete for modern aviation. If we survived Quito, I thought, we would probably be OK.

By the end of the trip in July, we had gone through massive delays due to bad weather and airplane maintenance issues. We were grounded for three days in Lima because of a volcano eruption in Chile. We argued with airlines. We bitched and moaned about extra fees, leg room and crappy food. I tried to get some rest in an aisle seat while a bad Hollywood movie dubbed into Spanish played in the cabin. Yes, I had a supply of Xanax, but it ran out before the final stretch back to Canada. Each flight was a little easier than the previous one, and the excitement of a new destination every few days trumped my anxiety—sometimes just—about getting on the plane. By the final leg from Toronto to Edmonton, we had been travelling for twenty hours straight. I was too exhausted for fear. In front of us, a couple of drunk women from Grande Prairie complained when the cabin crew cut them off. I tried to ignore them and found a nook for my head in between seats where I could get a couple hours’ sleep before we got back home.

I had learned, in other words, to fly like everyone else.


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