Photo by Gray Kotze/Shutterstock; design by Emily Blevins
Design by Emily Blevins
Despite years of white-knuckle flights, there was no way AFAR’s Michelle Baran was going to stop flying. She knew she had to beat her fear—she just didn’t know how.
I can remember the precise moment my fear of flying began and the precise moment it ended. The seven-year period in between, however, is a foggy recollection of flights spent death-gripping the armrests, sobbing uncontrollably, and having concerned fellow passengers ask me if it was my first time flying.
It was not.
I have been traveling the world since my parents got me my first passport when I was three years old. I always loved traveling and flying. The hustle and bustle of the airport, the indulgent solitude of my airplane seat and getting to be alone with my books and movies, lost in my own little world and on my way to a new one, had always been such a thrill to me. To this day, the excitement of arriving in a new place remains one of the greatest pleasures of my life.
So, how did I go from that to having a crippling fear of flying? I will honestly never be quite sure why it happened, but I definitely know when it did. It was the summer of 2000, I was on break from college, and my best friend and I were on a late-night flight to New York from California to surprise her twin sister, who was doing a summer residency program at Cornell University. We were playing a game and chatting when lightning began striking outside the plane, accompanied by a great degree of turbulence.
And for some reason I became convinced that the plane was going down. My friend’s voice went into a kind of Charlie Brown teacher mumble as I looked outside with growing concern, and I told her I couldn’t talk anymore. I spent the rest of the flight silently possessed by panic.
After college, I went on to graduate school and then became a fashion editor and soon after a travel editor. As my opportunities to travel grew, so too, did my fear of flying. The slightest bump on any flight made my heart pound. If the turbulence was pronounced or prolonged, the chair gripping, the tears, and the sweating would kick in. Landings were usually awful: Surely we were going in at too much of an angle or the plane was swaying too much for us to land safely.
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My paranoia knew no bounds. I would inspect the pilots and the flight crew upon boarding to see if they looked responsible and sober (Did that guy have bags under his eyes? Is this pilot fit to fly this plane?). I would come up with ridiculous, superstitious ideas—if a plane had a greater number of babies and small children on it than usual that surely meant it wouldn’t go down because the universe just wouldn’t allow such a tragic thing to happen. Sometimes I got so upset and panicked that flight attendants would ask if it would help for me to meet the pilot. I usually declined, mostly out of shyness, but also because I didn’t think it would help calm my fears.
Total strangers tried to console me. Those most helpful would ask me about anything unrelated to the flight, such as what I did for a living (the fact that I was a travel editor always got a bit of a chuckle), where I was from, or where I was going. But inevitably the distractions were short lived and my attention would revert to my impending doom.
But I did want to beat this thing—I needed to beat this thing. There was zero chance that I was going to stop flying and traveling. So, I started to make attempts at recovery. When I was calm enough to, I would ask flight attendants and fellow passengers who appeared at ease why the turbulence didn’t make them nervous. I read articles about flight safety and the causes of turbulence. I was trying to take the same approach to my fear as I would to a story assignment. I was gathering insights and the facts with the hope that they would convince me that I had nothing to fear.
It didn’t work.
Anyone who has experienced fear or anxiety knows that both can be irrational. So, trying to fight this fear with reason was a losing battle. But I was getting pretty desperate. I was traveling internationally as often as once or twice a month for my previous job as a senior editor at Travel Weekly, and each time I arrived, I was physically and emotionally fatigued far beyond the already tiring demands of travel.
But finally, in 2008, relief came in a place and at a time I would have least expected it—in Kenya during a period of heightened political violence. As a part of my job, I would often travel to popular tourism destinations soon after they had experienced some kind of strife in order to gauge what the situation on the ground was for travelers, whether they could feel comfortable visiting. At the beginning of that year, a political crisis in Kenya turned deadly following an election, and tourism in the once-popular safari destination evaporated practically overnight.
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The tour operator Big Five Tours & Expeditions helped me connect with an intrepid group of veterinarians who hadn’t been thwarted by the unrest, and in February 2008, I accompanied them on their trip to Nairobi, Masai Mara, and Mount Kenya. Because of the clashes, the tour organizers decided to fly us from Nairobi to the Mara, rather than drive us through a potentially dangerous conflict zone.
This, I thought, is where it all ends for me. A last-minute change of plans to fly us in a small, not particularly reliable-looking prop plane—for someone with a fear of flying, this was the stuff of nightmares.
As I walked toward the plane with extreme trepidation, I was practically mowed down by veterinarians racing to get window seats in the chartered plane. They all wanted to take advantage of what would be epic views as we flew over the Kenyan countryside.
That was the precise moment when my fear of flying vanished as quickly and as suddenly as it had arrived. It dawned on me that while I was dreading this flight, my travel companions were ecstatic about it. A flight over the Mara was a total upgrade, an opportunity to see beautiful landscapes and wildlife from a privileged vantage point.
In fact, flying anywhere is a privilege, I realized. I had been looking at it all wrong. I had been living an enchanted life—not a perpetually doomed one—and I owed it to myself and to others less fortunate to embrace and appreciate the opportunities flying affords me. I simply needed to change my perspective. Why should I dread something so wonderful?
From that moment more than 10 years ago, I never feared another flight. I now see flying as the amazing gift of modern technology and transportation that it is. I recall that excitement I felt as a young girl and I try to recapture it each time I board.
Will this work for others with a fear of flying? I don’t think it’s that simple, honestly. I think everyone is on their own journey when it comes to their fears and anxieties. And I wish I could say this change of perspective has helped alleviate other forms of anxiety for me, but it hasn’t fully. I have a lot of anxiety surrounding the health of my two small kids, for instance. But I feel like this experience gave me a unique window into fears and how to cope with them that I never would have had otherwise.
Every once in awhile, I see someone on a flight suffering the way I once did and I truly empathize. I don’t miss those stress-ridden years. I can only hope that person will find an easier path forward and maybe even come to enjoy and appreciate air travel the way I have anew.
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