Dealing with turbulence anxiety

What will cure a travel addiction? Is it possible to get tired of travel? Can other activities take its place?

2016 is almost over and I haven’t posted anything in months. The truth is that I’ve been struggling a bit. I’ve had flights booked, then postponed them to next year, unwilling or unable to leave home and work life. Instead of dreaming of flights I’ve been practising my karate strikes.

Casting a dark pall over my dreams of travel has been a fear of turbulence. In January I found myself in Singapore curled up and physically ill at the thought of another flight. I survived and even enjoyed the next few flights in that trip, but then in May hit heavy turbulence between Australia and Japan.

The excitement at the thought of another adventure was replaced by a sense of dread.

That isn’t good. Limiting myself to ground transport just isn’t an option. And it’s silly. The aircraft isn’t going to fall out of the sky due to turbulence.

I saw on a couple of flight documentaries that there are courses for those that fear flying. I really wanted to do the Fearless Flyers course run in conjunction with Qantas. They get tours of Qantas facilities, the air traffic control tower, talk to staff and a flight at the end of it.

Unfortunately the timing just didn’t work out, so I did the Fear of Flying course instead.

The first couple of sessions are with a psychologist where you learn slow breathing and muscle relaxation techniques, along with understanding the brain’s fear processes.

The point is to change the brain’s “fight or flight” process in response to a perceived external threat by teaching it that the situation generating the anxiety is not actually dangerous. You consciously intervene in the negative thought train by providing yourself with alternative ideas. By relaxing your body you through the physical exercises you are also damping down the physical feedback. You can’t be tense if you are relaxed!

This made a lot of sense to me. All I had to do was think back to my previous flight back from Japan to Cairns. Early on in the flight we experienced a couple of bouts of bad turbulence and I was pretty tense. But later on, as weariness increased and I was a lot calmer I found myself quite relaxed and even happy as we skirted big storms over Papua New Guinea.

I was due to fly up to Cairns during this period, but couldn’t bare to be away from the family. Instead, on what I thought was a perfectly calm day, I took a flight down to Canberra on a Qantas turboprop. Our final descent was quite rough and we made a hard landing, but I found the relaxation techniques made it a lot easier to cope.

To help provide the alternative modes of thinking I then had a couple of hours talking with a highly experienced Qantas captain. John has flown their biggest aircraft, the 747s and A380s for decades between Australia and the United States held the position of check pilot (somebody who observes other pilots to ensure they are following the correct procedures). We discussed the mechanics of flight, pilot procedures and training.

Much of it wasn’t new to me, having long been interested in aviation and aircraft, but two turbulence related, physics related concepts really stood out for me.

  1. The worse the turbulence the shorter the duration as the energy quickly dissipates.
  2. During turbulence the altitude of the aircraft barely changes. What you are feeling is the transfer of and changes in force applied to you, the passenger.

Coming from a physics background this made a lot of sense. There are a few ways to think about this, but momentum is probably the easiest.

Momentum is conserved in a system. So if p is the momentum of the rising air mass transferred to the aircraft then

p = mava

where m is the mass of the aircraft and va is its the velocity. The aircraft feels a force that accelerates it up to va.

Now think of Newton’s cradle, a series of aligned steel balls each individually suspended on a frame. Pull the first ball (air mass) up and let it go. The middle balls don’t move and just transfer the force to the final ball, which then swings up.

The middle balls are the aircraft and the final ball is the passengers and everything else inside the aircraft. This is not an entirely accurate analogy but it serves to demonstrate how force and momentum can be transferred.

Now an aircraft is very massive, an A380 massing up to 575 tonnes. An average person is roughly one ten thousandth of that. So if

p = mava = mpvp

where mis the mass of the person and vp is their velocity and mis much smaller than mit means that their velocity must be high.

Of course the force on the entire aircraft is distributed amongst many passengers and also the air above it, so the force an individual feels is much less than the entire aircraft, but remembering that velocity is distance over time it means that an unrestrained passenger will attempt move a lot more than the aircraft itself.

So rather than rising an dropping, which is what we feel in vertical turbulence, what a restrained passenger is feeling is an increase in vertical force, then that force decreasing back to the normal force we feel in level flight (i.e. gravity).

That’s not to say that aircraft don’t rise and drop at all due to turbulence. Earlier this month a Qatar Airways 777 experienced deviations of 200 feet due to severe turbulence. However, this is rare and the most deviation that Captain John had ever experienced in his many years of long haul flying was 20 feet.

I asked the Captain about flying around storms, which are quite common on many of the long distance routes we tend to take. He revealed that you can often get to within about 500 metres of the front of a storm cloud without any bumps, it’s the centre and rear where things get really rough. That explained how we seemed to quite comfortably fly around some of the puffy storm clouds without any ill effects. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible, especially in the tropics where multiple big storm cells may be encountered.

Following on from the pilot session were some more meetings with the psychologist, further exploring different modes of thinking.

The final session was held at the Flight Experience simulators at Darling Harbour. With the psychologist in the jump seat I stepped into the Boeing 737 simulator cockpit. Outside the windows was Sydney Airport. Familiar aircraft continued their operations around us while we sat on the simulated tarmac.

Ben, the simulator pilot, had dialled up a cloudy sky and I felt a little apprehension. I had to make myself imagine it, for there would be no real bumps in this flight. Though the Flight Experience simulators were used to train real pilots this wasn’t one of those hydraulically mounted full motion simulators as might be found at the airline training facilities. They are too expensive to purchase and maintain. The only movement would be in my mind.

I was shown the control panels, learned that almost the entire flight is usually performed by the autopilot, with the pilots ordinarily taking the controls only for the initial stages of take-off and the final landing. Should they wish to change course in flight it is a matter of making changes on the computer which feeds into the autopilot.

Despite the lack of acceleration in my back,  the visual sense of motion was enough to make it feel realistic as we took off down runway 16R, did our initial level off at 5000 feet and then once more at a higher altitude. It all looked so familiar from all the real flights out of Sydney, though the individual pixel elements were visible on the screens outside the windows and the ground scenery was at times lacking.

As we flew towards Richmond Airbase, Ben turned the weather severe, dark storm clouds and lightning. Here was where the simulator failed to give any cues for the turbulence. He pointed out the altimeter, the aircraft retaining its altitude despite the simulated winds. I hope that was realistic, because the visuals showed no deviation whatsoever.

I took the controls for a little, then B eased us back into Sydney. My short simulated flight was over.

And that was that. I had graduated from the Fear of Flying course.

Was it worth it? I’ve read that 40% of people are scared of flying, but they are scared for a wide range of reasons: Fear that the aircraft will crash, claustrophobia, hijackings or turbulence like me. Most of them start the course knowing far less about flight than I do and sometimes that meant that parts of the explanatory sessions were wasted going through things I already knew. For instance, in not being a long haul commercial pilot Ben was unable to answer some of the specific questions that troubled me on my usual flights. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to ask Captain John earlier.

I am somebody who thinks ahead about potential hazards in order to prepare properly and hopefully avoid them. Sure you are in way more danger walking or driving to the local shops than flying in a commercial jet aircraft, but there is a sense that your actions can modify the potential risk. As a passenger in an aircraft you have zero control. The point is that you may as well relax because the risk is minimal (if you buckle up) and you can do nothing about it anyway.

Is this achievable for me? Is my turbulence anxiety cured? I won’t be able to answer that until I fly again. And fly I must very soon. The routes of our next trip are the ones I’ve struggled with over the past couple of years: Sydney to Melbourne, Melbourne to Singapore, Singapore to Japan and back home.

I’ll let you know how I go.

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