This episode was written & produced by Jim McNulty.
Are you afraid to fly? Does even the thought of boarding an airplane make you anxious? You’re not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from clinical aviophobia. While some manage to distract themselves long enough to endure a flight, countless others avoid flying altogether. What are those mysterious sounds that trigger our fears on airplanes? And how do we keep our anxieties from interfering with our lives? Featuring Dr. Devika Fiorillo, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, and Tom Finnegan, a commercial airline pilot with more than 20 years in the air.
Music in this episode
Kings - Ryan Taubert
Wallflower - Steven Gutheinz
Heo - Kino
Blissful Ignorance - Dexter Britain
Timeline - Blake Ewing
Open Sea - Moncrief
Just Watched - Steven Gutheinz
As it Was (Piano Strings Instrumental) - Future of Forestry
Tavern - Steven Gutheinz
Prayer - One Hundred Years
Deeper (Extended Version) - Chris Coleman
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View Transcript ▶︎
[Airplane cabin SFX]
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story behind the sounds we hear on an airplane, and how to take the fear out of flying.
[Airplane take off SFX]
Tons of people have a fear of flying. Even celebrities who have to travel all the time for work share in these fears. People like Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Sandra Bullock, and Colin Farrell have all been reported to struggle with this. Even John Madden, the former NFL Coach turned TV Commentator. He had such a big fear that he famously travelled cross-country between Monday Night Football games in his custom bus, dubbed the “Madden Cruiser”. He stopped flying after a panic attack he suffered on a flight. And, he’s not alone.
As many as 1 in 3 Americans is either afraid to fly or has some uneasiness about getting on an airplane. And for many, the sounds, the sensations—even the thought of flying—can trigger a full-on panic attack.
So, some quick math.
At any given time, there are as many as five (5) THOUSAND aircrafts in the skies above the U.S. alone. That’s according to the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration. Now, The International Air-Transport Association tells us that the average flight has 65 people on it. That means, at this very moment while you’re listening to this podcast, there could be over a hundred thousand people white-knuckling it across the friendly skies here in the U.S alone. And the National Institute of Mental Health says that roughly 20 million Americans in total are afraid to fly!
So, what’s up with this? Why are so many people afraid to fly? Is this an isolated fear? Or is it a common symptom across multiple conditions? And what role does sound play in triggering these fears?
Devika: The fear of flying is called aviophobia.
That’s Dr. Devika Fiorillo, a clinical psychologist with advanced training in addressing trauma, anxiety and related disorders.
Devika: About half of the people tend to be afraid of flying because they're afraid of crashing. There's also the other half, which primarily tends to be people who are either claustrophobic, so they are afraid of being in these enclosed spaces, or people who have agoraphobia, which is the worry about having a panic attack when escape is difficult.
Sometimes the fear of flying originates after a bad flight situation. Someone might have had been in a flight where there's a lot of turbulence, possibly an emergency landing, something somewhat traumatic or highly stressful.
If we’re being honest—flying can be stressful on a good day!
By the time you get to the airport [car door slam SFX], check your bags [luggage SFX], take off your shoes [removing shoes SFX], pull out your laptop [removing laptop from bag SFX], go through the screening process— and heaven forbid you have to get a pat-down [TSA SFX] by the time you reach your gate [airport intercom SFX], you’ve been through a lot already.
But this is about more than inconvenience. For some, being afraid to fly can significantly interfere with their ability to earn a living or spend time with loved ones. And for travelers already on edge before they even leave the ground, any unknown sound can trigger an attack.
Devika: Someone that’s coming in with a fear of flying is already coming in with some vulnerabilities.
Not every person who has a fear of flying is afraid of the same sounds. When they notice a sound [turbulence SFX], immediately our brains work very quickly.
How does this information get processed. Does it go through this really quick fear route, which is our very primitive system, how we survived? Or it might decide to go a different route, where it engages this higher ability to reason.
Our capacity as humans for reason and abstract thought allows us to solve complex problems. But the built-in, primal fear response can lead us down a dark path.
Devika: If you think about problem-solving and imagination, there is definitely a link there. Imagination when it comes to fear of flying is not very productive imagination. 1) it takes you away from the moment, the here and now, and, 2) you're often engaging in these what-ifs that may or may not occur.
The moment your brain perceives that there might be real or imagined danger, immediately your system starts to go into this panic mode. Our bodies respond pretty automatically. You might notice a lot of trembling, shaking, lightheadedness, dizziness, trouble with breathing. your body's getting ready to fight or to flee the situation.
The problem with fear of flying, though, is once you’ve developed that problem, you're more likely to pay attention to all of the information that is in your environment, and this is where sounds come in, telling you that something dangerous could happen. Once you go into that mode, your senses are heightened and you're looking for any piece of information that really feeds into this narrative that flying is dangerous and that itself becomes sort of a vicious cycle.
Basically our brains are looking for affirmation for its preconceived notion that every little creek, bump or bang must mean that the wing is breaking off or the engine is about to blow up. Our mind can be an internal echo-chamber.
Of course, in this age of YouTube, and the ability of a news source to bring the worst possible, extremely rare situations to the forefront of our attention in an instant... it’s unnaturally easy to find examples to feed this internal, fear-focused echo chamber.
[Airplane rattling SFX]
THAT is the sound of an entire airplane rattling around like a washing machine, posted by Instagram user maesaya. In 2017, an Air Asia X flight was forced to turn around when something went wrong with an engine. Passengers had to endure that vibration for close to two hours as the plane limped home, with the captain asking everyone to pray—twice!
And who can forget the Miracle on the Hudson?
[Flight 1549 cockpit recording]
In 2009, U.S. Air Flight 1549 makes a forced water landing in the Hudson River after striking a flock of Canada geese after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
[Flight 1549 cockpit recording]
THESE! are the kinds of close calls that give even the hardiest of travelers pause.
But isn’t air travel supposed to be one of the safest forms of travel around?
Here’s Tom Finnegan, a commercial airline pilot with more than 19,000 flight hours and 20 years in the business.
Tom: The reliability of these airplanes is nothing short of astonishing. They work and they last a long time.
Tom says that airlines in the US and Europe offer the best combination of engineering, maintenance and training in the world.
Tom: We’re very lucky here in the U.S., the aviation system here, from the small regional airlines up to the big global airlines, are so safe that it's taken for granted a lot. The percentage of times we have to do it right isn't just 99%. It's 99 and I think out to like 7 decimal points how often we do it right here in the US. Our system is so safe, it's boring, which is a good problem to have in a lot of ways.
These airplanes are designed to a level where if one system fails, as a passenger, it’s going to be invisible to you. They're built with the idea that they're going to keep going in the event of one failure or even a couple of failures.
The airplanes I fly have two engines. They're mounted on each wing. Before I take off, I already know, if the engine blows up on the runway, I have either enough room left of runway to stop, or I have enough power to continue to take off on one engine.
That’s one of the things that we practice absolutely the most, those takeoff failures.
Your flight crews train constantly for those worst-case scenarios so passengers don’t HAVE to worry about them. And all that training seems to be paying off. According to the FAA, if you happened to be the 1 in 11 million could be involved in an airline accident, you still have a 96% of survival. Flying is estimated to be two HUNDRED times safer than driving! And most of us don’t think twice before getting behind the wheel.
Intellectually, we get it. But emotionally? That’s a whole different story. So, what’s the solution? How do we cope with these fears? And what ARE all those noises on an airplane? More on that in a minute.
We’ve heard a lot about why so many people have such a fear of flying. And we also know that flying is one of the safest ways to get around. Now, let’s talk about how people cope with these fears, so that they don’t have to interfere with work, vacations, or visiting family. For that, we turn back to Dr. Fiorillo.
Devika: Facing your fears can be really difficult, because it's almost like you're playing this tug of war with your physiological system. On the one hand, you may really want to face your fears. On the other hand, going into it is definitely something that will bring about, for most people, a lot of anxiety…
It’s that aversion to being uncomfortable—to being afraid—that leads some people to create what Dr. Fiorillo calls “safety behaviors.”
Devika: There's a fine balance between distraction and also just being here in the present moment, because if you always distract yourself, you don’t necessarily teach yourself how to cope with the issue.
They might go on a flight, but they might endure it with a lot of distress and they might take a lot of alcohol as a way to numb their system down. Somebody else may take a sleep aid. There's definitely benzos, anti-anxiety medications that people can sometimes take.
There might be other people who really research thoroughly what each and every sound means, what kind of planes are safer. The problem with people who fear flying often is that they are getting a lot of information; it's just not from the right sources.
So knocking back a few drinks might get the job done on that cross-country flight, but it’s not exactly a long-term solution for conquering your fear of flying. And filling your brain with the wrong information can feed into that vicious cycle of what therapists call “catastrophizing.”
Earlier, Dr. Fiorillo brought up this connection between imagination and problem solving, and the tendency to fear the worst when someone hears an unknown sound on their flight. Let’s go back to our commercial airline pilot, Tom, and see if he can take some of the mystery out of these sounds for us.
Tom: The sounds [airplane cabin SFX] a passenger would hear during the pre-flight setup; you’ll hear different chimes as the seatbelt sign is turned on [chime SFX]. You can hear different things if you’re in the last row versus the front row or if you're over the wing— and if you happen to be sitting on the right side of the airplane you’re probably going hear when they close one of the cargo doors [cargo door closing SFX]. It’s a heavy duty latch that kind of clunks into place [latch SFX]. Once the cabin doors close [doors close SFX] and the airplane is being pushed away from the gate, there’s a tow bar and there’s a tractor that they push you back from. You can hear that clunky noise of disconnecting the tow bar, as well as feel it. [tow bar disconnect SFX]
You’ll hear a difference in the air conditioning system [air condition turn off SFX]. Then you'll hear the engines slowly start to whine up [engines whine up SFX], that turbine sound. The airplane engines are started by compressed air that comes off a small turbine engine. Most of them are in the tails of these airplanes. The pilots redirect the air from the air conditioning systems so you can't air-condition the airplane at the same time you start the engines.
Once the engines are started the pilots do a few more checks up front [pilot check point SFX]. I tell the copilot to the the flaps to whatever position our performance requires that day. Flaps [airplane flaps SFX] are the things that are on the front of the wing and the back of the wing and they basically change the shape of the wing to allow the wing in order to allow the airplane to do different things.
That covers most of the pre-flight bells and whistles that passengers may hear [pilot "clear for take off" SFX]. But once the engines rev, and the plane takes to the sky [plane take off SFX], fears can be triggered by sounds AND sensations. And the air itself is responsible for both.
[Airplane in cabin flight SFX]
Tom: Most of the airplanes I've flown—takeoff, cruise, landing—the noise level up in the cockpit is at least 80 decibels. Depending again on the airplane or where you are in the airplane, it can be as low as 70 decibels in First Class, which generally is the quietest part of the cabin. The wind noise outside the airplane that accounts for a lot of the overall kind of white noise, the din that you hear. [airplane white noise SFX]
Now light and moderate turbulence we encounter all the time. It's nothing at all to be worried about. it's a disturbance in the airflow over the wings. And the airflow over the wings is how the airplane generates lift, and if it's disturbed, you'll feel it as a bump. [turbulence SFX]
The density of the air can impact how much lift can be generated at a given speed. When you hit different pockets of temperature, density, rising air, and any other air disturbance, you feel these interruptions as turbulence [turbulence SFX]. All of this is perfectly normal.
Tom: The worst thing that happens is a flight attendant who's out of her seat or a passenger who's in their seat without their seat belt on, can get thrown around the airplane and injured. Things can come loose. The overhead bins may pop open and a bag will fall out. But honestly, for the structural integrity of the airplanes, it's incredibly rare that anything happens that the airplane is actually destroyed in flight. It just doesn’t happen.
That pretty much eliminates the worst case scenario at 35 thousand feet. But for many, it’s the final approach that triggers their worst anxiety as the ground starts to get a whole lot closer.
[airplane descending SFX]
Tom: Once you start to descend and come in for a landing, you may notice the engine noise has changed [airplane engine SFX]. The high-frequency whine maybe is a little bit lower as they reduce the thrust on the engines to have the airplane start to come in and land.
Once you get closer to the ground, that is when the pilots reconfigure the shape of the wing, and as they extend the flaps, you may hear that hydraulic pump. And as that happens you can sometimes even hear a change in the airflow of the air over the wing. [airplane wing SFX]
Once the pilot lands the airplane, you'll notice on the tops of the wings, big boards come up. They're called speed brakes or spoilers. They change the airflow over the wing [airflow over wing SFX].
The last thing you’ll notice, the engines accelerate or rev up [engine rev up SFX] after landing as the pilot adds power to the reverse thrust system.
There are doors inside the cowl that redirect the air instead of out of the back of the engine, out the side. If you happen to be sitting there, you can hear it hitting the side of the fuselage.
[flight attendant SFX]
So now we know… And while knowing may be half the battle, there has to be a better way to handle air travel than just trying to stave off panic attacks or avoiding flying altogether.
According to Dr. Fiorillo, the answer may lie in one of the same treatments that’s used for post-traumatic stress disorder: Exposure therapy.
Devika: The idea with exposure therapy is that you really give an opportunity to the person to face what they're fearing. Some people are afraid of taking off. Some people are afraid of landing. Some people are afraid of turbulence. There's different sounds that people are afraid of. Some people have this anxiety that shows up even in the context of walking around in the airport before you get to the flight itself. Every person looks different.
Think about exposure as this idea of allowing yourself to have difficult thoughts and feelings in the context of a particular stimulus, whether that’s a sound, the sight of an airplane, any of those things, we can get creative to think about how you can do that even if you're not ready to get on an airplane yet.
Nowadays, there's a lot of work on mindfulness, in particular, in terms of anxiety disorders. It's basically like grounding. It has some of those similar principles but this idea of taking your attention from the thing that is causing you a lot of fear ... in this case, it might be the sound ... to something that is here that you can touch, that you can feel, that you can come into contact with.
You have to remind yourself that just because you feel this doesn’t mean the bad thing is going to happen. You're sort of validating the emotion to a certain extent, but also understanding that it doesn’t necessarily mean that something is really going to happen.
Now that we’re challenging our fears, we’re not avoiding. Now what do we do? Well for starters, try something we take for granted every day. I’ll give you a hint.
[takes deep breath in, and breath out]
Devika:One thing that you might have heard a lot of is this idea of doing some deep breathing. There is some value to doing that, which is just slowing down the way you breathe and really making sure you're breathing from your abdomen rather than from the chest, which is the tendency when we're having a panic attack.
The other is really to get people to engage in the current moment on other things that are happening right here, right now. This sometimes is referred to as grounding, so holding onto things that are next to you. You can engage in any of your senses here.
Noticing the feeling as you move your fingers through the chair you're sitting on, noticing what the kid across the aisle looks like and what that person might be doing, taking in information from the environment that you might not otherwise be attending to.
How do we know when things have gotten out of hand? When does being uneasy on an airplane go from being a minor inconvenience to an obstacle requiring treatment?
Devika: There are a couple of different things to look out for. One is have you really not just avoided flying, but has this actually caused problems for you? Has it taken both time and emotional resources from you? Have you missed out on significant life events because of flying? Is it causing problems for you occupationally? Maybe you work in a setting where flying tends to be somewhat a regular thing that you need to do. Is it limiting your life in a way that’s causing you some pain?
It’s often said that admitting that you have a problem is the first step towards healing. How bad is your fear of flying? Did you identify with the safety behaviors Dr. Fiorillo mentioned? Did your anxiety levels go up just listening to the discussion. Perhaps now that you know what many of those mystery sounds are, your next flight won’t be so nerve-wracking. And even if you aren’t afraid to fly, hopefully you’ve gotten some insight into how pervasive fear and anxiety can be.
And if your fears are stopping you from enjoying life the way you want, it’s okay to seek help. The resources are out there: doctors, counselors… even apps! Whatever route your journey takes, I think we can all agree—we could all use a little less turbulence in our lives.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team that supports ad agencies and storytellers. Check out recent work for collaborators such as Nike, Netflix, National Geographic, Discovery and more at Defacto Sound dot com.
This episode was written, produced and edited by Jim McNulty...and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin.
Huge thanks to commercial airline pilot, Tom Finnegan for giving us his first hand experience...as well as to Dr. Devika Fiorillo for her professional expertise.
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