Fear of flying over water? Here’s what you need to know

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Today (December 8, 2017): Travel tip: Suffering from fear of flying over water? Here’s what you need to know

Followers of my blog know that I suffer from fear of flying, which is especially bad when flying over large bodies of water. Although totally irrational, it does make sense to some extent from an anxious passenger’s perspective, as the difference between flying over water and over land is the absence of a suitable airport underneath in the unlikely scenario that something goes wrong (e.g. engine failure, onboard fire, etc …). Flying over the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean is a real challenge for me, since the knowledge that there’s no diversion point close by makes me feel extremely uncomfortable, often to the point that I take a light tranquilizer (which rarely helps). I recently flew to Hawaii, a travel itinerary which made me nervous even weeks prior to departure (the stress almost made me cancel that trip). The Hawaiian Islands are often described as the most remote landmass on earth, and although that claim to fame belongs to Easter Island, the Hawaiian archipelago is still one of the islands farthest away from any continental land mass. Flights from the USA West Coast to Hawaii take 5 to 6 hours, depending upon the head winds and the city of departure (San Francisco is located closest to the islands), so it means that at the point of no return, you’re 2,5 up to 3 hours away from land. I don’t know if others also suffer from a similar kind of ‘over-water-flying fear’ (feel free to leave a comment).

To put things in perspective and to emphasize how safe over water flights actually are, I have asked an expert in the field the questions I can’t stop thinking about when flying over the ocean. Lode is an Airbus A320 captain who has more than 14,000 flight hours and 19 years of experience as a pilot. With a background as a training pilot, he attaches great importance to excellent communication with both passengers and colleagues, and promotes general aviation safety as he traverses the airspace. I asked Captain Lode the following questions:

  • Can a plane fly on one engine?
  • What is ETOPS?
  • Can a plane contain a fire when flying across the ocean?
  • Are pilots trained for ditching a plane on the water
  • Can a plane land on water in case of an emergency?
  • Is there a difference between flying overwater in a narrow or wide body aircraft?

Can a plane take off and/or fly on one engine?

Yes it can. Before a certain speed – the so-called decision speed or V1 speed – the takeoff would be aborted and the aircraft would be brought to a stop. If an engine fails after reaching V1 speed, the aircraft will continue its take-off roll and get safely airborne on one engine before returning to the airport. If an engine fails mid-flight, the plane will not be able to maintain its altitude but it will safely continue flying. For example, in 2003, the captain of a United Airlines B777 flying from Auckland, New Zealand, to Los Angeles, USA, was forced to shut down one of the plane’s two engines because the oil pressure dropped dramatically. The Boeing continued to fly for more than 3 hours on one engine over the Pacific Ocean, before landing in Kona, Hawaii.  Every commercial airplane is able to safely land on one engine. The entire flight crew is trained and regularly checked in the simulator to perform manoeuvres such as taking off and landing on one engine.

What is ETOPS?

ETOPS stands for ‘Extended range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standard’ and applies to twin engine aircraft on routes with a diversion time of more than one hour. It indicates the time that a commercial aircraft is allowed to fly away from the nearest suitable airport, to make sure it can safely land in the unlikely scenario that one of its engines becomes inoperative. The cornerstone of the ETOPS approach is the statistics showing that the turbine assembly of a modern jet engine is an inherently reliable component. There are different levels of ETOPS certification; for example ETOPS 240 means that the airplane can fly as far as up to 240 minutes (even on one engine) from the nearest suitable airport, because it has been reliably proven to do so.

As outlined on this very informative Wikipedia page, ETOPS certification is a two-step, highly controlled process, where irregularities would immediately lead to a downgrade or suspension of the ETOPS capabilities of an airline:

  • First, the airframe and engine combination must satisfy the basic ETOPS requirements during its type certification. Such tests may include shutting down an engine and flying on the remaining engine during the complete diversion time. Often such tests are performed in the middle of the ocean. It must be demonstrated that, during the diversion flight, the flight crew is not unduly burdened by extra workload due to the lost engine and that the probability of the remaining engine failing is extremely remote.
  • Second, an airline who conducts ETOPS flights must satisfy their own country’s aviation regulators about their ability to conduct ETOPS flights, which involves compliance with additional special engineering and flight crew procedures in addition to the normal engineering and flight procedures. Pilots and engineering staff must be qualified and trained for ETOPS.
Can a plane contain a fire when flying across the ocean?

Yes it can. The cargo holds are designed with fire extuingishers, as are the engines and the cabin. There are multiple fire extinguishers inside the aircraft that can be operated by the cabin crew or even the pilots.

Are pilots trained for ditching a plane on the water?

This highly unlikely scenario is not replicated in flight simulators.

Can a plane land on water in case of an emergency?

Yes it can, but it is not designed to do so, and an emergency landing is always better on land at an airport. Of course, everyone know the famous 2009 accident known as the Hudson miracle, where Captain Chesley Sullenberg ditched his US Airways Airbus A320 in New York City’s Hudson River after both engined flamed out following a strike with a flock of Canada geese. The plane remained intact and all 155 people aboard were rescued, but the river was a calm at the moment of landing, so it would be a totally different scenerio when landing on sea, where one has to take into account the height of waves. However, as long as sea conditions are smooth and the ditching is performed in a proper way, an aircraft can land on the sea and remain afloat. One successful example was on October 16, 1956, when a Pan Am flight 6 B377 Stratocruiser ditched en route from Honolulu, Hawaii to San Francisco, about halfway the route, with all 31 aboard being rescued by a nearby Coast Guard Cutter. The only sea landing in the recent modern jet time happened more than 20 years ago, in 1996, when an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 was forced to ditch in the Indian ocean, just off the shores of the Comoros islands, after it was hijacked and ran out of fuel. Unfortunately, it didn’t land smoothly as it slightly banked before touchdown, resulting in a break-up of the plane. Only 50 of the 163 passengers on board survived.

Is there a difference between flying overwater in a narrow vs wided body aircraft?

No there is not :-).

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  1. Great feedback, actually I’m afraid of taking off and the initial climb to altitude. As a frequent flyer it is very disconcerting and by the time altitude is reached I am sweating, have clammy hands and generally breathing a sigh of relief. This does not help whichever cabin I sit in.

    Anyhow the above has not stopped my passion of travelling

  2. My sister developed a petrifying fear of flying as a QF cabin crew member. After decades of not flying she got treated by a homeopath and is fearlessly back in the air! I’m the greatest sceptic when it comes to this sort of stuff and would not have believed it, but it worked.

  3. I have the same type of feeling. For me it really depends on the pilot and aircraft model as well. “Sporty” pilots are not appreciated. Flew with Lufthansa in september 2017 and that pilot must have thought he was doing a flight show because he tossed the plane around. I actually got so upset that I took contact with the crew and explained my experience. The rest of the flight was calm. Also the different aircraft types gives different experiences. Airbus A330/340 are very nice aircrafts but I really dislike them during landing. Boeing 777-300ER is my preffered aircraft due to its nice handling.

  4. I really appreciate your honesty. I battle travel anxiety, specifically flying. I have been working hard to overcome it and articles like this one help. Recently we flew to Ireland, crossing the Atlantic Ocean; terrified doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings. If you get a moment, I would love for you to check out my page for more on conquering anxiety. 🙂

  5. I just have a fear of ling flights. I was kinda scared when flying form IAD-GRU because you’re over the ocean and the Amazon for a while

  6. I consider myself very very lucky that I have no phobia of flying over any kind of landscape, terrain or even during turbulences while in full flight. The most ‘disturbing’ flight I have ever been on was a short one hour flight from Guayaquil to Loja in Ecuador this summer where the flight was so disruptive, the male passengers who wanted to nap the flight away were regularly shaken and stirred during that 50 min route. That being said, brain entrainment and also, understanding the cerebral ‘fight – flight’ triggers can not only help you to overcome and undo (not get rid of – UN/deprogramming is really the term here) your irrational fears, it can literally and dramatically change who you believe to be or what makes you tick. Meditation, breathing exercises and visualisation are major tools in not only overcoming any fears you may have, it will change your entire mental, emotional and bio-physiological response patterns.

    The benefit of working with these approaches is that it frees you up not just from a fear of flying (or everything that’s connected to it) but it applies to other areas of your life as well. What applies to ONE area of your life, normally is resurfacing in other areas of your life, too, even if you may not be aware of the interconnectedness of those patterns. My life has changed so much for the better even though fear of flying was not one of the [bad] habits I was suffering from.

    Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One

    Not only will you be given the necessary knowledge to change any aspect of yourself, you will be taught the step-by-step tools to apply what you learn in order to make measurable changes in any area of your life.

  7. wow! I’m shocked to see how many people have a severe fear of flying. (people certainly do not show it..) This makes me feel better – I’m not the only one freaking out on every flight and especially during turbulence…!

  8. Everybody always look so calm on the flights. I start hyperventilating and almost crying. No matter what science is behind this, flying in a metal tube at these heights is not natural. I wish we could do some sort of train system around the world. I would prefer boats any day even if it took weeks.

  9. I’m a pilot (of a light single-engine propeller plane, not a jet) and although I don’t have any fear of flying, I do have a fear of heights. Even a 2 step ladder makes me tense up, but I am comfortable climbing to 10,000 feet. However I am no longer able to fly in airliners because of damage to my ear. Passenger jet cabins are pressurized to the equivalent 8,000 feet but unlike in a private plane, if my ear hurts I can’t tell the pilots to stop climbing level out! But in my own plane I can.

    Everyone who is afraid of flying has probably heard that flying is the safest way to travel (which is true). Even though I’m a pilot myself, the expertise of a modern airline pilot just blows me away, and the safety of a modern turbofan engine makes even the most reliable piston engines look like lego toys.

  10. Great feedback! If anyone wants to fly without any fear, you should do training under a professional trainer. For becoming a pilot and to get a degree in aviation, Go for Insignia College, which I personally recommended!

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