A Bestiary of Turbulence

I’ve suffered from fear of flying for about 20 years — and I do mean suffering.

When it first came over me (which it did in the course of only one or two flights, which weren’t even especially bad flights), I had never in my life felt that kind of raw animal panic. I kept hoping the condition would go away as quickly as it came — I’d been flying for many years without fear. I’d even survived an ‘incident’ in which an emergency door fell out of the wall into my lap as the plane landed (it was USAir, if you’re curious), and gone on to fly again for several more years before the phobia came over me.

But the fear of flying never did go away, and twenty years later, I’m proud to be able to say that at least it hasn’t stopped me from flying. I am a much calmer flyer these days than I used to be, thanks to a combination of strategies that I use for keeping myself calm. These are, in rough priority order:

  1. Xanax  — absolutely necessary, though not sufficient to keep me calm all by itself. I accept no substitutes; in particular, alcohol seems to make things worse;
  2. Meditation, mainly of the simple, close-your-eyes-focus-on-your-breath sort. I hate to meditate normally, but it keeps me calm in an airplane and, incidentally, also in MRI scanners and dentist’s chairs;
  3. Mental imagery, about which more below;
  4.  Clutching the arm of my neighboring passenger if the turbulence gets bad enough (I always ask politely first, and no one has ever said ‘no’). I thought I was over the need for this last-ditch strategy, but on a recent flight, things got bad enough for me to break down and ask my neighbor to hold my hand. At least I was able to ask first, instead of just clutching.

The ‘taxonomy of aircraft turbulence’ grew out of my efforts to develop mental imagery to combat my panic. I’m not afraid of, or disturbed by, turbulence on open ocean, which is very similar to open sky in most ways. Both water and air have tall waves, deep troughs, changes in density, and sudden choppiness. I may hate flying in rough air, but for some reason, I actually enjoy choppy boat rides. I tell myself that, just as a boat is designed to withstand rough water and cars to withstand rough roads, planes are designed to withstand rough air, which is really not such a different thing.

So as I breathe, I try to imagine I am riding in a car or a boat. It is easier to do this with some types of turbulence than others, and so different types of aircraft turbulence require different strategies. As you can see below, I’ve developed ways to cope with most of these, but at the extreme end I can still be reduced to mindless panic.

A bestiary of turbulence

Turbcon 1. No turbulence — like being in a room anywhere, only with a nice soothing very loud hum. I have no problem with this.

Turbcon 2. Sodapop turbulence — hard to explain, but it feels like there are little tiny bubbles of turbulence beneath the plane. Kind of fizzy and nice, really, like a boat ride in a lake of your favorite beer (I don’t like beer, so I imagine ginger ale).

Turbcon 3. Gravel road turbulence — crunchy, noisy.

Turbcon 4. Rocky, rutted road turbulence. Not very fun. I’m breathing as calmly as I can, and my eyes are closed so I can’t see the airplane flexing. Yes, I can see the airplane flexing. I think.

Turbcon 5. Wavy bay turbulence — the resemblance to a car on the road turns into a resemblance to a boat on the lake, being bounced by moderate waves and then dropped again. Very unpleasant, but with effort I can at least maintain my mental focus and therefore my dignity.

Turbcon 6. Open ocean turbulence — you go way up, and then come way down with a bang. I hate it when aircraft go ‘bang’. What exactly is doing that banging? The flight attendants are seated by now. Conversations have stopped. I am probably holding someone’s hand.

Turbcon 7. Any resemblance to anything earthbound is gone. This turbulence resembles God swatting violently at a balloon. The flight attendants are not only seated, they’re praying along with the passengers.  I am probably gibbering and whimpering — I’m not sure what I would do; it’s been a long time since I encountered a flight this rough.

Thank you, commercial pilots, for (mostly) flying around this stuff nowadays. And thank you for not dropping any more emergency exit doors in my lap.



About carolynpjohnston

I am an applied mathematician and developer, with 20 years of R&D experience in the mapping and remote sensing industry. I develop algorithms and systems for extracting information from imagery, producing map data, and improving the accuracy of maps produced with the aid of remote sensing imagery.
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