In 2013, I was on an airplane every single week, for 52 straight weeks. It was a bumpy year for air travel, and I had my fair share of skull-rattling air turbulence, including one flight on a prop plane from Sun Valley, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah that pretty much guarantees I’m never going back to either state.
Back in the go-go 90's, I would take the edge off with a glass or two of wine, but decided that was only curing the symptoms, not the problem, however deliciously. So I worked hard to overcome my nervousness, and am now a reasonably comfortable flyer, though I still have my moments of panic.
Most turbulence is what the pilots refer to as “light chop,” and barely sets off my wine sensors. When you run into moderate or severe turbulence, however, only a small percentage of thrill-seekers really enjoy flying. The rest of us? Not so much. “Flight Attendants Please Be Seated Immediately” is quite possibly the second least desirable thing the pilot can say. Number One, of course, is “Oh, Shit.” (I once flew through the edges of a tropical storm out of New Orleans while seated next to a Continental pilot deadheading his way to Newark. At one point in the middle of a hellaciously rough ride, things got eerily quiet—as if we had all put on noise canceling headphones. The pilot next to me said, and I kid you not, “this isn’t gonna be good.” That was about the low point of my entire life.)
Anyway, I had a pretty rough ride at 36,000 feet the other day and had to reach deep into my bag of travel tricks to resist the siren call of the Chardonnay. Here’s how I cope with turbulence:
- Information always helps. Most of my early moments of terror stemmed from being surprised by turbulence. While turbulence can’t be predicted with 100% certainty, pilot reports of turbulence (or PIREPs, you jargon-lovers, you) are a pretty good indicator that you‘ll likely hit some bumps. I use NOAA’s Aviation Weather Center to find PIREPs and other information like the map above, which politely informs you to stay the hell out of New Jersey today, at least at 3,000 feet.
- You cannot steer the plane using the armrests. They are not attached to the rudder. Let them go. Instead, I put the shade down, close my eyes, and go as limp as possible. I put my hands on my knees, palms up (so I am not squeezing the blood supply out of them) and pretty much act like a rag doll. The more tense you are, the more exaggerated the bumpiness feels.
- Put a cup on your tray. Look at it from time to time. You will see that it barely moves, if at all. If it is half full of water, it is likely you won’t even spill a drop. This helps you to realize that the plane isn’t really moving as much as you think it is.
- Still don’t believe me? Try this someday (this fascinates me, by the way). Go to the airport on a windy day and watch the planes land. A landing plane has its flaps fully extended, and is basically a gigantic parachute to catch wind. If you have ever landed in high winds and felt the plane get jerked all over the place, you felt like you were getting kicked down a flight of stairs. But watch a plane land in this kind of weather, and you may see the wings dip occasionally—but you won’t see it getting the crap kicked out of it. Again, it feels worse than it really is.
- Gravity and Physics don’t just stop working. They are laws. You will not fall from the sky.
- Music helps me, but it really has to be relaxing and familiar. Today’s selection was Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol II. Your mileage may vary. Anything with a beat, or that gets me pumped up for the gym or raises my blood pressure in any way is to be avoided. Noise canceling headphones or in-ear monitors are great, because they block out the rushing of the wind and the sounds of other passengers expressing their own discomfort. Just imagine you are in a cocoon. Or in the movie, Cocoon, Wilford. Whatever works.
- Smile. Really. Unscrew your face and you will relax more.
- Keep your eyes closed—not looking out the window really helps avoid overreacting. Your frame of reference is such that when the plane dips or banks a few feet, your view of the outside world changes dramatically. Close your eyes, block out the light, and you will see that you are actually not moving as much as you think.
- The wings of a Boeing 747 can be bent to almost 90 degrees before they fail. Your wimpy turbulence won’t do it.
- When all else fails, go ahead and have that drink.
BONUS TIP: If you are on a flight that will last at least 8 hours, Ambien is magic. Don’t mix with tip #10, or you increase your risk of sleep crime.