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Learning How We Die In A Plane Crash Helped Me Overcome My Fear Of Flying

Death in a high-impact plane crash is usually pretty quick and painless.

20/03/2017 10:06 AM AEDT | Updated 20/03/2017 10:06 AM AEDT
Mark Evans
Is that just turbulence or are we hurtling towards the earth?

My medical student boyfriend looked up from the notes spread out in front of him and grinned, exposing his gums. I suppressed a sigh, trying to focus on the developmental psychology assignment I was working on.

"What?" I said.

He'd attended a forensic pathology lecture earlier that day and he'd spent most of the evening regaling me with the grisly details.

"Do you remember that hot air balloon crash in Alice Springs that happened back in '89?" he asked.

I didn't, but I nodded anyway, in a futile attempt to stop him.

Two balloons collided. One plummeted 2000 feet to the ground. Thirteen people died in what was at the time the world's deadliest hot air ballooning accident.

"Some of them tried to jump at the last moment," he said. "It didn't help. Their bodies absorbed the impact through their feet. Their leg bones were shattered, and some of the victims' femurs were even pushed up through their armpits."

"How awful!" I said, trying to avoid the mental image. My boyfriend had been trying to talk me into going hot air ballooning in the Yarra Valley with him for months, and now he'd told me about this?

A few years later, my medical student boyfriend had turned into my doctor husband and he'd managed to persuade me to go parasailing in the Whitsundays. I was sitting beside him in a two-person harness, staring down an impossibly long rope attached to a speedboat the size of a bath toy from our height.

The second of pure terror which seized me as I saw us free falling 500 feet to our deaths was the first of a series of incidents that convinced me that humans were not meant to fly.

My husband began to move his legs back and forth, making the harness swing.

"Don't," I said, my knuckles whitening.

He grinned at me, looked at the clip on our harness attached to the parachute, and reached up, pretending to undo it.

He was joking of course (if you can call pretending to kill someone a 'joke'), but the second of pure terror which seized me as I saw us freefalling 500 feet to our deaths was the first of a series of incidents that convinced me that humans were not meant to fly.

Being stuck in the airplane lavatory during a 10 minute patch of extreme turbulence over the Pacific Ocean. A hard landing in Manaus, Brazil that made me bite my tongue so badly it bled. Enduring a hold pattern over Heathrow for so long that I was certain the plane was going to run out of fuel.

Unlike my as-yet unnamed and idiosyncratic fear of getting fibrous plant material stuck between my teeth, aviophobia -- a general fear of flying -- is something which about one in five of us share. And this fear seems to date back centuries before the Hindenburg disaster, and Jean-Pierre Francois Blanchard's crossing of the English Channel in a hot air balloon in 1785.

Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images
The Boeing 747 looks pretty safe compared to this.

According to the President of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Professor Malcolm Hopwood, a fear of flying is a relatively common disorder.

"We want our world to be safe. A person with a fear of flying is prone to think that the odds that a crash will occur are much higher than they really are," he told me. "And when news stories about plane crashes appear, they're likely to be particularly focussed on them."

This was certainly true for me.

In just the first eleven weeks of 2017 there have been 13 fatal plane crashes around the world causing 59 deaths, according to Swiss data-collecting organisation the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives. However, the number of fatal plane crashes has reduced significantly over the past 20 years.

In comparison, approximately one million people die of malaria each year, 1.2 million people die from drowning and 1.3 million people die in motor vehicle accidents.

My husband's aunt has a simple way of managing her severe aviophobia -- she has never caught a flight her entire life.

This relative paucity of plane crash deaths did little, however, to dispel the sweating palms and cramped bowels that afflicted me whenever I was about to board a plane. And whenever I read the news my eyes seemed instantly drawn to any plane-mishap stories.

Once again I knew I wasn't alone. My husband's aunt, for example, has a simple way of managing her severe aviophobia -- she has never caught a flight her entire life.

For me though, avoidance wasn't an option. In desperation I tried overexposure. I 'borrowed' my husband's login details and spent hours combing online medical journals' archives, searching for plane crash autopsy reports.

As resilient as the human body may be, it seems it is poorly designed to withstand deceleration forces in the magnitude of 50 – 200 G. In fact, the severity of injuries sustained in a typical high-speed plane crash makes cataloguing those injuries difficult, according to a Journal of Forensic Sciences paper which discussed a new injury coding system for the victims of the 2009 Air France Flight AF 447 disaster which killed all 228 people on board.

These injuries include "...disintegration, dismemberments and body parts, detachment of the skin, and tear due to overstretching". Further problems arise because a large number of body parts are often missing.

While obvious factors such as plane size, speed on impact, whether the plane crashed on land or sea and, to a lesser extent, a person's position in the plane, can determine what remains of a body, there are other horrifying elements to consider.

Greg Bos / Reuters
Emergency service workers are seen next to the wreckage of Pan Am flight 103, in a farmer's field east of Lockerbie, Scotland.

Ken Dornstein, the brother of one of the 259 passengers killed when came down in the 1988 Lockerbie Bombing over Scotland, has spent almost 30 years trying to solve the case of exactly who was responsible. As part of his investigation, he re-constructed the crash site on a large map using pushpins to show where the bodies fell. First-class passengers mostly landed in one cluster, and economy passengers in another. But some distance from the rest lay another little cluster. "They were the youngest, smallest children," Dornstein said in an interview with The New Yorker. "If you look at the physics of it, they were carried by the wind."

There appears to be consensus that there is minimal suffering in plane crash fatalities.

The upside, if there is any, is that death in a high-impact crash or when a plane breaks up in the sky is usually very quick. In the paper discussing the Air France disaster, the conclusion was that, "... the death was very fast ... and the physical pains caused by multiple traumas were probably felt but very briefly, the time of 'useful consciousness' being very short".

There appears to be consensus that there is minimal suffering in plane crash fatalities.

In his paper 'Post-Mortem Examinations on Air-Crash Victims' Teare lists the causes of death of 28 people who died when a British European Airways plane flying from Paris to London crashed on landing in thick fog at Heathrow. These include: fractured skull; fractured cervical spine; ruptured aorta; ruptured liver and ruptured heart.

All the victims, Teare noted, "...had received injuries which would lead to immediate loss of consciousness or death."

Forensic pathologist and University of Sydney Clinical Professor Johan Duflou holds a post-graduate qualification in aviation medicine. He told me his interest in plane crashes came from his own fear of flying.

"I honestly never got to the bottom of why I didn't like it," said Duflou, who has worked on many small aircraft crashes including the Monarch Airlines crash at Young Airport in NSW in 1993 which killed all seven passengers. "I guess it was a matter of not being in control of my own destiny together with a lack of appreciation of aircraft safety."

Duflou said it was important to realise that many plane crashes are not actually fatal. "International statistics suggest that in general terms, if you crash on take-off or landing, your chances of survival are better than 50 percent," he said. "And if you look at the relative safety of driving, cycling, motorbiking, train travel and plane travel per kilometre, there's simply no doubt about it. Planes are the safest things to go on."

Professor Hopwood wants to reassure sufferers of aviophobia that there are steps that can be taken in order to reduce our fear of flying. Treatment includes education about the relatively low risk of flying, as well as graduated exposure to the experience, such as first driving past an airport, then spending time at an airport without actually catching a flight.

baona via Getty Images
Start by watching the planes come and go.

"As you develop confidence with each of these levels, the possibility of actually flying becomes feasible," he said. "Once you can actually get in a plane, and you fly repeatedly, it will probably get better. And don't be afraid to engage with the staff on board the plane. They are often quite useful at providing information on how to handle the fear better."

There are steps that can be taken in order to reduce our fear of flying.

A few days ago, I was on a flight to Melbourne sitting between my daughter and my husband. Despite all my extensive cognitive conditioning therapy and meditation before the flight, I saw the usual scenario in my mind. A plane trolling silently in the distant sky. A sudden pinch of flame, a trailing downward slash of smoke, an explosion on the ground. I opened my eyes and picked up my magazine in an attempt to stave off the image.

As I flipped through the shiny pages, I caught my daughter pressing her nose to the window. At the age of three and a half, with interstate grandparents and my husband's global medical conferences, she was already a Qantas Gold member. I leaned over and touched my lips to her long blonde hair. I felt the soft clean strands, her warm skin.

She turned and grinned at me.

"I love flying," she said.

"Me too," I said, and smiled back at her. And at that moment I was telling the truth.

I looked over her head at the brilliant blueness of the sky extending endlessly. The gleaming tip of the wing sliced through the air like a sail. And a bandage of white clouds masked the ground.


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