An airline pilot on why we shouldn't fear flying after the Southwest Airlines accident

Elise Solé
The death of a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight has sparked flying fears on social media. (Photo: Getty Images)
The death of a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight has sparked flying fears on social media. (Photo: Getty Images)

The death of one person on a Southwest Airlines flight has triggered many on social media who struggle with a fear of flying.

On Tuesday, flight 1380 traveling from New York City, N.Y. to Dallas, Texas carrying 144 passengers and five crew members, experienced engine failure, causing the plane to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia.

Passenger Matt Tranchin told Philadelphia news station WPVI there was a “huge explosion and glass shattering three rows ahead of me” adding, “Flight attendants rushed up. There was momentary chaos. Everyone kind of descended on where this hole was. As passengers, we weren’t sure if they were trying to cover up the hole, but the plane smelled like smoke. There was ash coming through the ventilation system. We started dropping. Some of the crew couldn’t hold back their horror. And some were crying as they looked out through the open window onto the engine.”

Flight 1380 From NYC to Dallas crash landed in Philly. Engine exploded in the air and blew open window 3 seats away from…

Posted by Marty Martinez on Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Cassie Adams, another passenger, also told ABC News that a window exploded “and the woman was sucked out,” and “Two brave men immediately responded and helped grab her and try to pull her back in.”

“This is a sad day and our hearts go out to the family and the loved ones of the deceased customer,” Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines said, according to CNN. “We don’t know the cause of this incident.” Kelly added that the plane was last inspected on April 15th and National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt told reporters that the accident is classified as “engine failure.”

Posted by Marty Martinez on Tuesday, April 17, 2018

One passenger named Marty Martinez began recording the experience on Facebook Live. “Something is wrong with our plane!” he wrote while wearing an oxygen mask. “It appears we are going down! Emergency landing!! Southwest flight from NYC to Dallas!!”

Martinez later added, “Engine exploded (we think) and shattered one of the windows killing a passenger. Flight attendants ran over calling for passengers to help cover the hole as they broke down and began uncontrollably crying and looking horrified as they looked outside. Plane dropped dramatically and it smelled like fire with ash coming down on everyone thru the vents. Absolutely terrifying, but we are okay.”

As photos and witness accounts spread online, so did people’s fear of flying.

The event is entirely unimaginable, however, it’s the first deadly accident on a U.S. passenger airline flight since 2009, when Colgan Air 3407 crashed near Buffalo, N.Y. killing 49 including one civilian, reports CNN. And it’s the first fatality on a major U.S. airline since 2001 when American Airlines flight 587 traveling from New York to the Dominican Republic crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 260 people, per the New York Daily News.

“We know that about 33 percent of people have a fear of flying and of those people, half struggle to fly and half don’t fly at all,” Captain Tom Bunn, L.C.S.W., a retired airline pilot of 30 years, and the author of Soar: The Breakthrough Treatment For Fear Of Flying, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

There’s no ubiquitous cause of flying anxiety, but Bunn says coping mechanisms are linked to birth. “When a baby cries, its amygdala, the part of the brain that handles stress, is activated, and is only soothed by its caretaker’s face, voice, and touch,” he says. “Over time, babies learn to calm down by anticipating their parent’s response, which is similar to the relief many experiences while the plane descends to the ground. The so-called danger is still present because the plane is in motion, but the anticipation of landing feels soothing.”

Triggering anxiety is often a lack of control or an inability to escape danger, two factors one must accept when boarding a plane. Curiously, many people develop a fear of flying around age 27 when brain development has fully matured and the youthful assumption that one is invincible fizzles.

Bunn can only speculate what occurred on Southwest Flight 1380 but one possibility is that the engine cowling (the cover) loosened. “During engine repair, the cowling is loosened and when the work is complete, it’s closed,” he says. “But if a person didn’t lock it properly or the cowling lock is worn, it can fly off. It’s happened hundreds of times, but until now, hasn’t caused fatalities.” Bunn surmises that if the cowling flew off and hit the plane’s plexiglass window, the incoming wind would suck the air — and anyone in its path — through the window.

Debunking common flying myths can help ease worry. “For example, turbulence won’t cause a crash and represents only a tiny fraction of what planes can handle,” he says.

Also, shaky wings during flying are completely normal. Per CBS MoneyWatch, “A plane’s wings can survive turbulence 50 percent stronger than the worst that’s ever been encountered before breaking. In order to absorb all that force, the wings are built like giant springs. If they were rigid and unyielding, it would take a lot less wind power for them to snap off — not something you want happening at 30,000 feet.”

Adds Bunn, “If you stood on a step ladder, you could bend the plane’s wings with your hands.”

Requesting to meet the pilot before takeoff or disclosing your fears to the flight crew may also build a support system before anxiety mounts, and sitting near the wings can reduce the impact of turbulence.

“In most cases, when passengers feel nervous,” says Bunn, “the pilot is cheerfully flying the plane. The job can be pretty uneventful.”

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