Yesterday a Southwest Airlines 737 experienced what appeared to be an uncontained engine failure.  Unfortunately this resulted in the death of a passenger, the first for a US-flagged carrier in a decade.  I’ve received numerous comments (both on the blog and from concerned friends) about the safety of flying in light of everything which occurred yesterday.

I get it.  Despite averaging about 150,000 miles in the air every year I’m a nervous flyer.  I know that doesn’t make any sense but I promise it’s true.  I know where you’re coming from.  Here’s what helps me.

Flying has never been safer

It’s an absolute fact.  Air travel is by far the safest method of travel.  When you think that there are tens of thousands of flights in the air right now and this is the first passenger death in a decade it’s pretty incredible.  Modern jets like the Boeing 737 are built with redundancy after redundancy, and as we saw yesterday are entirely capable of descending to a safe altitude after the complete and total loss of power in one of its engines.

The flight crew deserves a phenomenal amount of recognition for their calm demeanor and expert flying to get the plane on the ground safely in an otherwise routine landing.  The fact is, though, every flight crew in the USA has trained that exact scenario many times in flight simulators.  America’s flight crews are incredibly well-trained and are constantly thrown back into simulators to ensure their training is fresh and at the forefront of their mind.

The CFM-56 engine is incredibly reliable

The main engine used on the Boeing 737 is the CFM-56, an image of which is below.

These engines underpin one of the most successful jets in the history of travel.  Tens of thousands of Boeing 737s have this engine.  At this moment, according to FlightAware, there are around 4000 Boeing 737s in the air, meaning there are at least 8000 CFM-56 engines in the air powering them.  These engines have powered jets to hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of safe takeoffs and landings.

The main reason airlines use the CFM-56 is because of its reliability.  If it was in any way unsafe believe me airlines would ditch it in a heartbeat.  Pilots and flight attendants would refuse to fly on jets they knew were unsafe.  Have faith in the people who get on these jets for a living.  They would be the first to cry out if there was a systemic issue.

Here’s why people are nervous

I think nervous flyers all tend to know the stats.  Even though we know that more flights are flying than ever before and safety incidents haven’t increased proportionally (which means flying is getting even safer) we still wonder “well what if this is the outlier?”

Here’s what I believe is the source of nervous flying

I have control issues and get anxiety when I feel like I’ve lost control.  I’d bet you probably do too if you’re a nervous flyer.  It’s the reason I’m comfortable driving, which is statistically much more dangerous than flying, is because I feel like I’m somewhat in control of what happens to me.  In a situation where there is tons of turbulence on a jet, I have no control.  I’ve placed my trust in the airline pilots to fly me to a location, which means I’ve given up control.  This frightens me.

At the end of the day we are actually in control of very little in our lives.  During turbulent flights, however, I grasp onto one thing: I am still in control of my thoughts.  I can do nothing to influence the direction of the aircraft, the air around the wings, or any of the fan blades in the jet engine.  What I can control is my thoughts about them.  I can choose to focus on what could go wrong, even though there’s an infinitesimal chance that will happen.  That’s a terrible idea though, it will get me worked up for no reason.

What I choose to focus on in moments where I’m nervous are the things and people that bring me peace.  I remember back to some Texas A&M football games where we won in the last minute.  I think about good times with good friends.  I think about landscapes that I’ve seen around the world that took my breath away.  And I’m thankful.  What I find is that my gratitude for the multitude of incredible experiences I’ve had helps take my focus away from what I fear.

I still don’t like turbulence by any means but I’ve found that anxiety will have as much power over me as I give to it.  By taking captive my thoughts I seize control back from my fears.  I’m in the exact same amount of control over the aircraft as I was before (none) but my focus and my thoughts are in the right place.  It’s made a world of difference for me…not just when I’m flying either.

Are 737s safe?

Yes.  Absolutely.  Tens of thousands of flights took off and landed safely yesterday and will today and tomorrow.  Heck, I’m traveling on two different 737s tomorrow and have absolutely no qualms about walking onto those jets.  Air travel is safe.  Face your fears, figure out if your fear of flying is the actual problem or if it’s just the symptom of a deeper problem and face that problem.

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