The Flight from Hell

WARNING:

Some of the details in this post might frighten some readers who are “early” in their work on their fear of flying. It’s OK, it’s just a truthful story of someone else’s experience. It could be your’s or mine one day, so I think it’s useful to know how to understand it and not let stories like this negatively affect your fears. Finding out facts and understanding how they support flight safety is important. All I know is that with my sensitivity to motion sickness, I may have been even more uncomfortable (but not frightened) than my patient (who has given me permission to tell the story).

A new patient whom I’d seen for several sessions was asked to fly with little notice to Sydney for a particular event in late November, 2015. We still had some clinical work to do, but the importance of the task in Sydney meant she needed to go, and indeed it was to be alone. The previous flights had been with colleagues or her husband. She thought about seeing me for a “top up” or pre-flight pep talk, but with too little time, decided to brave the flight on her own, with perhaps a little help from some meds. (By the way, it’s not at all unusual for patients to schedule flights during the course of our work. Many are regular flyers, but find their flying is becoming worse, and not flying is not an option.)

In the end she didn’t use any meds, and completed her work requirements and headed to the airport in Sydney for her return flight. Flights between Melbourne and Sydney in the afternoon and evening occur on the half-hour, and she asked check-in staff if she could go on an earlier flight, even though that meant losing her priority seating.
An earlier flight was offered, but on boarding, she discovered she was at the back of the bus, in the middle seat between two rather large men. Being several months pregnant, this meant she was leaning forward for most of the flight to give herself some space.
I only found out about her experience when she rang me seeking a debrief for this flight, which could be entitled The Flight from Hell. This was no fault of the airline, who usually get the blame for flights from Hell. In this case, her flight and many others on the same evening (November 25) were confronted with an unusual weather pattern over the Melbourne area.
During the phone call setting up our debriefing session, she spoke of the plane having gone through three go arounds. This is most unusual for Melbourne, and so I investigated using the dates she had given me. As it turned out, she was a day out, and so I want to show you how I went about locating the actual flight, looking at its approach into Melbourne from Sydney, and letting her know that as uncomfortable as it was – it was very uncomfortable – nonetheless, it was business as usual for the airline in terms of safety being its priority.

The first assist: Flightaware.com

 

The first website I went to to validate her experience was one called flightaware.com. It’s a free site to begin with to look up the performance of airlines and their aircraft in the previous week. To go back further, requires a member’s account.
My patient had given me the departure time from Sydney which allowed me to locate the exact flight and to see its performance on the day in question, which she had thought was November 24.
  Voila_Capture2015-12-08_05-49-47_PM
If you look at the graph from flightaware, above, (click on it to enlarge it), it shows changes in acceleration or speed over time (blue line), matched with altitude (brown line) . With three missed approaches you would expect rather typical increases in speed and altitude towards the end of the plane’s flight, after 8pm. On November 24, above, it was pretty straightforward. So I decided to look at the performance of this particular flight over several days on the same website and, below, you can see several days of the same flight number.

Deducing and Understanding what happened

 

Notice the flight for November 25: Can you see how much longer it is than the other flights? At, 1:47 (outlined), it’s about 40 minutes longer than most, and so this is the flight that she was likely on.
Voila_Capture2015-12-08_05-51-26_PM
If you look at its performance on the day, also from flightaware.com, (see below), you can see the changes of speed and altitude I referred to earlier which confirms this was the flight she was on.
You will also see up and down arrows in brown which tell you if the plane was ascending or descending, which also clues you in as to its performance on the night. Did it undergo three go arounds? There was certainly one missed approach, as I have noted. The aircraft was travelling at 118 knots, a heading of 271 degrees  (final approach on Runway 27), and an altitude of 2100 feet. (Gear would have been down at this time, and likely full flaps. The flight would have been 3 or 4 miles from the runway threshold). At this point, it climbed on the runway heading, initially at 1585feet/min (slower than a normal takeoff), then more rapidly at 2,903ft/min (greater than normal takeoff). Many passengers would have have felt quite sick and frightened at this point. The rate of climb then settled back to something less frightening, to only 182ft/min, as seen at the bottom of the chart.

 Actions I took to help my patient

 

To more fully understand what had occurred, I did two things. The first was to write to a senior pilot of the airline in question at Melbourne airport whom I know and ask if there were any special circumstances he could tell me about the flights for that evening. What I was interested in was his commentary that while the circumstances were quite unusual, statistically speaking, the planes all followed standard operating procedure.

Using Webtrack.com from AirServices Australia

 

The second thing I did was to locate another website, webtrack.com, managed by Air Services Australia. This free website monitors noise around Australian airports so that planes flying into and out of airports do not exceed designated levels, at which point should they, local residents can access the website, note the time and day and dB reading, and lodge a complaint. Airlines who exceed designated noise levels can be heavily fined.
The website allows you to track aircraft as they fly into the Melbourne (and other Australian capital city) vicinity in both real-time as well as past occasions, highly sped up. If you go to the video below, you will see my patient’s flight as it enters the zone just south of the township known as Kinglake. It’s QF479. The video shows two different reviews, one where all aircraft are tagged, and second time through, where only 479 is tagged.
It makes a fairly standard approach, on runway 27, that is due west, and then at some point (you can see the altitude) it breaks off the approach and turns to the right. Rather than call this a go around, the aircraft is far enough away from the runway threshold to label it a missed approach.

Really yucky weather in Melbourne the cause

If you see the video in its entirety, even before we see my patient’s aircraft coming into view other aircraft are also making missed approaches, as does one following her’s. Clearly, Melbourne was experiencing some rather challenging weather conditions, such that aircraft were experiencing what is known as windshear on approach: very fast moving up and down drafts which make a precision approach impossible, and best left to a later approach when the thunderstorm responsible has passed through the area. This could take half an hour or more, and my patient (when I did see her) mentioned to me that the crew had told the passengers that the plane may have to divert to another airport near Melbourne, known as Avalon (AVV).
You can see that after the plane turns right, there is a little wobble, then the plane takes up a northerly, then easterly then southerly path including a rather tight 180 degree turn, before heading north once more, for another approach to the west. In fact, there was only one missed approach, but if you’re a passenger at the back of the plane not familiar with what’s happening, experiencing accelerations and decelerations, climbing and descents, you could easily be confused and assume several approaches were made unsuccessfully before the final successful one.

The ironic responses from the Airline Captain

As it turns out, a few hours after my initial email to the senior airline captain, I  received a reply from him stating it was a difficult night, but business as usual. But later in the day, I received another email from him telling me that he too had been in Sydney a few days before, and was travelling back to Melbourne on that very same night. Indeed it was likely he was on my patient’s original flight, and furthermore, ironically, his plane also made a missed approach.
This way I was able to allow my patient to consider that rather than blaming herself, and fearing she was unlucky with her flying, had she taken the later original flight she may have been in for an even more uncomfortable experience!
When my patient was back in Melbourne, she visited the restroom noting a number of her fellow passengers were cleaning themselves up, as quite a bit of throwing up had occurred on the flight.
She also rang a friend, previously my client too, who told her that if she could get through this flight she can get through anything!

Take home messages

But for me what was important, was that she gave a debrief with me consideration, and we were able to more comprehensively understand what happened, rather than to allow herself to believe that flying is inherently dangerous or that she is unlucky with flying.
More importantly, she was able to truly see how valuable her training with me in diaphragmatic breathing and appropriate self-talk, combined, could really make a difference. These are two evidence-based interventions I employ, amongst others you can locate on this site, which many patients assert have really assisted.
There is still some work to be done, which might include a flight with me, but so far I’m very happy with how she handled the circumstances. We did manage to joke of the possible irony of her taking the later flight, seated next to the captain I had emailed, and him telling her he had a psychologist he could refer her to, and she revealing it was the one and same person. We both chuckled when I revealed to her this fantasy, and her being able to laugh about the events is a very good prognosticator!
(If this post appealed to and you’d like to contact me, ring 0413040747 or email les@lesposen.com and tell me your story.)

About the Author :

START TYPING AND PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH