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[feature] my aerophobia and i

fears from above

The cabin was dark. I sat amidst sleeping strangers and a baby crying nonstop. Maybe it was because everything from my hair to the provided blankets smelled like stale coffee that I sat wide awake, staring at the in-flight travel monitor—the only source of light in my vicinity. On the screen, a small airplane hovered less than halfway across its route. Altitude: 40,324 feet. Temperature outside: -65 Fahrenheit. Origin location time: 3 a.m. Time to destination: 8 hours, 13 minutes.

As usual, I was restless. Every squeak and rattle of the cabin brought my heart to my throat—is that the sound of a screw in the plane coming loose? Was that normal turbulence or something else? Why does it keep making that noise? Does the flight attendant seem worried? It’s that squeak again. What was that? With my eyes locked on the little airplane on the screen, one hand clutched around the armrest, I felt a light wave of dizziness that might have been nausea. 


Aerophobia is an extreme fear of flying. Those who experience aerophobia can feel anxious over various aspects of flying: takeoff, landing, or the anticipation of their anxiety about flying. To me, aerophobia is the cold, hollow plane carpet, a constant reminder of the miles of free fall right beneath my feet.

No, no, can’t get sick on the plane. I’ll wake everyone up, make a fool out of myself, and the flight attendants will have to clean up after my mess. I can taste it in my throat. Stop it. Stop it. Not here. I was thousands of miles away from both my departure and destination, surrounded by rows and rows of sleeping strangers, fully detached and alone, spinning deeper and deeper into the spiral. The air in the cabin grew thicker. I needed to escape, go home, get out, but my next taste of fresh air wouldn’t be for over eight hours, a hopeless eternity.

For over ten years, I had to travel between China and the U.S. to attend school and visit family. I boarded endless flights with a throat tight with panic and exited the plane the same way. Rationally, I know that I am much more likely to die from a car ride to the airport than the flight itself, but as with most phobias, aerophobia is more emotional than rational. Even though my brain tells me not to worry, the dark, airless cabins still find their way into my dreams weeks before the departure date, waking me up with jolts of fear that my bedroom is about to plummet from the sky.

When I first started experiencing aerophobia, I looked up “how to get over fear of airplanes,” which took me to a few narratives of individual endurance and perseverance, stories of people who white-knuckled until their fears simply vanished one flight. It seemed that all I could do was rinse and repeat until my experience caught up to my rational mind, until one day some divine intervention would swoop down and rescue me from the anxious spirals. 

Thinking back now, there is nothing wrong with these narratives of aerophobia that go something like, “I was panicking in one flight and totally fine the next,” but they didn’t show me the full picture. For me, my transformation happened not on one magical flight but in the little changes that accumulated in the moments between the flights. Over time, these little changes snowballed into something that felt like a true miracle. 



I found the loveliest subreddit, r/fearofflying, where members cheer each other on and help anxious fliers track their flight routes. In long threads under each anxious post, the comments take turns to assure the flier: I know this is hard, but you are going to do amazing; this airplane model is incredibly safe; you’ll have a great view of the Rockies one hour into your flight; you are crushing it, and so many other planes are flying on the same route as you. 

In the last week of a summer program, I found a doodle on my desk depicting my group of friends on a plane together and “No more flying alone!!!” scribbled at the bottom. They were the first group that I felt comfortable talking about my aerophobia with and I still keep the doodle in my journal to this day. 


The day before a flight, I found myself on a mentor’s sun-speckled balcony that opened to meandering woods and fields. The birch trees dragged long shadows behind them, their leaves growing crisp in the early fall air. Standing at the edge of the terrace, with my palms pressed against the wooden railing still warm from the sinking sun, I stopped thinking about confined airplane cabins for a moment.

I ended up flying with some of the friends drawn in the “No more flying alone” doodle. For most of that flight, I stood chatting with them at the back of the cabin, exchanging the last bits of summer gossip and spotting sex scenes on in-flight entertainment systems. As we chuckled under the blue-tinted cabin light, my mind only occasionally wandered to the hollowness of the cabin floor, and when it did, I trusted that someone would catch me if I fell.


The cabin is dark. I am flying from Boston to Lisbon, then Hangzhou, and finally Beijing, an over 48-hour solo trip that would’ve been my worst nightmare just years ago. But here I am, breathing in and out with ease. Although I’m thousands of feet in midair and thousands of miles from both my departure and destination, I feel grounded. There is an invisible thread connecting me to the people I love and the places I have been. This is the kind of miracle moment that I had hoped for, only it isn’t a miracle; it is people. The threads that ground me did not come from any divine intervention; they came from countless hugs at airports and by car doors.

I still find it hard to trust airplanes, but I trust the people that these threads connect me to, and I trust the solid tugs I feel in the threads, like promises to never let loose. With my mind on a subreddit, a doodle, and a terrace in the open autumn air, I take in one more deep breath and let my feet sink to the airplane floor, fully trusting it with my weight. 

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