How Västra Hamnen helped cure my fear of flying

For years, decades really, I literally hated flying and rarely flew sober. The cure came one day inside a claustrophobically small cockpit way above Västra Hamnen.

On average, you’ll find me seated in a commercial jet about 25 times per year – on both midrange – to and from European destinations – and long-distance flights between the US, Africa or Asia.

Traveling has been an integral part of my life and career ever since the very first transcontinental voyage – way back in 1966 when I flew to Sweden from Los Angeles with my mother.

And though this was a long, long time ago, I was three years old at the time, some of the SAS crew from that very same flight could still be working as cabin attendants today.


Fast forward several years and I’m sitting in Boeing 747-400 which is just about to land at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippines after a relatively short, uneventful flight from the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta.

With only a few feet before the plane’s wheels touched down, a powerful sidewind swept the gigantic aircraft off course and the designated runway on which it was supposed to land a few seconds later.

Thanks to the mindful cockpit crew and the 747’s four Rolls Royce engines, we avoided what certainly would have been a catastrophic crash and instead, ascended back into the sky at an extremely steep angle with the engines roaring at a deafening level.

Twenty or so minutes later and a fresh approach, our Garuda flight landed safely. Together with some two hundred of my noticeably relieved fellow passengers, I walked off the plane on visibly shaky legs.

Though that incident never got me to stop flying, it was quintessentially the day when my real fear of flying began. For years after, I wouldn’t board a plane sober and always made sure that I had enough booze in me to keep the reoccurring panic attacks at a manageable level.

My phobia had little to do with altitude and what would inevitably happen if the plane literally fell from the sky. Instead, it was my inability to deal with feeling so uncontrollably and uncomfortably confined in a thin metal and plastic tube without any options.

I love options.

About 6 years ago, I got in touch with a private pilot and hired him to fly me in a small, single engine propellor plane above the world-renown, sustainable district, Västra Hamnen in Malmö, Sweden. The mission was to capture a set of unique photos for a property development client and perhaps a few for a new book in my series documenting the area.

At the time, I didn’t think too much about how small the plane would be or what it would be like shooting from within a really small cockpit. All I could focus on was the amazing perspectives I’d have from around 1500 meters above ground and what lenses I should use for the assignment.

A week later, on a particularly sunny spring afternoon, I climbed into the passenger seat of the shiny white turboprop, Diamond Star DA40 at Sturup. An even fifty-fifty mix of excitement and anxiety spread throughout my body as we taxied down the runway at Malmö Airport.

Within minutes of being airborne, I not only started to relax, I also began to notice how surprisingly comfortable I was looking out from within the cockpit’s curved plexiglass windows.

In retrospect, I suppose the up-close experience of watching an experienced, albeit non-commercial pilot, manually fly a plane was a key ingredient in ridding myself of the phobia. That and perhaps coming to some kind of logical conclusion of how comparatively safe air travel really is.

Though a completely different story altogether, I did indeed cure a previous phobia using a similar methodology, namely, my fear of sharks. By cage diving near a few grand specimen in Gaansbai, South Africa, I somehow accepted how both rare and shy those fierce creatures are. So, taking the bull by the horns, as the saying goes, has seemed to work pretty good for me.

Incidentally, bulls are still on my list of animals that scare the shit out of me…

Photo of me: Petter Naef