AIR: Musicians with Aviophobia

By Jo Phillips

WARNING: Do not read this article  if you are about to embark on a vacation.

The most tragic Venn diagram of this month’s theme of AIR and the subject of music has to be the plane accident known as The Day The Music Died. Three pioneers of the newly-formed rock and roll era of music perished on a small six-seater aircraft on February 3, 1959. There were many shocking statistics and creepy coincidences around the incident including: the age of the passengers, the sortition that decided which musicians would board the bonanza and the fact that the plane ride was seen as a positive alternative to a flu-inducing coach ride.

Along with 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson and rising stars 22-year-old Buddy Holly and 28-year-old J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson embarking on their “Winter Dance Party” tour, Ritchie Valens was among the fatalities at just the age of 17 years old. Valens was a relapsing aviophobe who forced himself to overcome his fear of flying for the sake of his music career but was still haunted by the Pacoima Aircraft Accident; a mid- air collision that crashed in his schoolyard in Los Angeles two years previously, killing and injuring many of Ritchie Valens’ friends. With this in mind, is it any wonder that other musicians also suffer from aviophobia? 

In this article we look at another musicians that have to self-diagnosed themselves as aviophobic, documenting how it has affected their careers, what measures they take to avoid air travel and how/if they’ve attempted to cure themselves. We also ironically researched their music catalogues to see if they sing about flying nonetheless. 

Travis Barker (Blink 182)

Current Fear Status: Severe


Like Ritchie Valens, Blink 182’s drummer Travis Barker has a right to be scared of planes. In 2008, Barker was one of only two survivors of a private plane crash at Columbia Metropolitian Airport; the other being his collaborator DJAM in the project TRV$DJAM. The terrifying incident resulted in third degree burns for Barker, as well as numerous surgeries, blood transfusions and the possibility of amputation. What made things worse was that Barker already had aviophobia even before the disaster, hesistant to travel in his youth as he often had childhood nightmares of dying in this manner.

Although his band members understand that Barker’s post-traumatic stress would affect his contribution to Blink 182 when it came to travel arrangements, they remained optimistic about a mental recovery. Barker’s phobia took control over his decision making a couple of years ago when he declined to join the band on their tour of Australia. As well as other Australian dates, the Californian pop-punk band were announced as headliners for Soundwave 2013 – a festival dedicated to several forms of rock music. The band had to pursue this invitation due to their previous rejections and had Bad Religion drummer Brooks Wackerman fill in his spot. Barker still wishes the visit Australia one day but will still only travel by ship or boat.

Barker said in an open letter to fans: ““I’m sorry to announce I won’t be joining Blink-182 on this Australian tour. I still haven’t gotten over the horrific events that took place the last time I flew when my plane crashed and four people were killed, two being my best friends.” (The au)


Benjamin Burnley (Breaking Benjamin)

Current Fear Status: High

breaking benjamin

The frontman and co-founder of New Jersey hard rock band Breaking Benjamin has a plethora of phobias that affect his daily life and music career, aviophobia is just one of them. Achulophobia (the fear of the dark) and hypochondria (the fear of illness) are irrational but quite common whilst amaxophobia (the fear of being in a car) seems a lot more related to the fear of travelling. Instead of shying away from his hindrance, he and his band Breaking Benjamin built an album around the concept entitled “Phobia” (2006).

“Phobia” includes air travel-related soundbites that paint a traumatic airplane experience including: a flight attendance speaking about passenger safety and turbulence noise. The album cover of a winged man floating above a runway itself alludes to the motion of flying. Rationalizing Benjamin Burnley’s mulitiple phobias Wikipedia says that “he doesn’t believe in a person’s time to die and he wants to put off dying for as long as he possibly can, which is why he doesn’t fly or even ride in a car unless it’s necessary.”

Mayday, mayday. Request permission to land. I cannot control the plane. We are in danger of crashing.”- from the song “Break My Fall”.

Aretha Franklin

Current Fear Status: Elevated

aretha franklin

The living legend of soul music had a US hit in 1985 with “Freeway of Love” and this was around the time of her career that she developed a reputation for travel anxiety. 30 years later she is still battling a demon that has been solely responsible for missed opportunities including: performing for the Queen and in the pyramids of Egypt, Prince Albert of Monaco (Annual Red Cross Ball) and also gaining a reputation for being unreliable due to cancelling a concert tour half-way through due to aviophobia (source: Phobia Center). However, she vows to visit the UK at least once and her enthusiasm to keep singing well within her old age gives British audiences some hope of seeing a singer from the golden age of soul.

Unlike Benjamin Burnley, Franklin is ashamed of her condition and has seeked help on several occasions. According to an article in the Schenectady Gazette on May 1st, 1986 – just two years after the phobia was born – she joined a group therapy class called Fearless Flyers. The therapists uses safety statistics and field trips to help combat negativity towards the activity. For now, Franklin has to operate aspects of her career from her home in Detroit including using satellite feeds for award show appearances, according to Glamour Magazine.

In recent times, her friend told NY Daily News that Franklin volunteered to be part of American Idol as a judge substituting Jennifer Lopez’s absence without considering the likelihood of plane travel. Yet when weighing the potential of a million dollar paycheck with her career-jeopardizing phobia, she didn’t seem as bothered at the possibility of air travel when posed with the question. Maybe her curse is lifted?

To that land where joy will never end,
I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away.

(I’ll Fly Away)

Read more: Johnny Cash – I’ll Fly Away Lyrics | MetroLyrics

David Bowie

Current Fear Status: Elevated

david bowie

One connotation that’s glued to the career of London tastemaker David Bowie is space. Major Tom, “Space Oddity”, The Spiders From Mars, Ziggy Stardust, “Life on Mars” and the genre of space rock is why this is. Isn’t it ironic that David Bowie himself has the fear of flying, making his intergalactic dreams even further from reality? Bowie’s fear status is in the elevated column, as his phobia has gone through alternating periods of relapse, depending on the decade.

The first bout of aviophobia arrived in the early seventies, as a response to a stormy and unsettling flight. It lasted from Autumn 1972 to spring 1977, according to a detailed essay on the Kickass Trips website. Although it made tours an exhausting, tiresome and never-ending journey, it was advantageous in giving Bowie an insight into the secret cultures and realistic sights of countries he passed through, specifically United States and Russia. Although his discoveries and life realizations were sometimes depressing and nearly landed him in jail. His methods of travelling included: ships, buses, coaches, Transsiberian Railway, limos and cabs. Iggy Pop was responsible for getting him out of this rut – although temporarily- because he wanted Bowie to accompany him on his 1977 tour as a pianist due to the vessel bond that Iggy gained from Bowie’s appearances on “Lust For Life” and Iggy’s art rock debut “The Idiot”. As a consequence Bowie had a new confidence to airplanes, which traveled right through the eighties.

However, now David Bowie has resorted back to his aviophobic ways due to a combination of circumstances. The 9/11 attacks abseiled his belief in the safety of air transportation. CNN Tees website states that the birth of his daughter Lexi had something to do with his decision. Whilst his heart attack on a German stage in 2004 raised health issues that affected his way of thinking.

A Transcript from an interview for Australian Current Affairs show 60 Minutes (July 8th, 2002):

CHARLES WOOLEY: What do you feel as the plane takes off?

DAVID BOWIE: Oh, terror.


Current Fear Status: Guarded


Like many aviophobics, Cher’s phobia seemed like a rational response to a frightening experience. An overheated engine forced her USAir plane to return to New Jersey in an emergency landing, which inevitably triggered a distrust in this form of travel. Now long later in 1990, Sun Journal reported that Cher had to delay her concert dates in Halifax, Canada because she refused to step onto a plane. Rather than cancel, she attempted to make the gig by travelling to Boston by train and then changing for a bus to Halifax. All succeeding shows had to be moved a day or two later but audiences were promised refunds if the rescheduled dates were inconvenient.

In February this year, Cher offered advice and psuedo-counseling to a fan on Twitter regarding aviophobia. Jeanne (@ketchadesign) asked “Do you have any advice for fear of flying?” Which Cher responded: “It’s not really fear of flying. When you fly you have (a) feeling of no control & fear grabs you. We are fragile. But flying is safe. Breathe.”

R Kelly

Current Fear Status: Guarded


Conquering aviophobia isn’t easy but R Kelly is close to eliminating this nuisance his life. You could say he’s got selective aviophobia because if the concert is worth the risk – and it has to be really worth the risk – he might just the plunge. Like in the case of his South Africa trip in 2010. The once-in-a-lifetime excitement and anticipation of meeting Nelson Mandela and having the chance to perform at The World Cup Opening Ceremony forced him to rely on flight transportation. He also stated that the reception he received was worth the hassle, during an interview with Digital Spy.

This is in sheer contrast to his other journeys to concerts stretching from the time he ironically wrote “I Believe I Can Fly” to a recent endeavour in 2013, where he traveled non stop for 3 days on the road. The aim was to perform “Ignition” with the French band Phoenix at the Coachella Festival in Indio, California. After the performance he returned home again, meaning that he traveled for almost a week just for a five minute performance. When he takes the stage in the UK, he also takes extreme measures by utilizing boat travel taking weeks to arrive- such as in the case of the Love Letter tour. Which shows both dedication to his fans but also the woes of having a phobia.

Mike Oldfield

Current Fear Status: Low


Maybe our aforementioned musicians should take a leaf out of Mike Oldfield’s book. The “Tubular Bells” composer has taken a complete u-turn in his approach to flying. However, it did take a complete breakdown of his mental state and a series of unfortunate circumstances (the death of his mother, alcoholism and a relationship breakdown) to get him to seek help. In a bid to change his life, he signed up to a rising form of alternative  therapy entitled Exegesis. It encouraged patients to face their fears. It worked! Oldfield completely transformed into an opposite version of himself. Almost unrecognizable. Now he was more impulsive, social, full of self-confidence, new ideas and prepared to take risks, as oppose to his reclusive former self. Most importantly, he decided to take flying lessons to control his phobia.

Instead of being afraid of flying, he now celebrates it. He now builds model aircrafts, is a licensed pilot and flies helicopters. He also has a general interest in travel and was given a Bentley by Richard Branson – who’s record label Virgin Records released his hit album “Tubular Bells”.

Robert Smith (The Cure)

Current Fear Status: Low


Are there benefits of having aviophobia or is it all gloom? Robert Smith from The Cure asked the question when he created a myth/escalated rumour that suggested that he had a fear of flying. It wasn’t until 1992 that he admitted that it was all a big fat lie. Smith admitted to Blend Magazine, that there were numerous reasons why he kept up the sharade. One was the opportunity to travel in more luxurious forms of transport, such as cruise. Another reason was so that they could rest after travelling, rather taking the stage straight away. As the band were pretty popular at the time, Smith also found it as a way to manage the demand and organize the requests.

Yet Vox magazine in November in 1992 seemed to fooled into believing that he had the phobia and narrated the effort Australians had to make to get The Cure to perform there:

“Robert Smith swore the Cure would never tour again. Getting him all the way to Australia only took a 38,000 signature petition from fans, five brandies before boarding the plane, and a couple of insomnia tablets. His fear of flying was just one reason why the band have steered clear of the stage though. Inter-personnel friction and Smith’s affection for his wife Mary have previously both conspired to keep the Cure off the road.”

It just makes you wonder if any other musicians had the same trick up their sleeve?

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