The Strange Rituals of Superstitious Flyers

USA Today: It's not the engines that make a plane fly, James Stinhagen believes. It's his finger circles.

"As the plane begins the takeoff roll, I whirl my finger around in a small circle faster and faster as the plane accelerates down the runway," Stinhagen, 62, of Troy, Mich., says. "My thinking is that this will help keep the engines running as we prepare to climb into the air," he says. "Fortunately, I have not had a situation where this didn't work — at least not yet."

It may sound crazy or strange. But Steinhagen isn't alone in his flying superstitions.

"My wife and I have this superstition that we always lift our feet while the plane is accelerating down the runway until it leaves the ground. This helps the plane into the air," says Carl Steinecker, 64, of South Lyon, Mich.

"I lift up on the armrest to get the plane into the air," says Thomas Harding, 53, a Milwaukee psychiatrist.

Superstitious rituals help travelers who would otherwise be sensible gain an illusion of control when they're in the sky, experts say. "Since people look into the air and see nothing holding the plane up, it all seems like magic anyway, right? So if you lift up on the armrest, it might help the plane rise," says Tom Bunn, a psychologist and pilot who runs the SOAR program to conquer fear of flying.

"In addition," he says, "there is an anthropomorphism going on: The plane is not just a mechanical object, but it has feelings. You think the plane is trying and struggling, and you need to help it, so there is the spinning of the finger to help the engine turn."

Having flying superstitions isn't the same as the fear of flying. People are willing to fly. They just have rituals and charms to make sure everything goes well.

As a psychiatrist, Harding often works with people who are afraid to fly. His own lifting up on the armrests is about "being in control," he says.

Bunn, a former commercial pilot, says pilots use calming techniques, such as thinking of a favorite song or doing the same preparation every time.

Self-calming affects people's moods. But superstitious acts are aimed at the plane and its fate.

Years ago, Michael Konesko, 57, of Saginaw, Mich., started listening to Bonnie Raitt music on a cassette while in the air. He now has an iPod, but he still listens to Raitt.

"I have never been on a plane that crashed while listening to her," he says.

"So why risk it?"


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