Flying Without Fear

When you have a yearning desire to explore the world, flying is pretty much a given prerequisite. So when it scares the hell out of you it starts to become a bit of an issue.

There was a time when I wasn’t bothered about flying, a time when I used to look at the trip to the airport as an inconvenience, largely due to the fact I hate queuing. Inconveniences seldom ruin holidays though. Most people can just get past them whilst they excitedly think about their trip. They potter about the duty-free shops before the departure gates, sniffing fragrances like they’ve never been to a Boots before or looking at giant Toblerone displays with a sort of confused awe you’d expect from a Neanderthal.

If you’re scared of flying it’s a completely different experience though. You could be going on the most exciting trip of your life to a place you’ve dreamed about for years, but instead of counting down the days like it’s Christmas, you’re looking at them with dread. As each night draws closer you think about it more and more. You mull over the various elements of it until you don’t even want to go any more. Suddenly your holiday turns into something negative. And what’s the point in a holiday if it actually makes you more stressed than you were before?

I remember the flight that made me scared of air travel like it was some sort of blockbuster disaster movie. In my mind it was a frantic mess of noise and shouting, things falling from overhead lockers, people screaming and lights flashing on and off. At one point Nicolas Cage leaps past me to stop a child being sucked though a window.

My parents were on the flight as well. When I ask them about it they look at my with a slightly confused expression “Yeah, it was a bit bumpy” they say. “Bumpy?’ I reply in a pronounced rage, “It was mayhem. It was like Air Force One. They’ll probably use the story to make Air Force Two.”

I’ve flown since, quite a few times in fact. But unlike before my nightmare flight, I’m in a constant state of waiting. Imaging the same thing will happen again. I sit in my chair counting the minutes on my watch until we land or watching that stupid visual representation of where the plan is over the globe. The one where it’s a third of the size of the Atlantic Ocean. “Are we any closer?” my sarcastic friends will say. “Well according to this the nose has landed but the tail has a couple of hundred miles to go,” I reply, shaking my head with fatigue.

I started to drink on flights to quell my anxiety. A couple of glasses of wine before, one or two on the flight itself. It actually helped quite a bit. Sometimes I didn’t even remember landing. Great for the fear but not so good when you end up at your destination and the hangover kicks in. I started to plan my trips around the fact I was inevitably going to be feeling awful at the other end. If I was flying out somewhere to do a marathon I’d have to leave a day early to allow myself an extra nights sleep to prepare for the race.

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Things were getting a bit annoying to be honest. The other thing is that getting drunk on a flight is all well and good if it’s only a few hours, however maintaining it for a long haul flight was never going to be fun. I can barely sustain a full night out these days, so sitting in the same seat whilst doing it for twelve hours isn’t going to be an enjoyable experience. Especially for the poor people sat next to me whilst I babble on like some hiccupping extra from Pirates Of The Caribbean.

For the last few years my desire to visit places around the world has increased a fair bit. Before I’d look at trips and think I’ve got loads of time, I’ll do it next year, but you can only do that for so long. As the list increases, the time you have to visit them slowly begins to lessen. And even more significantly, the fear of actually getting on the plane worsens. So yeah, I’d got to the point where I was either going to deal with it or end up with an increasingly impressive knowledge of Western Europe.

I looked a the various options available to me to start addressing my fear. There was hypnotism, cognitive behavioural therapy and obviously a few anti-anxiety medications. None of which I held any particular belief in. So I decided to look into some of the fear of flying courses offered. There were a few I’d read through on the internet that looked okay. I nearly opted for the EasyJet one because it was cheaper, however I came to the conclusion that if I was ever not going to be cheap about something it should probably be this. The last thing I wanted was to feel worse after it.

It’s intense. We started at 11am and didn’t finish until almost 10pm. So yeah, you get your money’s worth.

So, I decided to book a spot on The Virgin Flying Without Fear course. Sure, at £267 it wasn’t cheap, and ironically I was flying with Virgin the time I developed my hatred of it, but as airlines go I have a lot more faith in it that some of the others. Also there was a large chunk of the day allowed for questions, so who better to understand my fears than the airline that caused it in the first place? (note: I am aware Virgin don’t actually cause turbulence on purpose).

I read through some of the online information and watched the various videos available and decided to book myself on a course at Gatwick. There were two different types of session available: a ground-only course and another where the day culminates with an actual flight. Now, I think it’s important to confront your fears, so a theory only course sounded too easy to have any benefit. I’ve read a few books on the topic and the theory alone was all but useless in helping my mood at 37,000 feet.

I turned up at the airport hotel where the session would see over a hundred people taking part in the day. And when I say day I mean a whole day. It’s intense. We started at 11am and didn’t finish until almost 10pm. So yeah, you get your money’s worth.

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As I made my way to the hotel I was imagining that there would be a handful of people sat in a room like an AA meeting. However when I actually walked in and saw twenty large tables, all full of people chatting away and eating cookies (there were a hell of a lot of cookies there), I was quite surprised. It’s a common response apparently and one of the most important things to understand about being scared of flying – loads of other people are as well. It’s easy to sit on a plane as it jumps about in turbulence and look around at the calm people watching Men in Black 2 or sipping a cup of tea, to think you’re the odd one out. Like you’re a wimp who’s making a mountain out of a molehill. But seeing a full room of people who are the same as you helps to put things into perspective.

The first part of the day, aside from the cookies, the coffee and a jar of various nuts I found, focussed on the technical aspects of flying. For an hour and a half Captain Dave (a real captain), took us through every element of aviation we could have possibly asked about. As well as the laws of physics that keep the plane up in the air (something like L = Cl * A * .5 * r * V^2… we’re not going to even attempt to explain it), how the engines work, the effect of wing shape, what systems are used on the flight deck, how different weather effects the plane, how the inner ear affects perception of turbulence. You get the picture. It was thorough. By the end of the talk many people in the room were nodding in interest. Others were still looking nervous, some more so. But as the team explained, there’s no one thing that causes people to be scared of flying, which is why the course offers a wide range of support techniques.

Steve Turbulence Explanation

For me the technical explanations were by far one of the most useful elements, specifically around the topic of turbulence and why it isn’t dangerous (apparently it may be uncomfortable, but there is now way turbulence will cause a plane to crash), he even went on to explain that turbulence is so unimportant in terms of plane damage that the pilots aren’t really even bothered about it. As a self-confessed control freak understanding the workings of anything is pretty damn important. Significantly more so when I think there’s an inevitable risk that I’m going to die. By the end of the overview I felt a considerably calmer. In no small part due to the impressively clear delivery from Captain Dave.

Now it was time for the cabin crew to talk. Dave number two stepped up to the front and began talking about his role in the aviation process. He went through things like medical training, security, ground contact and an extremely valuable explanation on why you shouldn’t look at the a cabin crew members and imagine they’re concerned expression is due to the plane crashing, as most of the time it’s because they’ve probably ran out of chicken.

I realised how I’d built it up over the years to the point where the perception far outweighed the actuality.

The next part was psycho-educational development. This was the really interesting part for me. For the next couple of hours we looked at those factors that have caused the fear to appear over time. Paul Tizzard, one of the programme directors and man with an extensive knowledge of the psychological aspects of flying, took us through perception vs actual risk, how nobody is born with a fear of flying, the neurological causes of fear and the biological effects of it. It was fascinating stuff, and as Paul explained it all, with the sort of wry delivery you’d expect from a contestant on Have I Got News For You, people in the audience smiled and nodded as they spotted their own behaviours. For me it was the consistent affirmation of my initial fear. I realised how I’d built it up over the years to the point where the perception far outweighed the actuality.

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There was then a section on strategies for dealing with fear. A handful of coping tools used to make things manageable and eventually retrain the brain to perceive things differently. Things like breathing patterns, positive affirmations, disputing and a rather complex one called “oh sod it”.

So with the theory done it was time to leave the hotel and make our way to Gatwick airport to put our new-found skills to the test. The faces sat round the tables were a mixture of emotions. Some looked confident and assured; people standing up with a new sense of determination to take on the challenge. Others, some of who were nervous as soon as they saw a flight attendant making a cup of coffee as they walked into the hotel, were not in such a good state. I was on the former. When compared against most other people at the session I was probably one of the least scared. I have over the past few years managed to suppress my fear until much later on. Only when I’m up in the air does my real concern start to appear.

The flight was pretty much an identical experience to any other flight. There were long queues, there were delays, there were people forgetting their passports and there were metal detectors. It was the perfect chance to see the effectiveness of the course. The plane would take us all on a jaunt from Gatwick to Southampton and back to Gatwick, perhaps the world’s most underwhelming journey when seen on a boarding pass.

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The plane was a mixture of emotion. People were upset, people were giddy, people walked off. It wasn’t your average flight. But in contrast to the hotel room it was far more real. This was the point when people’s fears really came out. Captain Dave sat with two other pilots in the cockpit and spoke over the speaker system delivering a commentary. A masterstroke in delivering the course.

From the moment we entered the plane to the point where we landed Dave explained every minute aspect of the flight. He talked about noises and lights, he explained what was happening when the plane sped up and when the angle of flight changed, he talked about the effect of going through clouds and even flew us in a couple of circles so we could understand how our weight changes and the subsequent sensation. It was a phenomenally useful experience and the previous emotion in the plane became much more placid.

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When we landed everyone cheered. Obviously. Everyone smiled and laughed amongst themselves; rejoicing not because they’d survived but because they’d overcome something. It was pretty damn nice to be honest.

So is the course any good? Absolutely. It’s wonderfully planned programme delivered by a team of people who really care about it. From directors Paul and Richard to Captain Dave, the pilots, the cabin crew and the supporting team it’s designed with a sense of empathy and knowledge that I really wasn’t expecting. Everyone concerned made sure that all questions were answered and that every single person sat there, whether they were visibly scared or quietly watching the speakers, was happy and comfortable. You even get a nice little certificate at the end, you know, to prove you’re not afraid anymore.

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As I mentioned before, the course isn’t cheap, but if you’re scared of flying like me, you’d happily give someone your pension to be rid of it. It also includes a flight as well, which actually makes it a pretty good deal. The hotel service is excellent with a full buffet lunch, snacks, drinks and cookies (loads of them).

But as Richard explains, the course isn’t a cure. Learning to get rid of your fear won’t happen overnight. It’s a grounding to change your thinking and remove the negative thoughts you currently have. Over time you use what you’ve learned to build a new perception around flying.

The course takes place throughout the year at various locations around the country. For more information on it head to the website here. You can also look through at some of the testimonials from previous attendees. I couldn’t find a bad one (and believe me I checked).

Picture Credits: Pond5, Flying Without Fear