Spending a day learning about spoilers, flaps, slats and ailerons whilst paying for the privilege might seem a bit of a bloomin’ nutty way to spend a large portion of the bank holiday weekend. But, if like me, you’re in the 25-30% of the population that suffers from Aviophobia, you’ll probably agree that it’s money and time well spent – especially if you need, or want, to travel.
Whilst I can’t pinpoint an exact event or reason for the onset of my fear, I can tell you categorically that it’s not a learned behaviour – my parents both loved flying. All the messages I received in my childhood about air travel were positive ones. Yet I still found myself in my late teens so gripped by fear 38,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean that I didn’t leave my seat for 8 hours, refused to look out of the window and literally pleaded with the gods that the end would be quick and painless when we inevitably plummeted out of the sky into the watery depths below. I couldn’t quite believe it when I stepped out into the gleaming sunshine at the other end following our smooth flight. We’d ACTUALLY touched down without incident – this time I’d obviously been lucky.
Crazy? Irrational? Stupid?! Probably. But I was still very sacred and I was planning a gap year. I desperately wanted to travel – my desire to explore far-flung shores somehow overshadowed my fear of flying, but the sight of a jetliner continued to fill me with adrenalin and make my palms clammy from the safety of the ground, I realised it was a battle that I needed to fight head on.
So, back in 1997 I attended a ‘Fly without Fear’ course at Heathrow, run by experienced pilots, crew and psychologists. While there were no promises I’d be ‘cured’, there were definite guarantees I’d come away educated and informed about the phenomenon of flying: how a plane actually gets off the ground, why it’s wings won’t fall off, why turbulence isn’t actually dangerous; I’d hear a detailed breakdown of the rigorous training every pilot must endure before taking charge of, well…our lives. I learnt a plethora of relaxation techniques, as well as the reasons why we develop fears, how we fuel them, and how we can manage them. The climax of the day was the opportunity for a regular commercial aircraft full of nervous (some downright petrified) flyers to practice everything they’d learnt during an hour-long flight, whilst receiving a running commentary from the flight deck about the various noises and sensations we were experiencing during the different stages of the flight. We visited the cockpit and received oodles of reassurance and encouragement from the patient, calm crew. It was fascinating.
In the years that followed, the utter fear I’d previously experienced when airborne reduced to minimal. I flew into Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport, weaving between skyscrapers whilst peering at residents hanging out their washing. I sky dived from a tiny plane at 10,000ft and took a 16 seater propeller plane into the mountains where we landed on a short, sloping airstrip at an elevation of 2,845m with a gradient of 11.7%. I’ve flown to a remote island in the Indian Ocean where we landed on sand and flown through the infamous air currents bouncing off the Rock of Gibraltar, as well as some other crazy weathers in flight; I was completely surprised at how mesmerising it was to look down over an electric storm illuminating the clouds below rather than feeling that the end was nigh… Experiences that left me exhilarated and feeling more alive than ever, and far from afraid.
Kai Tak Airport
Now we have a young family I probably fly once or twice a year and our destinations are not remote, nor are they listed as the ‘most dangerous runways in the world’. But my phobia has recently reared it’s ugly head again despite the fact that last year was recorded as being the safest aviation year on record. Regardless of the statistics, over the last eighteen months the aviophobes among us have been on a heightened alert to the horrifying and increasingly familiar news story of yet another jetliner disaster. There’s a little voice inside of me that’s started to pipe up again: ‘You see, you were right to be scared all along’….
It was on a recent flight with our daughters that I realised I needed to tackle this again. A few minor rolls of turbulence and I was so stricken with fear that I could barely string a sentence together. Desperate for them to not see, I made the walk of shame down the aircraft to the nearest air steward with whom I confided that I was feeling ‘a bit jittery’. A few reassuring words and a bit of deep breathing later and I was able to return to my seat, the girls none the wiser. But now we’ve committed to a holiday in sunny climes over the summer, I’m desperate not to have another anxious and embarrassing encounter with my high-flying demons – and most importantly, not to expose my children to them.
So, today I returned to Heathrow Airport to attend the Fear of Flying course for the second time in 20 years. I’ve come away feeling secure that my aviation knowledge is well and truly refreshed. I know what’s going on behind the scenes these days to ensure our safety whilst hurtling through the clouds at 500 mph and I’ve been reminded of how to manage when the panic rises along with the altitude. Whilst I don’t fly until the end of June, I feel confident that when I do, I’ll be in good hands.
The course I attended today was run by Virgin and was the ‘ground only’ course. The pilot and crew were highly experienced and were prepared to answer all manner of questions about flying – even those you’d be embarrassed to ask. All the major airlines run Fly without Fear/ Flying with Confidence courses and most of them offer the option of a flight on their premium courses. If you’re like me and you’re a nervy flyer, I would recommend attending one!
Thank you again for reading.