Fly without fear

If you were offered a free first-class air-ticket to anywhere, with a five-star hotel on arrival and £50,000 spending money, chances are you’d be delighted... Or would you?

6 mins

Psychologist David Landau’s generous offer was being flatly refused. “How about £500,000?” he persisted, increasing his offer in front of an assembled audience of nervous flyers. “Still no,” replied Dawn. Bribery, it seemed, wasn’t going to get her airborne.

It’s estimated that ten million people in Britain suffer from fear of flying. For some, this represents a phobia that will ground sufferers; for most, it simply means flying with heightened anxiety. Yet it can easily ruin a trip if you’re fretting about your return flight as soon as you arrive.

Despite flying over 20 times each year, I’ve never liked it. My big problem is take-off. Palms sweat as soon as we taxi onto the runway and by lift-off I’m gripping the armrests so tightly they could snap. As we ascend, I’m acutely aware of the slightest variation in engine pitch as a nagging little voice in my head whispers: “Engine failure is imminent; we’re all about to die.”

Fortunately, my wanderlust always overcomes my anxiety. And once we’re cruising I really quite enjoy flying. Well, at least until the meals arrive. But, like many nervous flyers, I’ve also developed a rather irrational ritual as a coping strategy for take-off. I clutch a pendant (a carved leatherback turtle from Costa Rica) in one hand and cross myself three times with the other – particularly illogical as I’m a self-professed atheist. Nevertheless, I subconsciously believe that this ritual will help keep us airborne.

It was time to seek some professional help

Virgin Atlantic has been running Flying Without Fear courses since 1997, helping over 10,000 people to jettison their fears. The day-long seminars lift-off from airports around the country but I was joining the first-ever Heathrow course.

What makes these confidence-building courses unique is that, after time in the classroom, participants put the theory to test on a short flight.

Unsurprisingly, there was enough nervous energy to launch a 747 as the course’s founder, Richard Conway, greeted a packed room. Once a frequent flyer, Richard developed a flying phobia after a bad flight: “It got cumulatively worse until I’d be watching the cabin crew and if I saw a single frown I’d convince myself we were dropping out of the sky.” Finally, he couldn’t look at an aeroplane without panicking. Eventually he returned to the skies after an airline pilot agreed to join him on a flight.

Proceedings started with us dividing into small groups for a brainstorming session. My fellow aviophobics included an airline pilot’s daughter, Katherine, whose panic attacks start on the runway; Rosi, who wasn’t sure she’d manage a flight to Malaga the following week; David, who remained deathly quiet; and Vicky, who confessed flying on Valium worked better with vodka.

Cathartically, we listed what we disliked about flying: strange noises, turbulence, cabin claustrophobia, crashing and so on. “I wish aeroplanes had parachutes,” Rosi sighed. “But we’d only come down in shark-infested water,” responded Vicky. The course-trainers were truly up against it.

Enter current Virgin Airbus 340 pilots David Kistruck and Dom Riley. With a humorous repertoire of science and technical information, they explained just how safe modern jets are and debunked ‘man-down-the-pub’ safety myths.

They started with some physics...

Explaining how the concept of ‘lift’ ensures aeroplanes can actually fly without engines just in case one or two drop off mid-flight. And they offered well-honed responses to floods of questions unleashed from the hall’s nervy gathering.

Yes, pilots undergo regular and rigorous training. Yes, aeroplanes are maintained thoroughly. Yes, there are multiple hydraulic systems in case one fails. No, the intercom ‘bing bongs’ are not coded messages of doom. And wings wobble because if they were rigid “it would be like driving a Reliant Robin down a cobbled street with no suspension”.

I found their presentation on the mechanical noises experienced during take-off particularly helpful. “The first clunk is good,” said Captain Riley, “as it means eight tonnes of undercarriage have safely retracted.” Then, at 450m, a sudden throttling back of power (which always sends my pulse racing) is actually allowing the wing-flaps to straighten to increase aerodynamic efficiency. I learned that air travel over-sensitises your inner ear so every change in pitch is magnified and when an aircraft banks it feels as if you’re about to barrel-roll.

The captains then headed straight into turbulence – the bête noire of all nervous flyers. No commercial flight has ever been brought down by turbulence, they reassured. “But what about air-pockets?” somebody called. “No such thing. In fact, your main threat during turbulence,” quipped Captain Kistruck, “is somebody standing above you with a hot coffee.”

As departure time beckoned it fell upon psychoanalyst and Einstein look-alike David Landau to relax our minds for take-off.

“Fear has two enemies,” he began...

“knowledge and laughter.” Landau encouraged us to reduce pre-flight tension by laughing at the doom-laden negativity surrounding airports (words like ‘terminal’, ‘departure lounge’, and ‘final destination’ aren’t too jolly, are they?). We were told we suffer from fear, not phobia, which can be overcome. A phobic wouldn’t have made it to Heathrow, he claimed. Finally, we were lulled into a session of meditative deep breathing to banish the ‘ball of fear’ from the pit of our stomachs.

Eventually the coaches arrive to take us to Terminal (ha-ha-ha!) One. Already there were a few no-shows: Vicky made her excuses and left, while silent Dave had slipped away during afternoon break. There were a few tears boarding at Gate 79 and, for one lady, it was all too much – she ejected before we even began to taxi.

Captain Kistruck provided a running commentary as we set off for a half-hour spin around north London. There were no screams on take-off, although some of my fellow flyers exhibited less colour than an in-flight salad. Not a single ‘Hail Mary’ escaped my lips, and Katherine, beside me, looked thrilled – no panic attacks.

“I feel really relaxed after having all the noises explained,” she beamed.

After circling in cloudless skies, we returned to earth. Applause broke out on touchdown – like landing in Latin America after a transatlantic flight.
I’ll wait for my next ‘solo’ flight before deciding if I’ve truly benefited. But the omens look good – behind me I heard an excited voice comment: “Shame there wasn’t a little more turbulence.” It was Dawn.

Related Articles