Fearless Flying (Going Places magazine)

Fearless Flying

Thirteen fearful flyers face their phobia

Going Places magazine, September 2001

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I morphed – from being your typical white knuckler to avoiding flying althogether. There wasn’t a terrifying near-crash experience. I have always just hated it, perhaps conditioned by a mother wanting to return to her homeland but completely unwilling to get there hurtling through space.

I’d flown without incidence for years. Still, weeks before a flight I’d imagine all that could go wrong: raging passenger, uncooperative Mother Nature, vengeful mechanic, narcoleptic and/or incompetent pilot. It would only get worse once I was on the aircraft. I’d actually feel my hair getting whiter. But my high anxiety over something thousands of people do safely every day has increased over the past few years, culminating with a flight to California this February. On our descent into LAX, the pilot dusted off one of his old war plane stunts. I’m not familiar with the terminology, but I’d call it a Quick Turn and Fall, accompanied by the screams and gasps of everyone on board.

I was flying with several seasoned travellers; they said it was the most terrifying experience of their lives. To me, it ranked right up there with every other flight of my life. Still, I decided to forgo the free flight home in exchange for a 36-hour bus ride – in itself almost enough to cure me of my phobia. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough. But it gave me ample time to think about my condition and vow to do something about it.

Eight weeks later, I was sitting around a boardroom table for Beyond the Fear of Flying, the Air Canada-endorsed, 5-week Avserve West program for phobic flyers, held at the Vancouver airport. I figured, if anything, it would make a good story. If they could cure me, they could cure anyone. Then there were my classmates. These would be people in need of serious help, I figured. Maybe so, but they were a cool group of people from all walks of life. Some flew regularly for their work but were growing extremely uncomfortable with it; others had phobias that prevented them from flying at all (one woman hadn’t flown in two decades).

Our flight terrors were immediately attacked on two fronts: technical and mental. On the tech side was the eminently calm and rational Lidnsay Paxton, a pilot with Air Canada since 1972. Taking care of our fragile mental states was Ruth Shell, a registered clinical counselor. The duo was a potent one-two punch to our psychoses. We were told right off the bat that our particular fear was irrational. Mine wasn’t: Planes crash all the time; for every stat I was given, I had a “yes, but.”

Among the facts I found particularly helpful: If a plane loses both engines, it can still glide safely to the ground (though I’d hate to be on that silent descent); turbulence cannot damage a plane; an airplane is inherently stable (which means that even without a pilot, the plane will right itself); there is no such thing as an air pocket; and every second of every day an aircraft is taking off or landing somewhere in the world. Turns out planes do not, in fact, crash all the time. (You would have to board a commercial airliner every day for 26,000 years to be involved in a major accident, and even then it might not be fatal.)

While the ever-steady Paxton was reassuring us with the facts, Shell was teaching us relaxation exercises and cognitive therapies such as thought stopping. (I preferred the technical aspects. I want to know a plane is safe before boarding; I can do without being comfortable if it’s going down.) An air traffic controller and aircraft maintenance engineer also worked with us. And since we were at the airport, each class ended with a visit to an aircraft where we practiced those warm and fuzzy relaxation techniques.

By the time week five rolled around, every member of the class was ready for our graduation flight to Calgary. This in itself was a major step: several of us were still waffling when the course started. I figured a delicious irony would be the next morning’s headlines: Fearful Flyers Crash Over the Rockies. Even my friends wouldn’t be able to refrain from laughing over that one. I wouldn’t blame them.

One classmate, who had to fly for work before the rest of us took our graduation flight, returned to class raving: “It works, it really works!” I immediately pegged her as a plant. That is, until the rest of us were strapped in, ready to take off for Calgary. I found comfort in simple left-right rhythmic finger tapping and breathing exercises. It was surprising: The technical information had got me on board, but it was the relaxation techniques that were keeping me there.

The bottom line is we made it back in one piece. And most of my classmates were giddy with their new-found drug- and alcohol-free success. Still, even though Paxton likes to say flying is safer than life, I don’t know; I’m not totally convinced. But I do know one thing. It beats the hell out of busing.