Being scared of flying affects one in six people. This is no laughing matter if you are surrounded by family who have no idea how it makes you feel. Even contemplating going near an airport, let alone an actual aircraft, can give you sleepless nights for weeks before the dreaded holiday, which should be an enjoyable experience.
Why are people scared of flying?
The brain is one of the most complex living organisms on the planet. As a baby, we are born with a fear of falling. The new born infant is learning that fear is something we have to come to terms with. Indeed, the most important part of a young person’s development is the learning process around our fight/flight complex which, from a very early age, allows us to protect ourselves. As we grow, the brain develops at a rate that puts any super computer to shame – learning very fast what our likes and our dislikes are. The brain uses the pain experience to learn what to avoid to help us survive.
The brain is divided into several areas all responsible for various functions. The main learning area is the front of the brain, known as the frontal cortex, which develops extremely fast as a baby. Recent research has changed our understanding on when most development occurs in this area of the brain. We now know that most changes happen as the person goes through puberty – the teenage years.
When talking to people with any fear, not just flying, you look for a trigger – a reason. In a lot of cases, a worry about flying started in their teenage years when they were going through lots of changes – both physically and mentally.
Of course, some people develop this fear at other times of life and for many reasons. As a person grows, they develop their own personality and learn to cope with the things that life might throw at them. If you ask me what the most common reason for a person developing the fear of flying, the answer, put simply, is loss of control.
If you are used to running your own life, a family, a job, perhaps your own business, that takes a lot of control. When we go on a flight, we start a journey where all control is lost the moment we step into the airport. We are told where to go to check in, there is controlled queuing, security, taking belts and shoes off, waiting in the departure area to be called to go to the aircraft gate. This is followed by more queuing to get on the aircraft where you are allocated a seat which you have to sit in. On top of all this, you are being flown by two people you have never met, or even seen, in something that, in your mind, is a lump of metal that should not be able to move on land let alone fly in the sky! Hardly surprising then that one in six people suffer from this disabling problem.
There are many other reasons why people suffer from this phobia. It can be caused by an endless number of triggers, from just a bad experience to an association with someone else’s experience. In very rare cases, the phobia just happens but usually there is some sort of trigger.
Why do we tackle the problem of fear of flying differently?
A person is an individual hence everyone who has a fear has a different reason why this has happened. As I have previously stated, this trigger can be rooted in childhood or be caused by some recent event in their life. But whatever the cause, each individual needs, and deserves, to be looked on and treated in the way that will help them tackle this awful fear.
In my opinion, putting a person with approximately 250 other suffers (all feeding from each other’s fears) onto an aircraft (where perhaps half of them refuse to board) is never going to help anyone. It is quite likely that during the flight there will be someone on-board who reacts badly. This undoubtedly could cause the other flyers to feel more anxious and would result in the reverse of the desired effect.
This is the reason why I have refused to run group courses. Instead, I run the course on a one-to-one basis starting with our three hour session. In addition to the course, there are other follow up options for the client to decide upon at a later date. This could include an actual flight – again on an individual basis.
How do we run the course?
The three hour course is conducted in a room where nobody is permitted to enter which allows for complete confidentiality. As a result, the person is able to speak openly and honestly about their life and, importantly, more about them as a person rather than just about their issues with flying. Once the person is at ease, I slowly introduce questions about their fears.
The fears that people have are REAL. These fears can’t be put at ease with statistics or comments like ‘that will never happen’. A person who has such a fear has done much research on the subject and needs more than this. The only way is to talk about real experiences that will mean something to them. I’m always looking for facts that will surprise an individual, to change the way that they view their fear, and at the same time educate with real life experiences.
Educating people on how aircraft work helps but in most cases people who suffer from a fear of flying have researched this as part of their effort in trying to tackle the issue themselves. What is important is to check that the facts that people have found out for themselves are correct as in many cases this may not be so.
The second hour is the most important as we fly a route in the simulator – normally Heathrow to Manchester. We would fly just as airlines do – completely automatically. There is one major difference and that is that the client carries out all the actions themselves. I just press one button. This is all about building confidence in both themselves and the modern airliner and is very empowering.
The course is about giving people the tools to be more relaxed on a flight and, in a lot of cases, helping the person to fly for the first time. It is not a cure as it is not an illness.
The aim is to enable the person to fly with less fear hoping that eventually it will become normal thing to do but this takes time. The third hour is dedicated to what I call coping mechanisms – analysing what we have achieved and including this into various methods and techniques for reducing the amount of stress that an individual might experience on a flight.
Flybe, a local airline, are instrumental in the next phase of our treatment which, if deemed necessary by the individual, is an actual flight. Before this, we normally would have carried out further flights in the simulator, possibly introducing more turbulence. The Flybe flight is usually a short one to London. The airline arranges for us to pre-board which allows the individual to meet the crew, see the flight deck and get settled before any of the other passengers get on. I travel in uniform which is all about building confidence. What is important to me and the person is that I can answer questions on the spot, reassure if needed and even hold the odd hand if necessary!
To me, the most important thing is the simple fact that I may be able to change someone’s life for the better. My journey started 35 years ago when, through a most unusual request, I managed to save the marriage of a recently retired couple by helping one of them overcome their fear of flying. This enabled them to see the world together, a dream come true for them both. Now I help others. I am lucky enough to have the unique tools to do this: over 35 years of professional flying experience, nearly 20 years airline experience, a full mock-up of a cabin section with sound effects and a training centre with its own Boeing 737 simulator. Even more unusual, this is located in a small industrial unit in Chudleigh in rural Devon.
I hope to be able to help many more people with their fear of flying. I am immensely proud to have been able to help just over 100 people in a little more than a year. Everyone, who has attended the course, has left the centre with much more confidence after having been empowered with the tools to help them overcome their fear of flying.