THE FEAR OF flying is one of the most common phobias in modern life – and one many will be facing as we head into holiday season. TheJournal.ie’s Christina Finn attended a workshop in Dublin which aims to help alleviate the worst symptoms of this phobia – or at least help people get on a plane…
ENTERING A ROOM full of people with a fear of flying – what should I expect?
Would it be a room full of nerves and anxiety and more curiously, what type of person is so afraid of flying they feel a fear of flying course is necessary?
Four tables of eight people fill the seminar room at the Bewley’s Hotel in Swords on a Saturday morning. Greeted with a smile from Michael Comyn, the founder of Fly Fearless and pilot Alex Duffy, we are warmly welcomed. There is a full service of coffee, tea and cookies and we even have Haribo jellies at each table to keep us happy. So far, I’m impressed.
‘The fear of flying is the most socially accepted fear’
It turns out that people that are petrified of flying are pretty regular people – they have just allowed a fear, which Michael explains is very real and serious for them, control a certain aspect of their life. Of all the phobias there are in the world, it is the most socially accepted fear to have. Everyone can understand why you may not be at ease 40,000 feet up in the sky. But there is a distinct difference between allowing that fear dictate where you can and cannot go.
I am there to offer support to my friend, Sarah–Jane. We are heading to the US – a trip that involves a lot of flying – something Sarah-Jane is not too pleased about. But she is determined to get on the flight. This is Sarah-Jane’s second time completing the course – which she said she found very useful before.
This is merely a refresher session for Sarah-Jane who explains that her fear of flying has crept up on her the past few years. She never had an issue with it before; she even flew home from Australia by herself seven years ago. However her fear of flying has progressively gotten worse, preventing her from taking trips abroad, making her miss out on family holidays and trips with friends. She has even paid up to €300 for hypnosis which she says was a waste of time for her.
I am not the only one there to be supportive – some members of the class have brought their husbands or parents.
‘Flying is actually a remarkably safe way to travel’
Michael Comyn, Managing Director of Fly Fearless, Ireland’s only fear of flying course explains it’s one of the most common phobias that people have.
It is the second highest phobia people have in the States – the fear of public speaking is the top fear. One in six people are afraid of flying so if you look at any given airplane where they are all in rows of six, one person in that row is afraid. Flying is actually a remarkably safe way to travel, with only one in 11 million chance of being involved in an incident. There are 23,000 flights a day, but it is one of the times in our lives where we have to give over total control to a stranger – and that is where trust comes in.
Michael was the one of the youngest people to fly solo in Ireland over 30 years ago. He was just 16 at the time. He decided to combine his passion for aviation with his knowledge and interest in working with phobias and anxiety. Michael also operates stress management services for individuals and corporations.
Once people started speaking about why they had come I understood why the course is so popular. It seems that most of the room have not been able to step foot on a plane for at least two years. Some say that they think that it was caused by a traumatic event on a flight while others, like Sarah, cannot pin point where it came from. “I don’t know where it came from”, said one woman, “I have only had this fear the last few years.”
‘The words plunge and plummet are banned’
Beginning the seminar Michael says he only has a rule – don’t scare anyone in the room more than they already are.
Don’t be telling any of your stories over coffee about the time your plane was hit by lightening, and there were bags flying all over the cabin and people were screaming.
He says that this exercise doesn’t do anyone any good and he also bans the words plunge and plummet adding “no plane has ever done any of these things”.
He then asks how many people in the room watch Air Crash Investigates on The Discovery Channel. No one, is the answer I expected – why would people who are afraid of flying subject themselves to a programme like that? It turns out pretty much everyone raises their hand.
The course is made up of a mix of people – some have never flown before, some have flown all over the world and then suddenly became afraid, while others developed the fear suddenly after having their first child when the responsibility of having a little person depend on them made them more conscious of taking risks.
‘Half the room draft ‘goodbye’ text message to loved ones’
The people at the seminar explain that they know that they are being irrational but that it doesn’t matter. The fear still takes over so much so that nearly half raised their hands when asked did they draft the ‘goodbye’ text message to loved ones before getting on the flight. Michael explains that he has encountered people who wear the clothes they think they would like to be buried in on their flight with another bringing his last will and testament in his suit jacket.
“We believe your anxiety is real,” says Michael “we need to explore where it came from.”
Speaking to a man in his 30s at my table about why he signed up for the course he said:
I have flown before and I can get on a plane – but it is the worry that ruins it for me. I am so anxious two days prior to going on holiday and the last few days of the holiday are ruined with me worrying about the flight home. I don’t want it to stop me enjoying my trips away.
The day-long course, which costs €180, deals with the psychology of fear, aviation and managing anxiety exercises.
The first thing Michael asks is what issues people are scared about. He explains to me that what people are often afraid of is the unknown. “People are afraid of two things – fear of an accident and fear of losing control. There is also fear that you will make a fool of yourself – that you may have a panic attack.”
‘What affect does it have on the airplane? Absolutely none whatsoever’
People at first are shy but soon everyone is throwing up questions: what is cabin pressure, how close are you to other planes when you are in the air, what are all the noises you hear on the plane, how dangerous is lightning, what are air pockets?
“How do you know what the weather will be like up there?” asks one woman. “We ask Martin King,” says Michael jokingly adding that little do people know is that pilots train almost to degree level in meteorology and weather prediction.
Speaking about lightning he says pilots might experience being hit by lightning mid-flight four times in their career. “What effect does it have on the airplane? Absolutely none whatsoever.” Michael said that this course is not about statistics saying “flying is actually the safest way to travel. You don’t care about that or the statistics.”
People’s fear of flying can differ from one person to the next – some said they suffered from ‘safety behaviour’ whereby they might only be able to travel on a Tuesday, and sit in a certain place on the plane or wear a certain pair of socks or only be able to fly with a particular airline.
‘You think you are going to be that one statistic’
When speaking about traumatic events one woman interjects and says that she was on a flight where “everyone was getting sick and screaming”. Michael stopped her asking, “Do you see what you did there? How many were actually getting sick out of the 350 people on the flight: one per cent?”
Catastrophic thinking applied to many whereby people play catastrophic scenarios out in their head over and over. One lady said she would often be thinking about what her family would do without her once she is gone. Others said things like the plane bursting into flames or thinking that even though you know a catastrophic situation is unlikely that you are going to be that one statistic.
The fear of the unknown such as the noises and bangs on airplanes were dispelled for the class. One woman said she once heard a bang on a flight she was on. Michael explained that often a noise – like a bang – could actually be a perfectly normal occurrence of the aircraft. “False evidence appearing real” is what scares people he explained.
‘Dunshaughlin is a town that doesn’t like the sound of aeroplanes’
Have you ever taken off out of Dublin and suddenly you feel the aircraft slow down or appear to fall back even though you are still ascending? It turns out this incident which terrifies many (including me) has a simple explanation – the town of Dunshaughlin!
It is actually known as ‘noise abatement’. Michael explains when you feel the plane throttle pulling back, the first thing you may think is that the engine has stopped.
What is actually happening is that you are flying over a town called Dunshaughlin, a town that doesn’t like the sound of aeroplanes overhead and writes into the newspapers to complain. So, the pilots throttle back as they fly over head and then ascend again once they have passed. So what you thought was catastrophic is actually very normal.
I was glad to hear about the power transfer unit – another thing that I never liked to hear. You probably know it too – it sounds kind of like an electric drilling sound going on and off. Turns out it is not someone fixing the engine just before you take off – it is actually the three systems on board testing each other.
“I only had a call there yesterday about that very sound on a plane. Someone said they had got an awful fright, and once I explained what it was they immediately relaxed,” said Michael.
‘You are never more than 45 minutes from an airport over the Atlantic’
Flying over the Atlantic is one of the major concerns for my friend Sarah and I notice her looking on edge as we broach this subject. “How are far from an airport are you when you are flying over the Atlantic?” asks Michael. The room looks blankly as he sketches a quick drawing on the board.
“You are never more than 45 minutes from an airport,” he explains as he draws in airports in the US, Greenland, Iceland and the Isle of Man. He explains in a worst case scenario, where two engines fail (which has only happened once in 1981) the airplane can glide without engine power. “At 40,000 feet it will descend to 500 feet a minute. It takes 80 minutes altogether – so you end up having to circle around until you can land safely. You are all thinking ‘Have they thought of that I wonder’ and the answer is yes they have.” Sarah looks at me and says, “I didn’t know that, that has definitely put me at ease a bit.”
Michael adds: “In the 1950s people had every right to be fearful of flying with 55 dying that year. In 2007 there were zero. It is a very exclusive club.”
The big T word was what people wanted to discuss next – turbulence. There are four types of turbulence and only one of them cannot be forecast. People seemed very stressed out about turbulence and had a lot of questions. Did you know that no airplane has ever crashed due to turbulence?
It also turns out that before you are even in the air, the pilots know where and when they are going to experience turbulence. Michael says that sometimes trying to be in control of the situation helps people so if you are so inclined and want to know if your flight may be due some turbulence there is a website called turbulenceforcast.com that will tell you just that.
‘A few muffled groans could be heard – people did not even like the look of planes’
Interestingly Michael showed the class a website, flightradar24, which shows live air traffic of every plane that is in the air at that very moment. It showed the class just how common flying is and how many planes are in the air at any given time – meaning it is nothing unusual. Clips of planes landing in cross winds were also shown – something pilot Alex Duffy explained was all very normal.
You could feel the tension in the room as the class watched each plane land. A few muffled groans could be heard – people did not even like the look of planes. As the video went on and more landings were seen, people did seem more relaxed knowing that even in high winds, pilots are trained to land. And if they are not happy, explained Pilot Duffy they will simply re-do it again until they get it right. “We take no risks,” he said.
After learning all about how the brain dealt with fear and how airplanes managed to fly in the sky it was time for lunch. Speaking to some of the class they said that the fear was really starting to take hold of them and that is why they wanted to deal with it now. One woman said she has to be in control of her surroundings and when she is on a plane she is constantly looking at the air steward’s face to see if there is something wrong. She said she even hated when people got up to go to the bathroom for fear that the movement might disrupt the plane.
The pilot answering questions on the course, Alex Duffy, asked “So if I am on a flight to Australia, you wouldn’t even like me to use the toilet?” She replied: “Oh no, that would be even worse – who is flying then?” “That would be one hell of a long flight,” he said jokingly.
At this point some people did seem to be visibly stressed – it had been almost four hours discussing their worst fear after all. Michael explains to me later that one woman was even close to walking out after the lunch break saying:
I mean we have tears on every course. But my approach is to keep it very relaxed and make it a bit of fun and there are laughs along the way. We have had people get to the door and turn back and part of that could be just about being with other people but this isn’t therapy as I always say its education. I think you get huge support seeing other people who are suffering from the same fear.
‘My job was to talk to Sarah about every conceivable thing that could go wrong’
Next up was the anxiety exercises that aim to help deal with the fear. Michael explains that the part of your brain that controls your fears actually doesn’t change past the age of six years old and it is actually in the same area as where you perform numerical exercises. He handed out a sheet of some complicated multiplication tables. Sarah was asked to try and work her way down the sums. My job was to talk to Sarah about every conceivable thing that could go wrong on a flight.
So I began telling her about the pilot looking a little drunk as he went into the cockpit, as we are flying the wing suddenly bursts into flames, you look out the window and there and you see another plane’s wing tipping off ours – pretty much all her fears being spoken to her. I felt pretty bad for whispering them in her ear – but I was glad to hear that she actually didn’t hear anything I said.
Michael explains that the brain will choose to do the higher task – namely the maths sums. He said that reading on a flight will do absolutely nothing to distract you, but that maths sums will keep your mind occupied and suppress your fear.
Another technique he encourages is deliberate worrying. He explains that it is the worrying about flying that creeps up on you that gets you panicked. He instructed people to pick their worst worry about flying and to focus on it. He then wanted people to time it and see how long they could hold that worry for before it started to waver. Most people could only hold it for a few seconds before they said reason entered their minds and told them to stop.
However one woman, who was visibly upset just thinking about her flying scenario, held on to her worry for over 30 seconds. Michael said that it was unusual for people to carry it on for that long, as generally our brains will shut down our worries. When asked about what she was thinking about it was simply stepping foot onto the plane that had her so upset. Her husband, who was there to support her, comforted her and Michael told her to let go of the thought.
‘The thoughts of flying had her retching’
Another therapy that Michael is trained in is the Callaghan technique. This form of therapy focuses on breathing and tapping acupuncture points. He says he is reluctant to bring too much publicity to it as some people are rather cynical about it – but he says that it works for many people. He took the woman who was clearly stressed out to the front of the class, where she sat on a chair facing him. She was so visibly upset about her thoughts of flying that she was retching. It was then that I really realised, that this can truly be a debilitating fear.
They began the tapping exercises, on the forehead, her hands and her chest. Everyone watched as the woman became visibly more relaxed. After a couple of seconds, when asked to try and recall the worry that had her so upset previous, she said she couldn’t latch onto it. She took her seat, and her husband said he couldn’t get over how she seemed to have changed. Michael said it was not hypnosis and said it doesn’t work for everyone.
At the end of the day the class are asked how they feel about flying. The majority say that they feel they felt more confident about getting onto a flight. Michael explained there is a simulator experience available but as it is used to train pilots it can only be used intermittently when booked and can be beneficial.
Michael no longer accompanies the class on a short flight as he said when they went they all had a great time and found it so easy – namely because he was on the flight with them. Now he encourages people do it a step at a time. Drive to the airport, next time maybe park in the car park, then perhaps book a ticket, and then go on a flight.
Testimonies on the website show that many have experiences success following the course. One person writes:
I am so happy I attended on Saturday, the good news is that I was so confident and prepared when we finished I booked flights for yesterday and flew, over and back!! To London, on my own.
Everything went well. I stopped my younger brain taking over. I did tapping on the morning and the crazy maths was helpful taking off (which was when I was most anxious). We had a bumpy flight going over and I wasn’t concerned one bit which I was delighted about. The landing wasn’t a problem either. My next flight is end of May and will be looking forward to it, not dreading it. Thank you again for helping me free myself from my fear of flying. I won’t be having any more panic tantrums. I hope the other class members are brave and do the same, they’ll be so surprised at the results, I am.
Just landed in London Michael OMG I could kiss you! And so could my husband – his hand is intact. I had no worries up there. Boarding my next leg in a few hours but very relaxed.
On our flight home we had quite a bit of turbulence but that was fine as well – the irony being that I reassured the lady beside me about how safe air travel is and that she had nothing to worry about.
Sarah seems more relaxed and so am I. Michael tells me that the worst thing I can say to Sarah as we take off over the Atlantic is “You’re fine, don’t worry”. What I actually have to say is “OK, what is it you are worried about – say it out loud.” Maybe it seems a harsh thing to say to a friend but if it gets her on the plane I am willing to give it a go.
Due to the closed door policy now in the cockpit no one but the pilots are permitted. Here is what is going on up front, while you are (hopefully) relaxing down back.