The recent disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing has left a lot of people questioning just what can go wrong with aircrafts. For someone with a fear of flying, it can leave them frozen with fear. But luckily there is a course that can get you back in the air in no time with the understanding that flying is actually one of the safest forms of transport you can use.
As my heart pounded loud in my head it felt as though my whole body was shaking like a leaf in the wind. Trying to look forward all I could see was a blur of people. Panic gripped me and I struggled to speak. People around me shuffled forward, laughing and joking, apparently unaware that I was dying right in front of them.
But despite my biggest fears looming large and taking control of my whole body, to outsiders I looked fine. Because I wasn’t dying, not having a heart attack or about to collapse, but I was having a panic attack. A very real one as I tried to board a plane home from the best two weeks of my life.
Most people expect to return from honeymoon happy, glowing and full of optimism, but all I could think was why? Why, after the happiest and most relaxing fortnight of my life, was I struggling to breathe as I tried to get on the plane home. It was the culmination of several years build-up f a very real fear of flying. Ever since a particularly traumatic trip to Barcelona five years ago when the plane dropped so suddenly the air stewardess screamed (a scary moment indeed!) I had got progressively worse when it came to air travel. From last minute nerves to full-blown claustrophobia and panic attacks, just one little event built up such a fear in my mind that I’ve not dared book a flight since that fateful trip back from Mauritius nearly two years ago.
But something has to be done. I have a young son and I just won’t deny him the pleasures I was lucky enough to have as a child of foreign travel and sunshine holidays. So, with my heart in my mouth, and a stiff whisky on standby, I bit the bullet and booked a fear of flying course.
After lots of research – thanks Google – I was convinced that a fear of flying course which culminates in a proper actual plane flight was the best option I had of beating this thing, so I went for the most recommended and arguably most trusted. Flying with Confidence is the British Airways run course, headed up by Captain Steve Allright (what a bloody appropriate name!), a BA pilot with more than 20 years flying experience and 11,000 flying hours under his wings. If anyone can make you feel safe on a plane, it’s this man. The course isn’t cheap, but it does promise results, and at around £275 you are enrolled on a day of education, relaxation techniques, and confrontation of your greatest fear. More than 40,000 people have attended this course over the past 25 years and it boasts a success rate of around 95%, so even the most nervous traveller should feel optimistic when embarking upon the most important journey to an airport they will ever make.
My course was held at Heathrow, but others take place at Gatwick, Edinburgh, New York and even Dubai. Just entering an airport can be an unnerving experience if it holds bad memories of previously traumatic flights, so by enrolling on the course and turning up, half the battle is already won.
The day starts at around 9am with teas and coffees and informal chats with all the crew who are there to support you for the day, and then it’s to the lecture room where you learn everything from why a plane won’t fall out of the sky (I’m no physicist but even I was convinced on that one) to how Air Traffic Control will prevent any collision you could conceive of. Captain Allright and his colleagues have a jovial manner about them which sets you at ease. Light-hearted enough to feel friendly, but not so jokey you feel you’re in a re-run of one of the Airplane films. There is strong evidence to suggest that one of the main causes of fear of flying is simple lack of knowledge about how an aircraft flies and operates. So, the pilots give a detailed talk explaining the technical side of aviation especially concentrating on air turbulence, flight safety and much more. By the end of it you may not feel like you could fly a plane yourself, but you totally trust the people who have been doing just that for their entire working lives.
The afternoon was the key part for me. After a quick lunch break – another opportunity to ask crew any questions on a one-to-one basis – Harley Street psychologist Keith Stoll holds a relaxation session devised to help nervous flyers confront their fears and deal with anxiety as and when it arises. I’ve never had the worry of other flyers that something will go wrong with the plane, but a fear of enclosed spaces and the inability to escape a situation escalated after that post-Honeymoon flight, and this is exactly what Dr Stoll teaches you to deal with. He has worked on the course for more than 15 years and dealt with every type of fear and phobia associated with air travel. With the kindly manner of a favourite uncle and a Seinfeld sense of humour, if Keith Stoll can’t put you at ease, nobody can. He told Belle About Town: “I get a greater sense of achievement from seeing the results of this course than almost anything else I do. I love seeing people face their fears, and overcome them, and I am proud to be a part of what is a life-changing experience for so many people.”
Once the learning and letting go has all been done there’s just one more thing to do to complete your Flying with Confidence course, and that’s get on a plane. WHAT?? Don’t worry, by the time the day is drawing to a close even the most nervous of flyers is guaranteed to feel at least a little bit less apprehensive than they did when they woke up.
Crew, counsellors and customers all walk together through the airport terminal to check in for a special flight laid on by BA to conclude the day. You go through the usual procedures of airport security and checking in, but it’s reassuring to know you’re going through it all with the experts. Nobody is forced to fly, but Captain Allright proudly confides that rarely do people refuse to. It is a daunting experience to just head down the tunnel to the doors if you’re a nervous passenger – I should know – but everything is done to ensure things run as smoothly as possible. The flight last about 45 minutes, plus take off and landing, and during that time there is a running commentary of everything that’s happening, reminding you of everything you’ve learnt. This is the sound of the engines starting and now you can hear the wheels lifting up. Once you know what’s going on, nothing sounds quite so scary. And by the time the flight finishes most people feel positively elated. During the flight you are encouraged to walk around the plane, get a coffee or go to the loo (Captain A tells us of a woman who once endured a London to New York flight without weeing once because of this particular fear – ouch!).
As the plane comes in to land a big cheer goes up around the plane and people beam, congratulating each other on their achievements. It’s no exaggerations to say that the day has been life changing. No, you may not look forward to your next flight with the eagerness of an eleven-year-old on their way to Disneyland, but you won’t be so afraid anymore, and that is one of the most liberating feelings in the world!
So, I’ve already booked my first post-course flight and am looking forward to taking my son on holiday abroad this summer. Something I never thought I could do. I wonder if I could take Dr Stoll with me though, just in case….
Ten tips for a fearless flight from Captain Steve Allright
- Remember that turbulence is uncomfortable but never dangerous. It is a perfectly normal part of flying caused by nature.
- Learn to control your breathing. When you feel anxious, hold your breath, then a long deep breathe in, followed by a long deep breath out. Continue long deep breathing.
- Combine the deep breath in with a muscle contraction. Clenching your buttocks is most effective, as it overrides other nervous signals going up and down your spinal chord.
- Aircraft like to be in the air. They are designed to be in the air. Pilots and cabin crew like to be in the air also, it is a very normal, safe environment for them to be in.
- Understand lift. The wings enable aircraft to fly, not the engines. A commercial aircraft flying at 30,000ft can glide for 100 miles even if all the engines fail.
- Spilt a long flight up into half hour sections. Go with a plan of things to do, perhaps things you never get round to. Write a letter, watch a film, read a book, eat a meal.
- Pilots undergo a rigorous selection procedure and are the most highly trained and tested profession on earth. They are subjected to simulator tests every six months.
- Commercial aircraft are incredibly well maintained, and are checked before every flight by pilots and engineers. Routine maintenance is conducted at regular, specified intervals by licensed engineers.
- Air traffic controllers are trained and licensed professionals operating under a very strict set of rules. All pilots have to abide by the rules of the air.
- Visualise yourself stepping off the aircraft into the arms of loved ones, or into a lovely warm climate, or into a successful business meeting.
- And finally, book yourself onto a British Airways Flying with Confidence course before you fly at www.flyingwithconfidence.com!