How I Got Over My Fear Of Flying In A Single Afternoon

Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been scared of flying.
I am not the kind of scared-of-flying where I don’t really like turbulence. I am the kind of scared-of-flying where driving past Heathrow makes me feel sick, where watching flying on TV gives me cold sweats. When I do get on a flight (under tearful coercion), I sit frozen in fear, tears pouring down my cheeks for the duration. I arrive at my destination exhausted and emotional, and spend the entire vacation worrying about the flight back home.
As you can imagine, it’s kind of a pain. Not only for me but for my friends and family, who probably wish they’d left me at home.
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An estimated one-third of the population suffers from a fear of flying, but how people deal with it differs wildly. For many of the more severe cases (hello), getting through a flight requires either alcohol or a prescribed anxiety medication (do not mix those, though). This ritualistic form of self-medication is way more common among my fellow plane-phobics than you'd think — who else is buying those miniature bottles of spirits at Duty Free?
The more sensible option, of course, is seeking treatment. And having grown extremely tired of option one (the novelty of drinking overpriced, warm white wine at 7 a.m. quickly wears off), I finally decided to try option two and signed up for Virgin Atlantic's Flying Without Fear course.
Many major airlines — including Virgin, British Airways, and easyJet — run fear of flying courses. They all follow roughly the same formula: The morning is spent learning about the nitty gritty of planes, from how the mechanics work all the way down to what the different "bings" alert the cabin crew to. The afternoon explores the psychological elements: Why are you scared and what can you do about it? Finally, you round things off by boarding a real, live flight. But could it really work? I wasn't convinced...
That's how I end up sitting in a nondescript conference room at Gatwick Airport Holiday Inn on a chilly Sunday, along with 150 other people. Next to me sits Brian, a cheery guy from the Virgin Atlantic cabin crew who earns my undying devotion in just a few minutes for surreptitiously passing me clean tissues as I sob my way through a description of turbulence.
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The course director tells us they've even had people show up tranquilized with a nurse in tow.

I had always imagined that everyone else who didn't like flying was just scared of crashing, but talking to my fellow Fear of Flying-ers (FoFs), many similarities jump out. It's about not having control, we all agree. It's about not being able to escape. Many have undergone a horrid experience on a plane and haven't flown in years. Some have never flown at all. In fact, I find out with amazement, I am far in the minority for having flown at all in the past few months. The course director tells us they've even had people show up tranquilized with a nurse in tow.
As anyone with a particular phobia or mental health fixation will know, the subject of that fear can become an obsession, and we are no different. Between us, we know (or thought we knew) every last detail about the Air France disaster and Malaysia Airlines flight 370. We've read article upon article about the safest place to sit in a plane, and the likelihood of surviving should an emergency water landing be necessary. During a coffee break, there's much talk of Saratov Airlines flight 703, a Russian jet that had crashed just outside Moscow a few weeks earlier.
Steve Bull, a pilot with 30 years of experience under his belt, is not having any of it. No, the plane will not just drop out of the sky, he says. No, not even if both engines fail. No, not even if the plane goes through severe turbulence. No, not even if both of the pilots die while airborne. He's heard all our questions before, even the wackier ones.
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Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
There are far more safety measures in place than any of us had realized. Steve has to retake his license every six months (imagine if the same were true for the roads). The same accident will never happen twice; if a mechanism fails, it will be replaced in all planes. There is a full briefing before every flight.
We learn that turbulence is never as bad as you think it is. Because we don't have a full view of where we're going, our inner ears mess with our balance, causing us to feel movements more acutely. Planes that suddenly "drop" thousands of feet are really only ever losing around 50 feet (I mean, this still sounds terrifying to me).
When the subject of getting hit by lightning comes up, the course director chips in. "We got struck by lightning on the Birmingham fear of flying course," he says. "Biggest anticlimax of my life. Rubbish it was." Cool.
Despite spending the morning learning cold, hard facts about how safe flying is, I do not feel any better by lunch. In fact, I've been forced to think about a lot of things that I haven't let myself think about in years. I have an anxious cigarette (insert "that'll kill you faster than flying" joke here) with some of my fellow course members. All of us, it turns out, self-medicate to get on a plane; all of us are unbelievably sick of it. We just want to be normal.
Over the the afternoon, two psychologists, Tony and Carol, break down our specific worries, arm us with coping techniques, and force us to voice our fears. The rituals we've built up as a group are endless: I must sit in a certain seat, I won't fly on the 13th of the month, I must not put my tray table down for the whole flight, I must see two magpies before I get on the plane. Or what? asks Tony. The plane will crash? Well... yes, we say, before realizing how foolish that sounds.
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The things we think we're doing to keep ourselves 'safe' and in control are actually giving credence to the negative thoughts which our brain is unhelpfully pushing.

He tells us of one man who refused to get on a flight because he'd been given seat "01E" and that looked a bit too much like "die." Had I thought that, I would have let my brain get out of control, but when Tony says it out loud, it seems ridiculous. Our brain's ability to catastrophize is our own worst enemy. The things we think we're doing to keep ourselves "safe" and in control are actually giving credence to the negative thoughts which our brain is unhelpfully pushing.
It is a fascinating afternoon and by the time we head to the airport, I am feeling almost positive. And here's where the difference between me and my fellow FoFs becomes really apparent. I grasp very quickly that I have been incredibly lucky that no one in my life ever let flying fall off the table as a travel option. Yes, my parents might have spent hours holding me down in plane seats while I kicked and screamed my way across the US and Europe when I was small, and yes, my long-term boyfriend might have spent the equivalent of a deposit for a small house on overpriced Ryanair wine for me, but never was I allowed to consider that flying wasn't going to be part of my life. Growing up in different countries, and now, with a sibling living 6,000 miles away, air travel is a necessity. A very unpleasant necessity, but a necessity nonetheless. And because of this, I'm well practiced in short-haul flights; it's long-haul flights that scare the bejesus out of me. Twelve hours is a long time to feel out of control.
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This is not the case for most of my fellow FoFs, many of whom imagined they would never fly again. For some, today will be their first time boarding a plane in nearly two decades. The fear is visceral. I feel heartbroken for them.
Imagine not flying for 20 years; how different airports were pre-9/11. Some of my team have never experienced the plastic bag 100ml-or-less situation. They’ve never scanned their tickets electronically. They’ve never seen the full-body scanning machines in security. It is baffling to them. And stressful. And they handle it like pros. In the end, it is me (who'd flown just two weeks earlier) who forgets my passport and is called out for extra searches in security when my foundation hides itself under my backpack. Nice one.
Seated on the plane, there is a mixture of tears, heads in hands and deep breathing. The cabin crew we've been with all day are present and comforting. Brian fields our erratic line of questions marvellously (but what happens if the electricity fails in the whole plane? Very little, it turns out).
Pre-takeoff, two people decide the fear is too great and disembark, only to be coaxed back on by psychologist Carol. We all stand and cheer when they return. We are inexpressibly proud of these people we barely know, because we know how bad they're feeling. They're facing their very worst fears head-on and the strength it takes for them to come back is unfathomable. It's honestly one of the most emotional moments of my life.
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And then... we take off.
Our Air Germania flight from Gatwick Airport to Gatwick Airport lasts roughly 35 minutes. There is light turbulence, and we spy Brighton pier out of the window. Pilot Steve makes rude jokes over the intercom throughout. By and large, once we're airborne, people relax a little. There is relieved joking, a quick trolley service handing out water. And then it's over. We land smoothly. People cry and laugh, they take selfies to send to their kids along with the message that they'll finally be able to go on holiday. A woman whose name I don't know, but who I've been hugging for the last 45 minutes, decides we are allowed a glass of wine when we get home. I fully agree.
So do I feel better about flying? Very good question. I certainly feel more reassured about the logistics. Oddly, I feel mentally reassured too, having met so many other sufferers. For 25 years, I've felt alone in my fears, like there was something wrong with me for reacting to flying the way I do. Now, I've found out that there's a whole bunch of us out there. I feel as though I belong to a community — and, at the very least, that makes me feel less weird.
Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
Looking ahead to my next flight, I am less nervous, since it's only a short one to Venice (I live in the UK). I'm still deciding whether or not I'll need wine. The idea of a 12-hour flight in the summer to see my brother still seems a little daunting, though. What I've learned is just to keep flying as much as possible — even £10 flights around the UK at weekends will help. It won't be pleasant, but it is an important step in tackling my anxiety head on.
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To all my fellow FoFs: When you do get on the next flight, remember that you're far from alone. The woman next to you might look like she's sleeping peacefully under her eye mask, but you don't know what's going through her head. Talk about your fears to your travel partner, to the cabin crew, to anyone who will listen. Most people are pretty understanding; some may even relate to what you're going through. Chances are, once you've voiced your thought out loud, it won't seem so bad.
And hey, if all else fails, just order yourself a glass of overpriced wine. No judgement here.

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