For fretful fliers, getting there isn’t half the fun—it’s half the battle. Their stomachs churn during takeoff; turbulence turns their breath shallow and palms sweaty; their hearts race at any mechanical noise. Their minds flash back to media images of plunging planes and horrific crashes. Some try to calm themselves with a drink, yet the closer they get to touchdown, the higher their anxiety climbs. What if the pilot loses control? What if they can’t get out?
The participants in Jason Da Costa’s “Fly Without Fear” seminars can relate. While three of them gather for the class at Vancouver International Airport’s south terminal, founder Da Costa says three others cancelled earlier that morning. “They were just too nervous about coming to the airport,” he says.
“Everybody’s anxiety comes in different shapes and sizes,” explains Da Costa, an aviation enthusiast who has run several daylong seminars since January. “We had a lady who hadn’t flown in seven years. We had a gentleman who flies for work, but just hates it.”
Although this level of anxiety may seem extreme, fear of flying is common. According to a 2007 Canadian Air Transport Security Authority newsletter, “over 40 percent of the population has some anxiety about air travel.”
When they think rationally, most people realize that flying is safe. A 2004 study by the U.S. National Safety Council put the odds of an American dying in a car crash at 22 times greater than in an air accident, which means you’re more likely to perish driving to the airport than flying out of it.
Yet the worry persists. According to Duane Brown’s book Flying Without Fear (New Harbinger, 1996), it’s for a variety of reasons. Some people are certain that the plane will crash. Others are claustrophobic or have a fear of heights. Some fear having a panic attack on the plane. And others have misinformation about aviation.
“The first step toward flying without fear is to accept that it is irrational and that you want to put it behind you,” Brown writes.
Da Costa’s course tackles participants’ fears on two fronts: by demystifying flying, and by teaching ways to deal with their anxiety.
“The more you understand about what’s going on about the airplane, the better you feel,” says Ivan Gutierrez, a pilot for 20 years. Using a model airplane and photos, he walks the class through the mechanics and what to expect over the course of a flight.
“You’ll see a lot of movement on the wing when you take off,” he says, pointing to the flaps. Notice a wing bending under pressure? It isn’t going to break: they’re designed to be flexible. “It’s totally normal,” he reassures. So are those unfamiliar noises, like the whine of the flaps opening and the thump of the landing gear being released.
Every system has a backup, Gutierrez explains, so don’t fear a mid-flight malfunction. For example, planes have two, often three, electric systems. Should all fail, there’s even a battery backup. There are always at least two pilots (often four on long-haul flights) with two navigational computers and two backups. “It might be overkill, but it’s safe,” he says.
To reinforce this, each participant sits in Da Costa’s flight simulator, a life-sized cockpit modelled on a 737 next-generation passenger aircraft.
Gutierrez explains that aviation technology is so sophisticated that if two airplanes get too close to one another in flight, their computers will automatically direct them apart. One pilot, for example, will be alerted to ascend and the other to descend—independent of ground-control safeguards.
He tells participants that pilots are trained to handle bad weather. “You can land an airplane without ever seeing a runway,” he says. Although pilots avoid flying through thunderstorms, “airplanes are built to withstand lightning.”
Turbulence is simply unstable air; the pilot may climb or descend to avoid it, but sometimes can’t anticipate it. But turbulence itself won’t cause the plane to crash, just bump. “When you’re driving your car and it’s really windy outside, you can feel your car moving. It’s the same thing,” Gutierrez says. Those at the plane’s rear will feel it more strongly, so sit in the middle for a smoother ride.
Psychologist Avrum Miller then discusses how to deal with irrational fears and anxiety. It’s not through the drink cart. “Alcohol tends to amplify whatever you’re experiencing,” he says. “People want to numb themselves, but it really doesn’t do the job.”
Miller says it’s important to “unlearn the association between anxiety and flying”. One way is to learn to recognize when you’re having catastrophic thoughts and stop them with positive awareness. Relaxation techniques, such as tensing and releasing muscles and controlling your breathing, can dilute the physical tension and calm the mind. Even using distraction, such as listening to music, can help.
“Not everyone is going to respond to the same thing,” Miller says. “Maybe there’s one or two that are going to work for you.” And while flying completely at ease may not happen immediately, any progress can help.
Even if it’s just driving to the airport. -
Fly Without Fear seminars cost $399 per person. For information, see www.flywithoutfear.ca/ or call 604-771-3584. The next course is scheduled for May 11.