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Hope For Fearful Fliers

Adventurer B
 "This Lady Has Some Loose Wires..." During my second year as a First Officer here at SWA, I was seated in the cockpit in Burbank as we loaded the last of the passengers. Among the very last passengers to board was a lady who stuck her head in the cockpit before taking her seat. Upon hearing her voice, I turned to meet an attractive middle-aged lady who expressed a fear of flying and liked to meet her Pilots before takeoff. She asked about the weather at our destination and the maintenance status of the plane. After assurances from Captain Tom Moore that we were family men and had no intention of doing anything dangerous, the lady thanked us and took her seat. Having never heard of a passenger wanting to meet the pilot before, as she left, I thought, "This lady has some loose wires. How could meeting us make her less nervous?"  How ignorant I was... A couple of years later I began to wonder what I could do to help people like our lady who wanted to meet her Pilots. I would encourage people who were nervous to come visit us in advance in the cockpit. Whenever I deadheaded (traveling to pick up a flight) in the cabin, I would offer to trade my seat by a window to a passenger who was anxious about air travel. Usually, within ten minutes of looking out the window in awe of what was going on outside the aircraft, and with my running narrative of exactly what the plane was doing--and why, the passenger would usually relax. One day, I was deadheading to Albuquerque (ABQ), and as we were about to push back, the last lady who boarded stepped on the plane and said in a loud voice, "I am deathly afraid of flying! I am going to sit next to that Pilot right there!" With everyone's eyes turning to me, I said "Woo-hoo! Lucky me!"  She smiled, and everyone else laughed. As we taxied out, this lady told me her father was ill in ABQ, and her husband could not drive her. While I couldn't get her to take my window seat, I got her to look out the window, and by the time we leveled off, she was very relaxed and chatty. We talked about her concerns all the way to touchdown in ABQ. As we taxied into the gate, she thanked me for helping her with all the airplane trivia. I mentioned that I had actually thought of writing it all down. The lady turned to me and grabbed my arm and said, "I wish you would! That is exactly what people like me need to know." That evening, I called my wife to inform her that instead of buying a motorcycle, I was going to buy a laptop and write a book. After my book was published, I discovered an online website that dealt with Fear of Flying (FoF) issues. After donating time there, I joined a new group of moderators who were starting a new free self-help site. After nearly four years of offering online help in trying to explain what happens behind the scenes during flight, I have a true appreciation of what that lady who wanted to meet her Pilots was dealing with. And, not surprisingly, one of the first things I suggest for people suffering from FoF is to meet the Pilots. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 million people in the U.S. are either extremely nervous about flying or too frightened to even contemplate a flight. I would place the number far higher, especially when you include the number of people who currently fly without a worry but who will encounter a trigger at some time in the future which will result in them joining the ranks of people who suffer from varying degrees of FoF. Fearful fliers come in all flavors. Many are highly intelligent professional people with advanced degrees or credentials who go about their routine lives with little care except when it comes time to book a flight. Others have other anxiety issues involving claustrophobia or other maladies which flare up in the worst way when contemplating travel by air. Usually, the Anticipatory Anxiety (AA) is many times worse than the actual flight. About 90% of the time, our board members come back and tell how the week prior to the flight was a roller coaster of anxiety and lost sleep. But, somehow, once the flight got underway, the normalcy of the event made the anxiety abate or disappear altogether. A few successes can help these individual become functional fliers because, for some, the fear never completely goes away. People have varying reasons for flying but those who have to fly on business face professional pressure to do something that scares the heck out of them. Many do everything in their power to avoid air travel and a large number end up leaving the job that requires travel by air--or they lose their jobs. Two of the fellow moderators from the web site for which I answer questions are professional people who travel weekly as a part of their job. One is a chemical engineer, and the other is the head of the personnel department for one of the largest security companies in the country. Both are "functional" fliers who have learned to put their anxiety in check enough to allow themselves to fly for work and pleasure. For some people, there exists no "silver bullet" cure for FoF. For others, simple information answers the questions which stimulate distrust or concern. People suffering from FoF generally fall into two categories: The Rational Flier and the Irrational Flier, though some exhibit traits of both categories. For the Rational Flier, information helps abate the concerns and calm the mind. To the Irrational Flyer, information alone will not help calm the fears and concerns they harbor. A good majority of Irrationals can learn mental tricks and techniques that side-track the adrenaline powered portion of their mind which convinces them the plane will crash simply if they board it. The indisputable fact that riding to the airport places them at 25 times more risk than air travel does not faze them. Their car is a familiar setting where risk is ignored. Planes, however, are perfectly safe--until they get on board. Their fear is completely irrational, and they eventually admit it. Using tools to allow them to fly means the difference between losing their livelihood and missing out on once-in-a-lifetime events like weddings or trips to Hawaii or Europe. Today, flying is about the only way to get most of the choice places across the globe, given the time and financial constraints that accompany modern life. If you cannot fly, you simply don't participate in life. After doing this for awhile, I have come to understand a very small percentage of the population should not fly. Perhaps one to two percent of the people who suffer from FoF. Of the rest of those who cringe at airline flight, about 70 percent can fly functionally through self-help programs and FoF classes, as well as paid programs. The remainder of that population will probably have to visit with a specialist in anxiety issues to get hold of the root issue that harbors their FoF. One regular member on our web site walked off the plane in Nashville enroute to her wedding in Las Vegas. Three days later, her intended met her at the Greyhound station in Las Vegas where they were later married. She made it on to the flight home buoyed with enthusiasm, but three months later when a free flight came up, she again faced "the monster." Finally, after working on this issue for almost two years, she went to a mental health professional and attended FoF classes at a nearby college in Tennessee. She beat "the monster" back into the closet and is now a confident flier who looks forward to travel by air. Being a small part of that kind of transformation has been very rewarding to me and keeps me answering questions online. For those who suffer or for those who know someone who suffers from FoF, please understand you are not crazy, you are not unusual, and most importantly, you are not alone. There are people that can help you. All you have to do is ask. Captain Ray Stark