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Hope For Fearful Fliers

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 "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 www.getonthatplane.com
25 Comments
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Ray, That is a great post! What a lot of folks reading the blog probably don't know is the profound personal impact your book has had on Fearful Flyers. I have read letters from many of them, and most have told me that your book liberated them to fly. Many say that they carry your book with them on every flight. Thanks so much for taking on this cause, which I know means a lot to you. Brian
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Thank you for posting about this topic. I guess I've been around planes in some way or another my whole life. However, my husband's first flight was just before we got married about 2 years ago. He tolerates flying because we like to travel and see people, but I know it's not comfortable for him. I'm going to forward your blog to him and encourage him to read more about this. Maybe knowing more about how flight works would help him too. Anything that makes it easier for him would be *great*! Thanks!
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I hate to be 'that guy', but you use 'loose' when you should have used 'lose'. Also, I get very nervous during takeoff and touchdown, but not at any other time (well, except bad turbulence, but we don't get that much anymore). I think it's because we're so close to the ground that there isn't time to fix it if something goes wrong.
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Hi Jordan, Beg to differ with you, but "loose" is an adjective meaning not rigidly fastened or securely attached. "Lose" is a verb meaning the act of missing something. Ray is using loose as an ajdective describing mental "wires" that seemed to be not securely attached. Brian
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Thanks for another interesting post, Captain Ray! Considering that I'll try again to get on with SWA as an FA (as well as RSA & CSA), I'm certainly not afraid to fly! I LUV it; I really do. It gives me an adrenaline rush, seriously! I do know people, though, who are afraid to fly. I should recommend your book to them. SWA LUV! 🙂
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Brian, ah, yes, I guess I was unclear. I wasn't referring to that particular usage of loose but this one: "Many do everything in their power to avoid air travel and a large number end up leaving the job that requires travel by airÃ
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This is why I LUV SWA! I was 40 years old before I boarded my first plane. I was given a choice of staying home or accompanying my husband and our friends on my dream vacation to the Florida Keys. I was terrified and nothing could have pried my fingers from the armrests. I've flown many times since then, and I'm scared half to death each time, but I force myself to get on that plane. The FAs on SWA are marvelous about providing distractions (the jokes, the songs, etc) and that helps immensely. I love the pilot chatter, too. Whatever you all can do to put us at ease, I appreciate more than you know. Thanks, Ray, for this great post!
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Jordan, Got it, thanks for the catch. Brian
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Five years ago, after 30 years refusing to fly, I got the help that worked for me and took off with SWA out of ALB. More than a hundred flights later - all with SWA - I'm not stopping. My copy of your book has been in the hands of other fearful flyers I've met in Gate areas from BWI to SEA to MDW, PHX, LAS, GEG and MCO!! I've encouraged them ALL to ask to meet their pilot(s.) SWA is excellent in their regard for anxious passengers. I was NEVER made to feel silly for my anxiety, which contributed to feelings of comfort and empowerment each tome I boarded. Ray, your contributions to the FoF online have been invaluable! Thank you!
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A well composed article, Captain Stark! Full commendations!
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Great post, Captain Ray! However, let me caution folks that asking to meet your pilots is NOT always the best idea. One time I was boarding a flight and a nervous passenger in front of me asked to meet the folks in the front office. The FA opened the door, and in the left seat was Peter Graves and in the right seat was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and we heard a discussion involving repeated use of the words "roger" and "over". Seriously, the other tool I've used with nervous pax is to diffuse some of their fear with the use of humor. Often, if I can get someone laughing, they'll forget just how terrified they are, and in that moment of distraction, I am usually able to pry their fingers loose from my arm. You might also point out to people that statistically speaking, they are much more likely to be seriously injured in the gate area by those "A" group people who are jockeying to ease up ahead of others in line who aren't watching. Those folks should be told that except for the nose wheel, pretty much the whole plane lands at once and that a few rows forward aren't going to make THAT much difference in getting off at their destination. Keep up the great work, Roger! Huh? I mean, Ray, over. Huh? Kim External Blog Humorist 🙂
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Kim, You forgot Victor the radio operator. You know "what's your vector Victor?" Equipment substitutions are needed on wednesday june 27. Flights 1174 and 1082 need to be 700's not a 300 and 500. :-) I expect the new one delivered on thursday the 21st. Big party at Kms house thursday the 28 celebrating delivery of the 500th 737. High definition Ding! boy Joe
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Today, June 23, 2007, I was on SWA from Houston to Albuquerque, flight 101, seated next to a 15 year old young man in a Scout uniform. He had flown before, but mentioned how petrified he was to fly. I'm a grandmother to 14 and 17 year old young men, so I asked him if he would like to hold my hand. I explained the sounds he was hearing and the noises. We talked about his badges and his Scouting goals. I couldn't help and called one of the flight attendants, James. The anxiety left over a smooth stretch, but started again, literally paralyzing the young man's hands. After talking with him, James moved him to the front center seat by the bulkhead and held a paper bag for him to breath in while we landed. He then proceeded to make the landing one of the most exciting moments of the day for this young man. I'm also sending a notice to management regarding James's actions. Truly remarkable!
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"You have clearance, Clarence!" Another great post, Captain Ray! I look forward to becoming a FFF: a Formerly Fearful Flyer. In your post on turbulence, I mentioned that it used to scare the stuffing out of me, but now that I am regularly flown at low altitudes in a Cessna 172, I get turbulence all. the. time. I just hope I grow my air legs (or stomach) eventually. Up to now, my pre-flight ritual consists of going to the bathroom three or four times because I'm so nervous. I hope I've seen the last of this as I become a FFF. I don't do that before going up in the Cessna. BTW, Steve Howe's instrumental album Turbulence is great rock guitar, melodic but not overpowering, to listen to on a plane flight, especially the title song. As Howe says in the liner notes: "The initial idea for the album originated in the ambiguity of the expression turbulence, a sensation experienced during flying & the natural flow of occurrences within the basic elements around us: Things that are beyond our control with some supreme presence making it all beautiful & complete." Colleen, perhaps? 😄
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Joe, Point of order...when you said "Big party at Kms house thursday the 28 celebrating delivery of the 500th 737.", did you actually mean to type "Kim's house"? Because if you did, I need to confer with the North Texas Tollway Authority about clearing the portion of President George Bush Turnpike near my house for that 737, because my driveway is a bit short, unless the newest one is coming with VTOL capability. Plus, my yard is not as big as the South Lawn of the White House and could not possibly accomodate all of the media types. Ohhh, wait, I just got it. You only meant that the PARTY would be here...the plane will land elsewhere! Silly me, I got all worked up over nothing. Sure, that won't be a problem, let me get some extra party favors and noise makers, though, if I'm going to invite all 32,000 SWA Employees over. I might need to arrange some sort of valet parking while I'm at it, as my street will be a bit crowded if they all show up at once. Kim Suburban Blog and Party Boy 🙂
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FoF can be, and I speak from experience here, completely debilitating. My triggers were 9-11, and a less than perfect flight from San Juan to DFW. While I'm not afraid of terrorists (they can kiss my ***), I began visualizing what it must have been like for those people aboard those aircraft. Then, the mind has an amazing ability to carry these things on to a point of fabricating scenarios that are simply WAYY out there. Even while I knew these were way out there, I was unable to stop them. I avoided air travel until this year, at all costs. My entire family took a trip (10 of us) to Hawaii this March, and I was almost ready to let them all go without me so that I would not have to fly. I knew I had to force myself onto that plane, but I didn't know if I could. Then I finally admitted I needed help, and I found it in the form of www.fearofflying.com. This is a program that was created by a retired pilot when he, too, realized how much trouble people were having with this problem. It changed my life. I got on the airplane, and with all the information I had learned in the program, I made it. I didn't panic, and I actually was calm enough to watch some movies on my laptop. Then, just at the beginning of this month, I flew from Kansas City to Portland, my first flight with Southwest. Now I can say, that finally, I am almost completely free of the fear. That trip was the best flying I've ever had. Southwest is simply the best. In fact, I'm flying SWA to Chicago next month. Anyways, Thanks Ray, for understanding and realizing what a huge problem this is for people. I know I felt embarrassed about it- I felt stupid. "How can this be so hard? It's just an airplane!" Well, it can be, and it is for some. We don't want to admit a weakness, that in fact is really not a weakness. It's a genuine condition. While I haven't read your book, I think I just might- I like to help others afflicted with this problem. Also, Keep up the good work- Southwest is the only way to go- I actually had a blast on the last trip....
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Yes, Kim I left out your I. What about the other 1000 employees? I do believe they are over 33,000 now. Think of the money you would make as a valet! Do a $10 cover charge as well and you could retire! Transaction cancelled. Ding! boy Joe
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Joe, The cover charge is a good idea, but remember, I'm wanting to work! This involuntary retirement is getting old! Heading down to rent a red blazer, Kim, the Automotive Positioning Specialist 🙂
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For starters, please tell your pilots to stop making announcements going down the runway such as "I think I can I think I can I think I can" as the plane barrels full throttle down the runway. The lady sitting next to us on our flight to Vegas nearly dropped a pantload.
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Steve, Sorry to burst your bubble but that PA was made by the Flight Attendants. The pilots were busy up front. (Taking off!) Evidently got your attention though didn't it? ;) Ray
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Ray, What a nice article, I know this will make my wife happier about flying again this fall. We flew last September for the first time in about 15 years to visit our son in Houston, even now I can't say enough good about the Southwest employees. They not only allayed our fear but made the flight to and from fun, even with getting stuck overnight in Chicago on the way back. The attitude of the Southwest employees is one of the reasons why when we decided to go to Houston again this Fall, we only considered Southwest. The other reasons were the ease of booking, the economy of the flight and the and general great feeling imparted to us about Southwest. I posted about this before but let me say again from the start in Albany NY, to the landing back in Albany, we were treated like friends and relatives actually better then. So you see we will only ever fly Southwest, each and every member of the Southwest corporation has shown us this is the only way to go. Joe
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On a recent flight from Orlando (MCO) to Columbus (CMH) I had the distinct honor of sitting next to a young gentleman taking his very first airline trip. This brave 10year old was unescorted and relied upon the well qualified flight staff for making connection to his grandparents in Columbus, however due to one reason or another, was left with the Agent at the Boarding Gate, rather than with a grandparent. Its a good thing that the young gentleman showed me a picture of his grandparents, as I readily identified them outside the Security / TSA gate awaiting his arrival. After I approached the grandparents and informed them where the young lad was, the ticketing staff was able to quickly able to finally link the parties up. This young gentleman will be flying again in approximately a month and I am hopeful that his second flight traveling experience can be less stressful for him. I vaccilate between commending the flight staff for their operational efficiency in attempts to make up lost time (due to inclement environs) and feeling disappointment with the lack of responsibility entrusted to the flight staff for this young gentlemen's safety. The end of this story is a good one - as I was driving directly behind the grandparents as we exited the short term partking lot at Columbus. Being a parent myself, I can't think of anything more frightening or worrisome than unaccompanied minor traveling. Please let the flight staff know we trust them to precious cargo - and please don't take that responsibility lightly. Thanks for listening.
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On October 31, 2007. I did something I thought I would never EVER do. Fly on a airplane. From CLE to SAN my journey was set. I researched and read every periodical I could get my hands on to comfort my fears. I donÃ
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You know, for months I was content with this information, albeit still struggling with a fear of flying. I recently felt like I was starting to make headway on my problem, feeling comfortable in the fact that Southwest has a great safety record. I also found it very encouraging that one of their very own pilots is interested in helping people overcome their fear of flying. Then I read on CNN how Southwest has been flying unairworthy planes for so long they're now being investigated. I feel betrayed by Captain Ray Stark, and a company that I have trusted in, and even flew with recently with my family. Here's the lovely article for all you Southwest fans. I was a huge Southwest fan for some time now, and this is what I get: http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/03/06/southwest.planes/index.html?eref=rss_topstories
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Hell-o I waited til almost the last minute to look for information regarding flying. My son and his wife are treating me to a flight on Southwest Airlines to Bakersfield California. The last time I flew was in 1995. I do not like to fly. Every time I get in the air I feel like I want to run up and down the isle holding my head and scream GET ME OFF! I'm trying real hard to be brave. I will be departing Buffalo NY on flight 561 at 7:20 AM on Monday Mar 10. Please, if you can put in a word to the powers that be, I would appreciate a little encouragement. My confirmation # is K25Y9E. Thanks. Jari Tiebor Buffalo, NY