Overcoming Fear of Flying

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Long before September 11, flying had turned into a test of nerves for me. I pictured crashing, or somehow—door blows open! plane evaporates!—plunging from the clouds like a sky diver without a parachute.

I'm not alone: One in three Americans feels some anxiety about flying or has an outright phobia, according to research from Boeing. The September terrorist hijackings did not help matters.

I had a trip to Chicago planned for late fall and I wanted to spend the flight relaxed, not catatonic. So in November I signed up for a two-weekend course with the not-for-profit Fear of Flying Clinic in San Mateo, Calif.

In a room at the San Francisco airport, my class of nine bonded quickly on the first Saturday morning by sharing our fears of heights, enclosed spaces, and wings that snap off at 30,000 feet. We were asked to introduce ourselves and talk about why we were there. No one laughed when I said I expected planes to fall spontaneously.

Saturday afternoon, a veteran pilot arrived and explained the training that people in his profession undergo. He described the systems that keep planes aloft—even with only one engine. His knowledge and confidence were enormously reassuring. He had an especially attentive audience on the topic of turbulence. People are terrified of turbulence, he said, but it's like driv-ing on a bumpy road and poses little risk. Most turbulence will jiggle a plane 50 or 100 vertical feet—rarely a problem when you're thousands of feet in the air.

And what about hijackings? Safer cockpits, among other measures, will help prevent them in the future, he said.

One consequence of terrorism: The class couldn't tour an actual plane. Instead, on Sunday we visited the cockpit of a 747 at San Carlos's Hiller Aviation Museum. We jiggled the controls, but the real action was in the first-class cabin, where we imagined ourselves airborne and practiced relaxation exercises. It felt like a real plane to me, but my claustrophobic pals found the seats far too big to trigger a panic attack.

That afternoon, a mechanic outlined the care that every plane receives. Each procedure is double-checked, and parts are replaced long before they wear out. I was slowly giving up my image of a plane as a rickety scrap of tin.

And what about the risk of jets crashing in midair? Two air traffic controllers described the orderly ballet that keeps jets out of each other's way. It was helpful, but it takes more than a lecture to allay profound fears. Which is why we ended each day with a therapist. The key is to recognize a fear (the plane will drop from the sky) and answer it with a factual statement (a plane, like a kite, is designed to stay aloft). Gradually, you start to believe it.

In 25 years, 1,800 people have attended the clinic, and many take an optional graduation flight. No one has ever fallen apart. My own graduation flight came two weeks later, when I boarded an Airbus A300 bound for Chicago. That an Airbus A300 had just crashed in Queens, N.Y., weighed on my mind as we bounced through winds after takeoff. But I was also aware of the power of the plane's engines, pulling us up to smoother air. As the winds calmed, so did my nerves. By the time breakfast was served, I was fast asleep.

To contact the Fear of Flying Clinic, call (650) 341-1595 or visit its Web site, www.fofc.com.

This article was first published in March 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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