Fear of flying


Nervous flier Lisa Richards feels the fear and does it anyway, on Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear course

Fear of flying Virgin Atlantic's Fllying without Fear course

Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy in Wes Craven’s Red Eye

The weird dreams usually start about three to four weeks before a flight: the predictable plot line of never quite being able to make it to the airport moves on to sitting on a plane that never takes off and, instead, drives down winding country lanes, along the High Street of the Worcestershire town in which I was born, or on the motorway – the jumbo jet clipping lorries with its useless, waggling wings. Once the dreams start, then so does the acid reflux, the heart-racing episodes, the obsessive sky-watching and the morbid thoughts.

My name is Lisa Richards and I’m afraid of flying.

I used to travel often for work. As a precocious young travel journo in the late 1990s – the golden, most decadent era of blagging – my first transatlantic flight to New York at the age of 22 was British Airways’ First Class. This was followed swiftly by Business class trips and – better even than those – Business-class-only airline flights to the States. Perhaps it was thanks to my youthful fearlessness? Perhaps it was the free-flowing champagne? Perhaps it was the guarantee of being able to turn left? But not once do I remember a fear gripping me; a little nervousness, perhaps, at take-off, but certainly not this creeping, climbing, gripping fear – the tight, black, dirty ball rising from my stomach up to my throat that I now experience.

On the last American Airlines flight out of Miami before a hurricane hit, my horror began. My Business class seat on a flight the following day was traded for one of the last seats left on the plane – as far down the back as possible without actually buckling up on the loo. The ground crew thought they were doing me an enormous favour. A combination of chemical toilet smell, being packed into the middle seat of three between two Americans who were clearly terrified, and on a flight that felt like a roller coaster introduced me to my new fear of flying. I can barely remember a detail of the flight now, but had my kind host not risked his life driving me at high-speed out of Key West, I think I’d rather have risked the hurricane.

Anything with a propeller induced a nausea-inducing hot flush and anything smaller than an Airbus A319 needed to have the tickets changed and a later flight booked

From that flight forth, what had been a blessed perk became a dreaded downside to the job. Low-cost flights to and from Spain that had been tolerated, were now dreaded. Anything with a propeller induced a nausea-inducing hot flush and anything smaller than an Airbus A319 needed to have the tickets changed and a later flight booked. I’d rather camp out at the airport, however provincial, than “risk” it.

Stupid habits started to kick in: the need for two pre-flight G&Ts (and usually several more on-board); the obsessive concentration on the safety instructions pre-take off; the turning off of inflight movies if turbulence kicks in, so that I could fully participate in my job of assisting the pilot; keeping my seat upright with both feet on the floor. Not even Virgin’s wonderful bar in Upper Class could lure me to its perfectly-mixed cocktails had the pilot announced that we might experiences “some bumps” midway through the flight (note to pilots: never, ever announce that before we’ve even taken off).

Something had to be done, and with a long-haul trip looming, I had to take action. My fear was becoming impossible to hide and the planning for wonderful trips harder to enjoy. And now, as I read back through this intro, written before attending Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear course, I find it pathetic: pathetic that I didn’t do something sooner and ridiculous that in just one day I not only faced a fear but crushed it.

Despite the fear, I still find airports incredibly exciting. Airport hotels buzz with the anticipation of exploring unknown places. Arriving at Stansted on the day of the course, despite the ever-increasing knot in my stomach, I could still appreciate the trepidation of those about to leave on a jet plane. The air bristled with tension. I was expecting 20 or so fellow nervous wrecks waiting for the course to start, but the hotel lobby was packed. Some sipping tea nervously, others jiggling their knees, wiping the sweat from their temples, looking pale, biting their lips, eyeing up their fearful new friends. The cross-section of people attending was unquantifiable: from a 14-year-old girl to a woman whose granddaughter was getting married in Malta the following week, to a couple of young lads with rugby-playing physiques who were showing physical signs of extreme phobia before the course kicked off.

Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear course has been running since 1997 and since then thousands have had their lives changed by it. When I attended, some of those present were getting ready to take their first flight in over 30 years, while others had never been able to face even boarding a plane.

Using a mixture of humour, in-your-face-facts and psychological exercises and with Virgin Atlantic staff in attendance – including a pilot whose factual, straight answers to some of the most outrageously, fear-fuelled questions were both enlightening and incredibly patient – the day was broken down into digestible segments. Splitting the hundred or so of us up into tables of ten, with a crew member on each table, we were encouraged to openly discuss our fears, where they might stem from and to share our innermost, dirty, fearful secrets.

To surmise each section is to not give credit for the intricate twists and turns and the positive manipulation that takes places. “Are you still scared?” joked the course’s leader, Richard Conway, mid-way through. Er, shit, yes… We all eyed each other suspiciously, making sure that we all still had “the fear”. Virgin Atlantic crew talked us through the exhaustive health and safety training that they go through, not just before earning their wings, but also before each and every flight they go on. The pilot, with over 20 years of service to Virgin Atlantic, came back on for round two of questions – some ridiculous, some insightful. The final stage of the session is where the magic starts to happen, and where the build-up to our flight really started. Led by Howard, an expert in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), he set us tasks: from exercises that showed us how we can “unlearn” habits – fear, after all, is merely a habit – to how we can centre the power of thought to give us physical strength. Some looked sceptical to begin with, but after Howard has finished with the floor, we were aghast and, bizarrely, inexplicably, ready for the thing that had brought us all here in the first place: the flight.

Feeling armed to the teeth with various NLP-inspired techniques should we feel the fear rising, we walked over to Stansted’s departures hall. As with any other flight, we stood in line to be checked-in and to collect our boarding cards. My quip regarding an upgrade fell on deaf ears – the fact that I was joking at this stage of the day was a sign to me that something had shifted. Once through security, whether real or not, confusion was created regarding a change of gate number – were it a ploy, it was a clever one, as such inconveniences could easily shake our focused state of mind when our carers weren’t with us.

overcome fear of flying

An excellent candidate for Neuro-Linguistic Programming

And so we found ourselves on board. Only one of our course mates didn’t manage to get on and only two others got off before take-off. That’s a success rate of over 95% on the day. Astonishing. During the flight the extra captain on board talked us through each and every clunk, clatter, whizz and bang over the tannoy, demystifying every technical aspect of the flight. Out we flew to the Thames Estuary, banking gently left with a full moon coming into view, back towards Stansted. As the flight touched down shouts and cheers erupted from everyone – I’m not a natural-born whooper, but even I let out a holler of delight.

Back at the hotel, after a closing Q&A session to make sure we were all fit to leave, some went home while others who were staying the night hit the bar, elated. Further time with the course leaders, the NLP practitioner and volunteers who had attended previous courses added a further set of skills and answered even more questions.

A week later I flew to Los Angeles with Virgin Atlantic. I didn’t need to sink a couple of glasses of champagne in the Clubhouse, but I did because, well, I was in the Clubhouse, and for the first time in over a decade I was going to be able to enjoy a holiday without spending the latter half of the trip dreading the return journey home. A Tweet from the Flying Without Fear crew welcomed me: “Good luck. We’ll be thinking of you. You are now safer than you were on your journey TO the airport :)” C

Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear course costs £225 and includes a hot meal, flight, refreshments, 2000 Flying Club miles and a free booklet and CD