IT’S CALLED the graduation flight, but to the 14 men and women strapped into their seats, it seems more like final exams. One woman on the plane is crocheting. Her hands are moving so swiftly that she probably is missing stitches, but that doesn’t matter – she wants simply to be distracted from the thought of what is about to happen. Another woman -eyes closed, hands clenched -focuses every ounce of her energy on breathing. A man in an aisle seat suggests, only half-joking-ly, that it’s not too late to get off.
But it is too late. The cabin doors have closed, the engines of the 727 are revving up and, for the students of the Fearless Flying program, the moment of truth has arrived.
For some people, that moment is a tightening of the stomach muscles, an intense uneasiness. For others, it is near-panic. And for anyone who is an avia-phobic (the clinical name for a person who is afraid to fly), it is the moment when the thought of doing absolutely anything else is more appealing than the reality of takeoff.
But the students on board today are here because they want to be. They’ve spent their last five evenings together near D/FW airport in a classroom where commercial pilots are trained. They’ve listened to American Airlines pilot Bill Evans and Dallas psychologist Dr. Robert Ingram explain the mechanics of aviation and the nature of fear. Ingram has given them a clearer understanding of their fear, thereby providing the means to overcome it. They have learned relaxation techniques and have practiced them in a cabin simulator. They’ve learned from Evans that flying is at least 25 times safer than driving and that nearly one million people fly safely on commercial aircraft every day. But the bulk of the course comes now, on flight 487 to Midland, when they will learn that not only can they fly, but they can fly with flying colors.
It isn’t odd that most people in this group are on a plane, but it is odd that they are here out of choice. Except for a woman who has flown only once before, most of these men and women have flown many times – some even fly frequently on business. But none of them enjoys flying, and many go to great lengths to avoid it.
These people are only a handful of the 25 million Americans who are afraid of flying (which makes for a startling one out of six adults who have real trepidation about taking to the skies – a real enough fear to keep some of them landlocked). A 1980 study conducted by Boeing on the impact that the fear of flying has on the U.S. air travel industry estimates that there’s a $1.6-billion revenue loss each year because of potential passengers who refuse to fly because they are afraid.
ONE WOMAN in the group, Barbara, who bravely took a window seat on the return flight to Dallas, has refused to fly more than once. Her serious fear of flying began about 14 years ago, just after her son was born. She can’t cite one specific reason for her phobia, although over the years she has endured many bumpy flights in rough weather, which had left her feeling uneasy. What mattered was that her fear was getting progressively worse. Her husband worked for an airline, which meant unlimited travel for her and her family. But whenever she could, Barbara opted to either drive or stay home.
Because of her fear, her family (who lived in Phoenix at the time), missed opportunities to visit relatives in Pennsylvania and New York. And when Barbara did agree to fly, she says it made her whole vacation miserable. “I never enjoyed a vacation unless we drove,” she says. “I spent the entire time worrying about the flight back.” Her phobia got to the point where she couldn’t bear the thought of getting on a plane. “Even the idea of boarding an airplane,” she says, “was overwhelming.”
When she first heard about the Fearless Flying course, she knew it was something she should investigate, although (like most of the people enrolled in Fearless Flying) she was cynical. Even after classroom instruction, she wasn’t sure she would really get on the plane. “I didn’t know whether or not I was actually going to fly,” she says, “until the moment I walked through the cabin door.”
But Barbara did fly, along with her husband and children, who were with her for moral support. Although the flight was not anxiety-free, she says it was her most comfortable flight in a long time. But Evans says that the fear of flying is rarely cured in a single flight. He and Bob In-gram encourage “graduated” students to fly as often as possible. “These fears have built-up over a long period of time,” Evans says. “You can’t expect them to go away in one day. The difference the course makes is this: Before taking it, every fearful flyer’s flight is worse than his last; after taking the course, every flight gets easier.” Flying may become easier for Barbara. She left the Fearless Flying course with enthusiasm and already has planned trips to Arizona, Pennsylvania, London and Hawaii.
BARBARA’S success seems indicative of the successes of most of the 100 or so former fearful flyers who have taken the course since its inception more than two years ago. It is taught every few months by Evans, who is assisted by Ingram. The course is modeled after fearless flying courses in other large cities. There are only 13 cities in the United States that offer such instruction; Evans’ and Ingram’s course is the only one in the Dallas area. Its price is $195, which includes the round-trip fare of the graduation flight. Although American Airlines lends Evans the use of its facilities and gives the course token support, the company in no way sponsors it. Evans, who regularly flies 727s, teaches the course on his own time.
“The course is designed for anyone who has even the slightest uneasiness about flying-and there are an awful lot of people who do,” Evans says. “Actually, it’s for anyone curious about how an airplane flies.” How an airplane flies, after all, is a major concern to most aviaphobics. Fearful flyers often express disbelief that a piece of metal that big can actually soar thousands of feet above the earth at hundreds of miles per hour. Throughout the 12-hour instruction period (which is now taught during a weekend), Evans tells his pupils everything they could possibly want to know about aerodynamics. He explains how an aircraft is designed, how it flies and how every plane is equipped with enough backup systems to ensure that the chance of a mishap occurring is miniscule.
“Aircraft are designed upon the assumption of human error,” Evans says. “There is enough redundancy built into the system that if something were to go wrong, something else would go right. If an engine were to quit, others would be more than sufficient to fly the plane.” Evans teaches his students the reasons for the noises that are heard during a flight – the landing gear, speed changes, air brakes – since it is those sudden noise changes that upset many flyers. He also explains the staggering statistics of just how safe air travel is – statistics that everyone reads but many fearful flyers distrust. For the skeptical, Evans points to the dollars-and-cents logic of insurance companies that try to sell cheap protection in airport terminals. “The reason they do that,” he says, “is because they know that they’re making money; it’s extremely unlikely that anyone would ever collect.”
BUT THE flying course is not just about aviation or statistics; it is equally dedicated to educating people about fear and how to overcome it. That’s where In-gram comes in. A former fearful flyer himself, Ingram first assures students of the prevalence and normality of fear. Then he discusses the manifestations of fear and the fear process. Finally, he begins to help students conquer their fears through understanding and the use of mental control. He teaches breathing and deep relaxation techniques that fearful flyers can put to use during flights.
Evans believes that fearful flyers fall into two primary categories: those with the fear of flying and those with the fear of the fear of flying. The first type of passenger entertains thoughts of an actual disaster; the second is mainly afraid of losing control. The fear of losing control starts with some irrational thought about the safety of the flight or the close space but eventually becomes a matter of fright at the thought of becoming frightened, panicking or becoming ill on the plane. This fear of “what I might do” feeds upon itself and grows more and more severe.
These two types of fear naturally overlap. In fact, no two fearful flyers experience the exact same variety of anxiety. Some people are afraid of heights; some don’t trust the aircraft; some have fears of crowds and closed spaces. Likewise, the degrees of anxiety vary. Many people who would never think of themselves as fearful flyers experience mild uneasiness on a plane. Others are miserable for the duration of a flight. Some people can’t even get near an airport.
Why some people are afraid to fly and others aren’t remains unknown. There’s no such thing as the fearful flyer type. Evans believes misinformation is frequently the culprit. “Fear of flying often starts with a void [in] understanding about flight,” Evans says. “Then the void is filled with misinformation from books and movies.” Anything can quickly incite a fear of flying, such as the latest Airport movie or one very bumpy flight. But shaking the fear isn’t that easy. Says one Fearless Flying student: “Once you get one of these ideas in your head, such as the thought of crashing, you can’t get rid of it.” Ingram says that fear of flying is normal and that even a recovered aviaphobic will, and should, feel some discomfort. He encourages graduated students to give in to mild fear, to recognize it and indulge it to a point. He reminds his eager pupils that “fear itself can’t hurt you.”
The endless stories of people’s unwillingness and sometimes utter inability to fly lend credence to Ingram’s and Evans’ belief that a program such as theirs is vital. The relatively small classes they have taught so far (15 to 20 students in each) seem largely a result of the lack of publicity they have received and the scant amount of advertising they’ve used. But many people are unwilling to admit that they are afraid to fly. Others have no trouble admitting their fears but still can’t force themselves to attend a class where those fears will be brought to the surface. Several of Evans’ students said that just driving to the first class was an accomplishment for them.
For most of the students, driving to class turned out to be a small conquest compared with the accomplishment of the graduation flight. Takeoff was uneasy and the trip to Midland was quiet and anxious, but by the first landing, the Fearless Flyers – all wearing shamrock stickers for good luck – were much more relaxed and talkative. On the flight back, the students looked as comfortable as if flying was mere sport. “I couldn’t believe the difference between the two flights,” one student says. “It was like night and day. The flight back was a breeze.”
Back on the ground, the typical response that Evans and Ingram receive is simply “thank you.” Evans says that about 90 percent of his students consider the course a success. “It’s remarkable,” says one enthusiastic ex-aviaphobic. “I can fly now. It’s not terrifying anymore. I’ve recommended the course to several people.”
A BLONDE woman named Carolyn, who appears to be about 45, has chosen a center seat on the aircraft. She talks enthusiastically about the course, which her son made her take. Apparently, he flies frequently and has little tolerance for her fear. But she, too, has suffered enough and is tired of missing out on travel opportunities. Later in the day, she will sip champagne in a private reception room at D/FW airport with her comrades who have successfully traveled to Midland and back. She will talk about how relaxed she was during the flight; she will tout the virtues of a course that she could not originally imagine being helpful – and she will plan her next vacation by air. But right now, as the 727 begins to roll down the runway, she is clutching the purse that holds the credit card she will use to rent acar in Midland – if she has to. As the jet leaves the ground, the other passengers can’t understand why Carolyn and her 13 friends are clapping.