Rose Dykins attends Virgin Atlantic's Flying Without Fear course, for an insight into how relaxation techniques and scientific fact can help overcome the phobia.
1100 – getting to know each other
I’m seated at a round table surrounded by nine other participants on the course, as well as member of Virgin cabin crew, Matt who is our “team leader.” I explain that I’m not actually afraid of flying, although I can’t honestly say that I feel safe on a plane 100 per cent of the time, so I still feel I have something to gain.
The day begins as we all get to know each other, and Matt asks us to shout out any questions we would like answered by the end of the day, and he writes them down. I look round the room and see a mixture of men and women in the room (90 attendees) seated around ten tables. There are slightly more women than men.
A couple of attendees round my table have never flown before, including Laura, who feels nervous talking about planes and seeing pictures of them. Some have special reasons for attending the course. For example, Barbara’s son is getting married in India next month, but her fear has prevented her from flying for 20 years.
1120 – welcome from co-founder of the course
We are welcomed by Richard Conway, co-director of the course. He describes his own former fear of flying and says that he hopes today will equip everyone with the tools they need to beat their fear. He is empathetic and his tone is cheerful and humorous, and there’s lots of laughter from the group (much of it nervous). Richard asks us to try to relax and enjoy the day, which he knows is a big ask – as most members of group are already worrying about the short flight we will be taking at the end of the day.
1130 – relaxation
The session is handed over to Gillian Harvey-Bush. An expert in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP, more on that later), she is also a colleague of celebrity hypnotherapist Paul McKenna, and formerly a senior member of cabin crew. She talks us through some relaxation techniques to help prepare for the day. Suddenly soothing Enya-esque music emanates from somewhere and the tone of Gill’s voice shifts to a low tone, as she asks us to focus on breathing deeply and relaxing each muscle in our bodies. The session lasts for five minutes, after which people are noticeably more composed.
1140 – talk from current Virgin Atlantic pilot
Now it’s time for a talk from a Virgin captain. Captain Steve Bull takes to the floor to teach us about the process of flying – the aim is to eliminate the misconceptions about people’s fears and replace them with facts. Steve has been flying with for 21 years and has earned all four of his pilot stripes. His voice reminds me of a late-night radio DJ- he picks up a model Boeing 747 and purrs “How sexy is that?” His humour seems to put people at ease, and his strong character has the group hanging on his every word.
He describes the selection process and continuous testing pilots have to go through – and it makes me realise how little I give pilots credit for whenever I criticise their landing. He moves on to talk us through aircraft structure and the physics of flying. It feels like a fun Physics lesson – there are Powerpoint slides and we take notes in our workbooks. It’s all broken down so that it’s relevant and easy to absorb.
I’m surprised at how much some participants already seem to know- they’ve obviously had a negative experience, done their research and come to the session with questions they want answered. Steve is able to answer their questions with no problem. I think it must be helpful for people to meet a current pilot, and realise that there is in fact a normal human steering the plane during a flight.
1235 - break
When it’s time for a break, tea, coffee and biscuits are served in the foyer. I grab a coffee and see a photo album open on a table nearby. It’s full of postcards from people who have previously attended the course. I flick through and read former phobics’ triumphs of having made it to destinations they’d always wanted to travel to thanks to the course - one woman managed to fly to Australia by herself. Many of them claim that the one-day course has changed their lives.
1300 – more from Virgin pilot
There’s more to come from Steve, and we move on to the subject of turbulence. Steve asks how many of us have experienced severe turbulence, which leads many of us to raise our hands. Steve tells us that its likely we are mistaken- he explains that there are three degrees of turbulence and in all his years of flying, he has only experienced severe turbulence three times. He goes on to explain that there’s a huge difference between what you feel is happening when you fly and what’s actually happening. After teaching us about the science of turbulence, he describes other processes that make us feel that we’re moving around more than we actually are. As he speaks, one woman on my table comments, “Well if I’d only known that!” - which I think summarises the importance of this part of the course.
1400 - lunch
Lunch is served in the foyer – a delicious buffet of hot and cold food including lasagne, bread and a selection of salads. People’s nerves about the upcoming flight don’t prevent them from tucking in. Over lunch, people chat about how they feel it’s going so far, although most of them prefer not to talk about the imminent flight, as they’re trying to put it out of their minds for now. One lady reveals she struggles to look at airlines’ websites as it triggers her fear. All agree that the course is good value for money (£249 for the day) and some say they would have paid double.
1430- talk from senior member of Virgin Atlantic cabin crew
The session resumes with a talk from David Gott, senior safety instructor for Virgin Atlantic, about cabin crew training. He describes the variety of medical emergencies that cabin crew are trained in (including childbirth and cardiac arrest) and emphasises that the selection process for crew is very thorough. I find it interesting when he talks about how passengers often analyse the behaviour of cabin crew during a flight to look for a negative meaning, or for some information that is being withheld, as this is something I’m guilty of.
At this point I notice that there is less laughter than this morning from the room, and more deep sighs and solemn faces- people seem to be feeling apprehensive as the time to fly is approaching.
1505- lesson about fear
This session is lead by Paul Izzard - co-director of the course. This is the part of the day that many of the participants are looking forward to, as many of them feel they know the facts about flying, but need some tools for dealing with their anxiety.
Paul’s personality is engaging and his humour reminiscent of Michael McIntyre. The content of this part of the session is fascinating, as Paul talks us through “the psychology of fear.” He asks the group how much they want to beat their fear of flying on a scale of one to ten. He suggests why some members of the group may not be inclined to say ten – “because your fear is like an old friend. You’ve become known for it by friends and family. And it could be that you feel your fear keeps you safe.”
Maintaining a humourous approach, Paul talks us through various excuses we tell ourselves to justify our fear, or our reasons for not being able to overcome it. While his character sketches are funny, he mimics but doesn’t mock, and people laugh when they recognise themselves and phrases they use. We move on to learning some techniques for interrupting negative thoughts and forming new patterns in your brain to avoid “rehearsing being scared.”
As Paul’s part of the session finishes, it feels like the atmosphere in the room has been given a boost, and people seem almost raring to go and try out these new methods.
1605 - break
We have another quick tea and coffee break. Some people begin preparing for the flight by rifling through their bags for liquids, and asking our team leader questions.
1615 – NLP therapy with Gill
Gill Harvey-Bush returns to teach us some NLP techniques before we fly. She explains that NLP is all about re-wiring your brain so that it thinks in a different way. Gill is positive and dynamic as she instructs us.
One of the methods we try is a “fast phobia cure.” We are told to close our eyes and imagine we are in a cinema watching a movie of our flight, imagining the worst-case scenario. Then, we are told to change the movie by imagining it is being played backwards. Then the same again, only we are told to stop and start it. Suddenly, the Benny Hill theme music is being played in the room, which is slightly bizarre. Having comic music against the movie in our heads, which we are now in control of must be having an effect our attitude to the flight on some subconscious level. Gill also talks us through other techniques, which are all outlined in the booklet we’ve been given.
1700- time to fly
When Gill mentions that it’s five minutes until we have to leave for our flight, people become visibly anxious. We repeat the relaxation techniques from the beginning of the day, and this time I feel incredibly relaxed, I almost drift off.
At the end, we gather our things and it’s time to go.
1730 –travel to the airport
As we board the coach to departures, most members of the group are excitable. Some buddy up and chat about the techniques we’ve learnt, but others go a little quiet and prefer to remain by themselves. Participants know that they will not be forced to board the plane, and most of them are unsure whether they will be able to make this step, but are very determined.
1800 – waiting to board
By this point we are through security and seated at our gate, about to board a plane that will take us as far as the Isle of Man, before returning to Birmingham International. Some members of the group prefer not to look at the plane, while others inspect it through the window- some are relieved to see that there are no propellers on the wings- which Richard Conway tells me is always the case, due to feedback from participants about their preferences.
Overall, everyone is in good spirits, but some are more anxious than others. The team leaders are extremely supportive and chatty, making sure everybody is ok. The team of speakers who have been with us throughout the day will be joining us on the flight.
1900 – the flight
After a long wait we are seated on the plane. People around me are remaining positive and seem excitable. Captain Steve talks to us through the cockpit whilst another pilot prepares to take off. His familiar voice talks us through each stage of the flight and he refers back to what we have learnt earlier. As the plane takes off, everyone is pretty quiet. However, once we are in the air and the plane is gliding along, Steve congratulates everyone, and there is a wonderful atmosphere as we all break into a round of applause. I hear exclamations of “Unbelievable!” as people appreciate the views of the clouds, although some people prefer not to look out of the window. Participants are presented with certificates and are congratulated by speakers from the course.
1930 – the landing
After a pleasant flight, we begin our descent. The commentary from Steve continues- he still injects his humour into it, but in an appropriate way. Our descent feels slightly bumpy, but Steve is there to explain and remind us of what was causing it (mild turbulence). We land and there are cheers throughout the plane. Steve remarks that it was a “very sexy landing.”
2005 – back to the hotel
We’re off the plane and landside in no time. The participants are extremely happy as we board the coach back to the hotel – we hear that out of the 90 people who attended the course that day, one person did not go through with the flight, which feels like an excellent result.
SUCCESS STORIES FROM THE DAY
Barbara, retired teacher, Dorset
"My motivation for joining the course was our son’s wedding in India. My initial response was that I could not attend, but I decided I did not want to continue with this fear. Once I knew two months ago that I would be making the trip I suffered from panic attacks, nausea and obsessive negative thoughts.
"On the day of the course I felt anxious but this was dispelled somewhat when I met with the other people on my table. The laughter and talking to others certainly helped.
"For me, the talk about old patterns of behavior and though was most useful, along with the techniques to combat panic and negativity.
"When we touched down from the flight, I felt I had achieved not only what I wanted but what my family were hoping for.
"The course has been extremely helpful in preparing me for the flight to India, and we are now planning other flights.”
Laura, independent social worker, Somerset
"I had never flown before the course. The thought of flying made me feel enormously anxious, I would avoid talking about and looking at planes, and I am fearful of heights.
"I could immediately identify with everything Paul said. I knew I had developed a well established pattern of creating my own fear and that unless I changed my thinking nothing would change. I started to question what my fear was based on and suddenly felt quite empowered and certain that I would get on the plane.
"The whole course structure worked very well and was presented in a professional, informative way with the right level of humour.
"I have since booked a short break to Amsterdam- I do not feel fearful and am really excited about flying again.”
Aaron Ludlow, video game producer, London
"I joined a company that requires me to travel to San Francisco, and they paid for the course. I think my fear stems from a bad flight I once had due to bad weather.
"Steve talking us through everything during the flight was great and reassuring – the staff were great too.
"I completed my flight to San Francisco, where I used Gill’s techniques, which turned out to be really good, even though I was skeptical at first.
"Virgin were great then too - one of the pilots even came down during the flight on his break and showed me some of his weather charts and had a chat about my nerves.”
- For information about how to enroll in the Virgin Atlantic Flying Without Fear course, visit flyingwithoutfear.co.uk
- To read Business Traveller's tips on How to Cope with... Fear of Flying, subscribe to the July / August 2011 print edition. Existing subscribers can view the article online here.