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Fright Flight - Conquering The Fear Of Flying

A woman across the aisle from me appeared to be paralyzed with fear. She held onto the armrests of her seat until her knuckles were white. As our plane went down the runway, I glanced over and saw tears streaming down her cheeks. Having been a flight attendant, I recognized her distress and began to tell her that it was going to be okay. After we took off and the plane leveled, she wiped the tears from her cheeks and the sweat from her brow. She introduced herself to me. Her name was Helen, an executive from Kansas City. She began a new job that required frequent traveling and was on her first flight in years.


If you are afraid of flying like Helen, you are not alone. Over 25 million Americans (about one in 10) suffer from aerophobia, or the “fear of flying.” Aerophobia (also known as aviophobia) is one of the hardest phobias to cure. It triggers a reaction in the body that causes the person to feel threatened. The fear is so controlling that it affects everyday life. It has wrecked the vacations, relationships, and business careers of many individuals.

Why are so many people afraid of flying? Let’s face it; flying around in metal tube at 500 mph is not a natural act. Studies on aerophobia and other phobias state some people develop intense feelings of fear and distress in situations that pose no real danger to them. The feelings become so overwhelming that they avoid the situation completely. The idea of loosing control is a big issue for most aerophobics. They try to control their fear by deciding never to fly again. However, learning to feel in control while flying is a major part of overcoming the fear.

Virtual Therapy

One of the most promising ways to treat aerophobia is to recreate the sense of flight through virtual reality. The software called Virtually Better, developed by Dr. Barbara O. Rothbaum of Emory University School of Medicine and Dr. Larry F. Hodges of Georgia Tech, does just that. In addition to using the software, patients sit in chairs with a seatbelts while wearing virtual reality headsets on their heads. Through the headset, they can see a computer simulation of an aircraft’s interior, the sky through a window, and aircraft wings as if they were sitting in their airplane seat.

The patient “travels” through various stages of flight including takeoff, landing, and even turbulence. The sounds of flight, such as those related to the plane’s landing gear and flaps, are also simulated. Through this type of therapy, aerophobics can confront their fear with the safety net of a therapist ultimately controlling the situation. Clinical studies have shown that by staging phobia confrontations, approximately 75 percent of the people become accustomed to the situation and eventually lose their fear. Currently, the Virtually Better treatment is available in Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, New York, San Diego, and Washington, DC

Traditional Treatment

In addition to virtual reality therapy, many traditional resources and organizations specialize in the treatment of aerophobia. There are self-help groups (run in conjunction with airlines), clinics that offer therapy and hypnosis, and courses by mail. Although each program is set up differently, the theory and treatment processes are similar and include stress management, deep breathing exercises, and other relaxation techniques. Many also supply technical explanations of airplane mechanics, which helps people become better aware of the airplane environment.

Here is some advice for helping fearful flyers cope:

  • Choose a seat that is not confining. For example, choose an aisle seat in the front of the cabin. The closer you are to the front of the aircraft, the less engine noise you will hear. Aisle seats also allow for maximum freedom of movement; middle and window seats are more confining.

  • Avoid alcohol. Contrary to what you’ve been told, alcohol will not numb the effects of flying. Flying and alcohol dehydrate the body. The two together will only make you more edgy, not relaxed. Also, make sure you have a good meal. It’s best not to fly on an empty stomach.

  • Try to get to the gate early. Rushing to your flight only triggers more stress.

  • If you have any questions or concerns, talk to the flight crew. Pilots are more than happy to let you in the cockpit for a question and answer session. Flight attendants are trained to answer any questions and to show you the best way to enjoy your flight experience.

  • Do relaxation techniques. Deep breathing exercises, stretching, or listening to music is a great way to become more settled.

    Always remember that the odds of being in an airplane accident are one in nine million. You would have to fly once a day for 26,500 years before encountering the odds of being involved in a fatal air crash.

    Here are some online links to fearful flying seminars and courses:

  • Fear of Flying Clinic: As seen on ABC’s 20/20, this clinic offers workshops and flights based at the San Francisco International Airport.

  • Pegasus Fear of Flying Foundation Inc.: Featured on CNN, this company specializes in fear of flying recovery training programs and materials.

  • SOAR Inc.: With this company, veteran airline Captain and licensed therapist Tom Bunn offers great resources and hands on treatment to conquer the fear of flying.

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