“I got on the flight with no help whatsoever from drugs or alcohol and am extemely proud of myself,” reads a post from a woman on the Flying Without Fear message board. “I never thought it possible. I don’t think I will ever be completely at home in a plane, but I know now that I can easily cope and it won’t get the better of me again.”
The fear of flying is so common that just about everyone knows someone who has it. And despite the fact that it is truly one of the safest ways to travel, news stories of air crashes don’t do much to calm the nerves of white-knuckle flyers. So how did the woman who posted the message above get over her fear? She took Virgin Atlantic’s U.K.-based course, Flying Without Fear. In fact, two weeks after taking the course, she boarded a plane for a family vacation to the French Alps and felt “absolutely fine.”
Guided by a knowledge-is-power philosophy, the day-long seminar, which takes place at various U.K. airports, attracts up to 200 people per session and costs about $350. It is part science lesson, part psycho-analysis session. The science component is delivered by a veteran Virgin Atlantic pilot, who spends about three hours myth-busting and answering questions. A therapist then breaks down the psychology of fear to explain what’s actually happening in your head. At the end of the class, participants board a plane for a 30-minute flight.
Says Virgin Atlantic Captain Dominic Riley, lead instructor since the seminar’s inception 12 years ago, the acid test is how many people board that flight. “On that score, the course enjoys a 98 percent success rate.” Riley proudly remembers one “massively phobic person” who actually went on to become a pilot. “He came off the plane with a grin the size of New England and later sent us a photo of himself with his pilot wings.”
As the program prepares to launch in North America within the next year—likely starting off in New York and expanding from there—Riley shares with Best Health readers some demystifying facts about flying.
The fear: The plane will suddenly lose power
The fact: There’s a lot of backup power. Every system on a commercial airliner has at least one, and sometimes up to four backups, depending on the aircraft. For example, each engine has its own generator. “Every airplane is happy to fly on just one generator,” says Riley. “In my aircraft, a four-engined Airbus, we could afford three generator failures—and that just won’t happen. And on commercial airlines, even pilots have a backup.”
The fear: The aircraft’s door will open.
The fact: It can’t happen. It is impossible to open an airplane door in flight. “The pressure inside the airplane hull is much higher than the pressure outside,” says Riley. “So the door is being wedged in by the pressure inside the airplane.”
The fear: The plane will give in to gravity.
The fact: Physics means that can’t happen. “Lift” is what allows an airplane to fly, whereas the engines simply propel the plane forward and give it the speed necessary to achieve lift and takeoff. Lift is a mechanical force that pushes up against the weight of a plane and holds it in the air. It is created when air passes over the wings. For an airplane to fly, the lift must slightly exceed the weight of the airplane. One of the fundamental variables of the lift equation is speed: The more speed you have, the more lift you have. What’s more, the further you are into the flight, the more lift there is. That’s because as the airplane burns fuel, it becomes lighter, which creates more lift than it actually needs.
“The lift equation is always going to work,” says Riley. “Even if an airliner at altitude has a total engine failure, it will glide three miles forward for every 1,000 feet of height loss.” So, Riley says, if you are at 35,000 feet altitude, the airplane will glide more than 100 miles with no engines. “And in that 100 miles we will force-land it onto the nearest available airfield.”
And if you are nowhere near land? Planes are built to land on water. (Who can forget the “landing”—technically called a ditching—by U.S. Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger on the Hudson River in January 2009?) “Planes will float, and indeed must prove their flotation ability prior to certification,” says Riley. “That’s why before each flight, cabin crew remind passengers of where the emergency exits are and how to don a life jacket.”
The fear: Hitting a bird will cause the engines to catch fire. Then the plane will crash into a mountain.
The fact: “In a four-engine airplane, you’ll notice the engines are widely spaced,” says Riley. Should you hit a big flock of birds, it’s extremely unlikely that all four engines will be hit. “Airplanes are designed so this won’t happen—and in 99.9 percent of cases, it doesn’t.” (Sullenberger’s flight was obviously an exception to this. In fact, it was Canada geese that forced him to make that emergency landing on the Hudson.)
The fear: We’ll hit an air pocket or turbulence and nosedive 10,000 feet and crash.
The fact: There is no such thing as an air pocket. There is just air. And air is never smooth or static. “When the airplane takes off, it enters a massive body of moving air,” says Riley. “Turbulence is the airplane wobbling in this moving body of air. That’s it. So, yes, it can get bumpy, but that’s to be expected.” Imagine the air is fluid and visible—a big thick thing—and visualize the plane flying through it in the same way a submarine moves through water.
The fear: The bing-bong noises during the flight mean we’re about to crash.
The fact: Wrong. It’s the pilots communicating with the cabin crew. “Instead of using the PA system, we use the Fasten Seat Belt sign, which makes the bing-bong noise, to cue cabin crew to the next event: We are about to take off/touch down; fasten seat belts coming up shortly,” says Riley.
March/April 2011 issue of Best Health magazine