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Afraid to fly?

The landing of the US Airways plane onto the Hudson was a display ofstaggering skill on the pilot’s part — and hopefully it helps toreassure those scared of flying that emergency procedures can work toensure passenger safety.

The landing of the US Airways plane onto the Hudson was a display of staggering skill on the pilot’s part — and hopefully it helps to reassure those scared of flying that emergency procedures can work to ensure passenger safety.

Usually the only time you hear about planes touching down on water is during the in-flight safety demonstration, but this showed it is possible get out of a plane that lands on water alive.

While we know incidents like this are actually extremely rare, flying feels like a pretty weird thing to do for humans — even frequent flyers can get nervous about taking off.

But if this latest drama just gave you a new danger to worry about — flocks of geese bringing down all the engines — then there’s hope for you still.

You can read books or get hypnotized, but easier still is to beat it together with a group of people who are petrified of getting in a plane.

Over the last 10 years Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear course has helped thousands of people overcome their phobia with an arsenal of scientific fact, psychology and dry humour.

Early one Sunday morning in a conference room at a hotel just outside the world’s busiest airport, Heathrow, about 100 men and women who are petrified of getting on a plane have gathered in an attempt to get over their fears. They’re all nervous — some are already in tears and one woman had to have hypnotherapy just to be here.

Turbulence, claustrophobia, engines on fire, terrorism, falling out of the sky, toilets that sound like they’re going to suck you out of the plane — these are the reasons why some of these people have booked flights they’ve never boarded, have to get paralytic to get on a plane — there’s even an actor who turned down the chance to star alongside Penelope Cruz in Sahara because it was being filmed in Morocco.

Fortunately Captain Dom, a pilot with Virgin Atlantic for 13 years is here to fight our fears with science. He is armed with a model plane that he moves around to demonstrate how a plane gets into the air and how it stays there. He explains the forces at work when an aircraft is in flight: The balance of lift, drag, thrust and weight of the plane. It’s physics, he explains, and physics never changes.

Captain Dom demonstrates turbulence, Hollywood-style, with the model plane plunging towards the floor then rocketing back up again. In his ‘reality’ demonstration the plane flies in a steady line, and wobbles a bit. Apparently turbulence is completely safe, and nobody has ever crashed as a result. He suggests that we think of air like we do water, or imagine that we are flying through thick, lumpy custard.

A plane might have four engines, explains Dom, but it only needs one to fly. If one fails, they shut it down, and if two or more fail, they take a diversion to the nearest airport. If all engines fail, the plane can glide to safety.

On a reassuring note, he explains information is always shared between airlines so safety standards are improved with every incident.

By the end of the session we are amateur aerodynamics engineers and understand where the noises come from.

Next up is therapist Gillian Harvey-Bush who teaches us relaxation techniques including deep breathing and tapping, where you tap different parts of your body while thinking of a traumatic incident in order to eradicate your fears.

There are more encouraging words from David Gott, Senior Safety Training Instructor at Virgin Atlantic. “There’s more to us than ‘chicken, beef or fish —there’s vegetarian too,’” he quips, before explaining how stewards are highly trained, so they restrain unruly passengers, take control in a medical emergency, deliver babies as well as mix the perfect gin and tonic.

“We know that you’re watching us. But if you see me on the phone looking anxious, it’s not because the plane has run out of fuel and we’re all about to die, it’s because I’ve run out of the beef Stroganoff and we still have another 10 rows to feed,” he reveals. “If you see me looking stressed out when we sit down for landing, we’re not about to plunge into the sea, it’s because I’ve just heard that my colleague has five days in Mauritius and I’m doing New York and LA straight.”

Finally it’s time to brave the flight — a 20-minute round trip to Heathrow —and we take a bus to the airport where we go through the usual airport security procedures. All but five of the 100-odd group get on the plane.

Once over their initial alarm at the speed of take off, most are surprised to find themselves enjoying the flight — seeing others gripping the arms of their seats or tapping their collarbones, makes other passengers feel smug in their new-found confidence.

In fact, this is the experience of most of the passengers. The blonde girl who was a mess of tears and shaking at the start of the flight, does a delighted catwalk down the aisle halfway through the trip.

For these women and men who could break into a sweat just by seeing a plane on TV, it was a major triumph just being able to get on a plane. Whether it was the scientific facts, the emotional tools or even just the knowledge that they are not alone that gave them strength, touching down marked the start of a new life, where a flight will just be the start of the holiday adventure.

Top 5 reassuring facts about flying
• The pilots and crew are constantly tested on their skill and knowledge.
• Put your faith in the crew. They wouldn’t be working on the plane if it wasn't safe.
• You are thousands of times less likely to have fatal accident on a flight than on the road.
• All aircraft are checked by engineers before every flight. Did you check your tire pressures and fluid levels in your car this morning?
• Turbulence maybe uncomfortable, but it's not dangerous.

On the web
• For more information visit: www.flyingwithoutfear.info

 
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