Flying away from fear: Overcoming a phobia of air travel
Fear of flying can be crippling, forcing some people to remain earthbound, but there are ways to beat the nerves, writes Eli Orzessek
When I woke up to a violently shaking plane, followed by a loud booming noise, I was sure it was the end.
It was the one year anniversary of the disappearance of MH370 and I was on a flight from Auckland to Taiwan.
I’ve always been a bit of a nervous flyer, but I wouldn’t say I have a phobia — I just grip the armrests a little tighter than others might. An obsession with plane crashes and sensational TV shows about them doesn’t help, but it also doesn’t stop me from boarding.
I watched a bit too much CNN in my hotel room on the morning of my flight, but we took off without incident and I was soon settled with a movie to watch. Although in retrospect, Gravity probably wasn’t the greatest choice. Later on, I opted for something a little less intense and fell asleep in my Business Class seat watching Frozen. My peaceful slumber wasn’t to last.
As the turbulence hit, I was jolted awake — it was worse than anything I’d experienced before. Everyone else stayed asleep, but I was heading into full panic mode, with no one to calm me down.
Then came the boom. It was loud. I tried to tell myself it was just the drinks trolley hitting the back of the plane, but my mind told me we were going down.
I quickly scanned the faces of the flight attendants for signs of panic. My breathing became laboured. I tossed up my options: I could take a Diazepam and calm down and go back to sleep. But if the plane actually crashed, I might need to be as alert as possible to ensure survival.
When I met Grant Amos, who has run his Flying Without Fear course for more than 30 years, I described this as a “bad experience”.
Amos quickly refutes me: There’s the mistake, you said, ‘bad’, as opposed to, ‘They had an experience they can’t explain’.”
“Because they can’t explain it, they refer to it as bad. I had a woman recently who said ‘I’ve had turbulence but this turbulence was beyond that’. And the answer is, actually it’s not. It’s normal.”
When it comes to treating such cases, he is big on the facts. His main tactic is to demystify the process of flying — and to counter those “yes, buts” with facts. For instance out of 36 million flights in 2017, there were only 66 fatalities, and none of those from major airlines.
“Yes but you know…” I start to say. But he cuts me off promptly.
“You just ‘yes butted’, so there’s your anxiety disorder, that’s where it starts.”
It’s like he sees right through me — and I actually feel a bit unsettled.
I tell him I’m fine with going to Sydney, but taking the 17 hour flight to Doha made me more nervous — because, in my opinion, it’s unnatural for humans to be in the sky for that long.
He looks me in the eye and says in a gruff voice: “That’s because you’re a hyperventilator.”
“You’ve just classically said what people will say to me: ‘I can get to Christchurch without any difficulty but I’ve got to go to Brisbane for this wedding’. Or ‘I can get to Sydney, but now I’ve got to go to Qatar’. When it becomes about a length of time, it tells me that you are a hyperventilator.”
I feel anxious just thinking about it. Maybe I am a hyperventilator?
Amos got started in the area while working with Air New Zealand in the 1970s, setting up customer service training programs for cabin crew. To understand the job, he worked all the jobs in the area — from cargo to reservations to air traffic and bookings. While running a course on how to handle customer complaints, a supervisor suggested his techniques could work with “the phobics”.
“They started naming famous people who were notorious bad flyers. They said there’s not much you can really do at the airport, you can reassure them, you can answer questions or get them drunk. I said, ‘Does that work?’ And they said, ‘No, but it gets them on the plane and out of your hair.'”
Since starting his own courses in the early 1980s, Amos says he has treated a range of clients — many of them very successful in their various fields. He’s seen everything from chief executives to marketing directors, journalists, accountants, receptionists and truck drivers.
“People ask, ‘What causes a fear of flying’ and I say, ‘Hungarian goulash’. It’s a multitude of factors why you would develop a problem and the person next to you doesn’t.”
However, he found there was one factor that came up a lot: control.
“A large percentage of the people are control freaks and perfectionists,” he says.
“Interestingly, most of the people we’ve seen are successful with what they do, controlling what they do.
“The majority of people who do the course will have had a problem,” he says. “That in a lot of cases is a problem around a flight or a journey.”
Porirua City Counsellor Mike Duncan had made it to the airport three times — but
couldn’t bring himself to check in and board a flight, leaving his wife to travel alone.
It was only when faced with a work trip to Australia nearly 30 years ago that he was forced to face his fears, at the age of 39.
“I was working at the Dominion Post at the time and I had to go Melbourne for a course and there was no boat going, so I said ‘No, I’m just not doing it. I’m sorry mate, I just can’t fly’.”
However, his boss wouldn’t take no for an answer and enrolled him in a course out at the airport — likely to be the same course Grant Amos runs today — where he was given the opportunity to look at a plane up close and learn about the principles of flight.
While he loves flying today, it took a lot of pressure — from all angles, family included — before he managed to get on his first flight.
“People forever were saying ‘it’s ridiculous, you’re more likely to get run over by a bus than to have an accident on a plane’ — but I thought ‘yeah but I’m likely to be the one’.”
Boarding his inaugural flight to Melbourne took some courage — in liquid form, in Duncan’s case.
“I actually had about five Steinlagers I think, so by the time I got there I was flying higher than the plane,” he remembers.
He credits Air New Zealand’s staff — “a bloody good mob” — for making it a positive experience. He was even invited by the pilot into the cockpit to watch the plane land, but decided not to push it. “I said, ‘Bugger off!'” he laughs. “I thought, God I’ve survived this far, there’s no way I’m going to sit in the front and watch it coming down.”
Despite some nerves before the return journey, Duncan says the experience was “marvellous” and converted him into an enthusiastic flyer — but he has a few techniques to cope with the nerves that still occasionally emerge.
“I hang on to the armrests and keep the plane up by holding the bugger up. Take off is the only time that I get nervous. And flying into Wellington’s an exercise in its own right. But I love it!”
On my flight from Taiwan, after tossing up for several agonising minutes, I took the Diazepam. If we were going down, I probably had no chance anyway, so I may as well be incapacitated. I put on more cartoons and eventually passed out.
When my group arrived for a short stopover in Brisbane, the guy who arranged our trip said to us, “you might’ve been scared if you heard the turbo boom during the night”.
“…I heard it,” I said quietly in a Diazepam-induced haze.
Just as Grant Amos suggested, our guide had demystified the process of flying for me. I just wished he had done it four hours and one Diazepam earlier.
Meditation for a relaxing flight
When Tess Moeke-Maxwell developed a meditation resource to help her unwell partner, she didn’t realise it would eventually make it to the skies.
A former hospice nurse, Moeke-Maxwell found meditation to be a great help for her partner Nessie, who had breast cancer and was awaiting a mastectomy and needed a way to calm her mind.
Together, the couple started reading and learning about meditation and different breathing techniques, which led them to share their discoveries with the wider world.
“Two weeks before her mastectomy, Nessie said to me, ‘I’m happiest I’ve ever been, I want to help other people to heal their minds’,” Moeke-Maxwell said.
And Stars of Aroha was born as an app, with audio tracks featuring a meditation in one of 20 places around New Zealand, with the sounds of the ocean, forest and birds — and voice-overs by Moeke-Maxwell.
However, others saw ways of taking the concept further.
“I had people come up to me and say this app should really be on Air New Zealand because it’s bicultural, it really enhances everything we think Air NZ believes in and it would really help travellers relax.”
Moeke-Maxwell approached Air New Zealand and was quickly contacted by a representative from Global Solutions, who produce the airline’s in-flight entertainment — they wanted them on the planes the very next month.
She was asked to return to the studio and create a whole audiobook. Already underway was a relaxation soundtrack for children, entitled Luna’s Lullaby — named for Moeke-Maxwell’s granddaughter Luna, whom she and her partner are raising.
It also features a bicultural concept, with Aotearoa calling all her children home to sleep, and has been taken up for in-flight use as well, which may be a godsend for tired parents, as well as fellow passengers.
Although Flying Without Fear director Grant Amos says meditation won’t help those with a serious fear, Moeke-Maxwell believes it can help other travellers find a moment of peace during their journeys.
In fact, she had already heard first-hand how the recordings could help, at a conference, when she asked a speaker a question and he recognised her voice
“He came up to me when I was leaving and said, ‘I was on the plane from Sydney, I fell asleep listening to Stars of Aroha meditation, that’s you isn’t it?'”
Thanks to her soothing voice, he had ended up getting an hour of sleep. And sometimes, a bit of sleep is all you need to make a journey that much more bearable.
Five famous people with a fear of flying
Australia’s legendary league commentator inherited his fear of flying from his parents, who would remark “if we were meant to fly, we’d have wings” when planes flew overhead. The phobia went on to prevent him from attending the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and he credits this incident with leading to his dismissal from Ten two years later. Since then, he has overcome his fears — and has travelled to New Zealand, the UK, Hong Kong, Japan and Canada to cover swimming and league.
The Queen of Soul developed a flying phobia seemingly out of nowhere. In February 1984, she cancelled two shows and rescheduled her entire tour after she suddenly developed a fear of planes. In an interview with Glamour magazine, she told how her fear had affected her career — saying: “I turned down two singing opportunities in my career because of a fear of flying: one for the Queen and one at the Pyramids.” In 2016, she told the New Yorker she was attending anxious flyer classes and was determined to get on a plane soon. Though she was thinking of taking a flight from Detroit to Chicago, it’s unclear if she ended up doing it.
During his time filming Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, Sean Bean (who played Boromir) would opt to walk between locations rather than fly in a helicopter. Following a particularly traumatic ride — where fellow actors may have encouraged the pilot to show off his skills — Bean vowed he wouldn’t fly again. On one occasion, he took a ski lift and hiked up a mountain to avoid a helicopter trip. That’s dedication.
Whoopi Goldberg. Photo / Supplied
Whoopi Goldberg credits Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear programme for helping her overcome her phobia — even though she initially said it was “B.S”. In 2009, she took her first flight in 13 years — a transatlantic flight to the UK to see rehearsals for the Sister Act musical. Generally she relies on bus travel to get around — once admitting to Jay Leno it took around 42 hours of non-stop bus travel to get from New York to Los Angeles. Although she will fly now if she absolutely has to, she still prefers the bus.
The Transformers actor is deathly afraid of flying but still manages to get through it thanks to one special protective charm — she is convinced the music of Britney Spears will stop her dying in a plane crash. “I know for a fact it’s not in my destiny to die listening to a Britney Spears album, so I always put that on in my (headphones) when I’m flying because I know it won’t crash if I’ve got Britney on,” she once said.
Hey, whatever works for you, right?
Megan Fox. Photo / Supplied