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Flying anxiety, or fear of flying, can be debilitating for some and stop others from travelling anywhere that is only accessible by plane.

It’s an anxiety that sufferers usually keep to themselves or only let their close family members in on because they’re embarrassed or ashamed of their phobia.

Jody Yarborough, who lives in San Francisco, knows the feeling well. She suffered flying anxiety for years but didn’t seek help until she hit “rock bottom” travelling to a friend’s wedding.

FLYING ANXIETY – A PERSONAL STORY

Jody was an anxious flier up until about seven years ago when she did something about it (more on that later).

“I was set to be at my best friend’s wedding and I couldn’t get on the plane,” Jody told Bright Lights of America.

“That’s when I hit rock bottom. I noticed that it was starting to bleed into other areas of my life. I was getting a little agoraphobic and experience general anxiety.”

 

Jody Yarborough in Washington DC

At its worst, Jody’s flying anxiety meant she was taking cross-country train trips to avoid flying


Jody was always a “white knuckler”, but she did what she had to do to get through most flights.

“I’d have a lot of pre-flight anxiety and I’d be obsessing about something going wrong before I’d even approached the airport,” she said.

“For many years I stopped flying altogether and just took the train. I’ve done coast-to-coast train trips and my husband is happy to take the train but you’re obviously not doing that for overseas trips.”

Flying anxiety not only affects the sufferer, but it also touches the lives of those around them. It can curtail family trips and holidays with friends.

“One day I took the train up to Washington State for a funeral and my honeymoon was planned around me being in this no-fly-zone,” Jody said.

Jody describes flying anxiety as “an introverted fear”, or the kind of fear that isn’t easy to spot.

“For the vast majority of people who have a fear of flying, you wouldn’t know it to look at them,” she said.

“There’s a stigma about it and it leads to people being ashamed of their fear and not talking about it.

While Jody is comfortable with flying, it took getting to that “rock bottom” moment of feeling unable to get onto the plane to her best friend’s wedding that sparked action.

HOW TO CONQUER FLYING ANXIETY

It all started  for Jody with a simple Google search seven years ago. Jody typed “fear of flying” into the search engine and hit enter.

Snow-covered airport

That’s where she found San Francisco’s not-for-profit Fear of Flying clinic. The clinic was founded in 1976 by avid aviators Fran Grant and Jeanne McElhatton.

The duo, both former private pilots, lived through an era when only men got jobs flying commercial planes.

Fran’s husband had a fear of flying himself, which she and her friend Jeanne couldn’t quite understand since they loved it so much.

So they started the Fear of Flying clinic as a non-profit because they wanted to help people like Fran’s husband get onto planes with less anxiety and more confidence.

The classes have changed over the years as flying and aviation grew and evolved. It’s all about explaining the process, not only of flying and what goes on in the pilot’s galley and in the air traffic control tower, but also what’s going on in your brain as you begin to feel anxious.

Jody credits the classes with allowing her to get back to flying and believed in the program so much that she has become a volunteer for the organization, eventually becoming board president.

WHO TAKES PART IN FEAR OF FLYING COURSES?

Each “clinic” runs over two consecutive weekends and can include people suffering from low-level to higher-level flying anxiety.

Plane boarding at Toronto Airport

“Everybody has their own story and impetus for why they need to fly,” Jody said.

“We get a lot of mothers who don’t like to fly and they notice they are passing their anxiety to their children, which they don’t want to do.”

Then there are those who need to fly frequently for their jobs and want to be able to do so without the crippling anxiety that comes with it.

“We get to know everyone so that we can support them and understand what the problem is,” she said.

“In the last class we had a guy who had never flown before period. He was 34 years old and he didn’t know what to expect.

Then there are clients dealing with multiple anxiety issues. Some don’t have a fear of flying but have claustrophobia.”

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE FEAR OF FLYING COURSE

There are four main components of the clinic, the last of which is optional:

  • Pilot presentation and cognitive behavior therapy by a therapist
  • A visit to the maintenance hangar and onto a plane that’s being worked on. A Q&A session with a flight attendant
  • A trip to the Air Traffic Control tower
  • The graduation flight

Day One – Pilot/Airport Therapist Sessions

A United Airlines pilot gives an overview of flying and an overview of the pilot’s role/responsibilities.

The airport therapist goes into cognitive behavior therapy to find out what fears the group has and what they imagine may occur or go wrong on a flight.

Day Two – Maintenance Hangar

Students get to visit the maintenance hangar at San Francisco Airport and United Airlines staff volunteer to show them an aircraft that’s in to be checked over.

They get an idea of how the maintenance process works and is carried out on the ground.

A flight attendant answers questions and then students get to sit in the cockpit with the pilot and learn about the plane.

Day Three – Air Route Control/Air Traffic Control Tower

The second weekend begins with a presentation by an air route controller and a visit to the Air Traffic Control tower.

“An air route controller is actually someone who sits in a dark room about 50 miles from the airport and handles the air traffic from region to region,” Jody said.

“They’re handing off flights from the Bay Area, all the way over to Las Vegas. They also watch the weather really closely and if they know there’s a back-up in, say Washington DC, they can coordinate planes back here to deal with that.”

Air traffic control tower

Jody says the trip to the Air Traffic Control tower is usually surprising for most people because it’s nothing like you see in the movies.

“It’s very quiet and it’s very structured and it’s ideally very low stress because they don’t want a bunch of stressed-out and tired people in there directing planes,” she said.

“And just to see all the blips on the monitors and know that each one is an airplane is really cool.”

Day Four – Graduation Flight

This is probably the day that most students dread, but it’s not a compulsory flight, and some students take the course knowing that they won’t take the flight at the end.

The plan is to take a relatively short flight to Seattle or Portland to give students a taste of flying and ease them into it.

They hop on a plane, have lunch at the airport, “get their wings” and fly back home in a day.

“We’ve never had any freak outs bad instances. The class I was in on, we were seated to the back because we were such a large group,” she said.

“I remember these two flight attendants who were just so nonchalant about flying.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP ANXIOUS FLYERS

Jody says the biggest thing that friends and family of anxious fliers can do to help loved ones is to be patient and understanding.

“I think that the pressure that we put on ourselves [as fearful flyers] is more than anyone else can put on us because it is so debilitating,” she said.

“I would just encourage people to talk about it, just to verbalise it with people they feel safe with. Also check out our Facebook page, and leave a note there.

Tips to reduce flying anxiety

When I was starting to get help I went on the web and listened and heard other stories and that made me feel that I wasn’t crazy. And that was a huge part too.”

Many US airports run similar flying anxiety programs (see below for links to other clinics).

“I would encourage people to reach out and get help because the thing for me was that doing nothing was not an option because the fear only gets worse.”

“You want to fly as comfortable as you can. We don’t tell people that they’re going to end up loving flying, but I know now that if I have a trip planned, I can get through it.”

Find out more about the San Francisco Fear of Flying clinic at http://www.fofc.com/or call 650.341.1595.

Other US-based Fear of Flying clinics:

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