Fasten your seatbelt

Having developed a case of chronic aerophobia, Amanda Hooton decided it was time to stop flying by the seat of her pants and re-establish control.

I was not always afraid of flying. When I was young I was completely unlike Doris Day, who was unable to attend the ceremonies for her Presidential Medal of Freedom and her Lifetime Achievement Grammy because of her aerophobia. Or Stanley Kubrick, who refused to fly when filming Full Metal Jacket and had to re-create Vietnam in the fields of Norfolk; or even Kim Jong-il, whose otherwise substantial powers of mind control did not extend to convincing himself that the iron bird would fly. Nor did I have what psychologists call an “inciting incident” for my fear – a personal experience or near miss that gave rise to my anxiety (though it must be said, history is hardly littered with aviation near misses). Nothing terrible ever happened to me, yet as the years passed I got more and more anxious.

I often wrote letters to my family on cocktail napkins … explaining that I loved them and that I’d had a great life.

Largely, I was worried about turbulence, which is depressingly unoriginal: according to one international study, 40 per cent of people fear flying, 6.5 per cent are too afraid to fly at all, and most of both groups fear turbulence. I had all the classic aviatophobe’s thoughts: the wings snapping off the fuselage like toothpicks; the tail suddenly shearing away; chunks of aeronautical innards hurtling into the sky as we plunged into our inevitable death spiral.

The friendly skies … Amanda Hooton and pilot Julian D’Arcy in the flight simulator. Photo: Nick Cubbin

Over time I developed a complex system of coping mechanisms – I use the word coping advisedly – including an obsession with sitting as close as possible to the front of the plane (where turbulence is less noticeable); arriving early at the airport (at least two hours before a domestic flight); demanding that flight attendants explain (again) the reasons the plane wouldn’t drop from the sky; making deals with God that if I took 100 deep breaths He would stop the turbulence (God proved unreliable); and constructing a fantasy that I was actually sitting on a train (despite always wanting a window seat.)

I often wrote letters to my family inside book covers and on cocktail napkins, explaining that I loved them and that I’d had a great life. Somehow I imagined that when the plane did explode, these napkins would miraculously survive the subsequent plummet into the ocean (I always imagined crashing over the ocean), and would be delivered, dripping gently, to my grieving family. Most bizarre of all, I evolved a process by which I had to touch the outside of the fuselage of every plane I boarded with my finger – usually the littlest finger on my right hand. I chose not to wonder what the flight crew thought, watching me slide my hand along the rim of the door as they chivvied me towards seat 57D.

In the end, and despite all these baroque procedures, things got bad enough that I was prescribed Xanax to take before flights. This did not eliminate my fear, but reduced my ability to care. Instead of thinking, “I AM GOING TO DIE!!!”, it made me think, “I am going to die.” But then I had a baby and could no longer take Xanax; and I missed the chance to fly around Everest with Peter Hillary, son of Edmund, one pearly Himalayan morning. Peter Hillary had lost his mother and sister in a plane crash, yet he was on that plane and I was not. Clearly, something had to change.

Come fly with me … Captain David Evans brings the comfort and calm that come with 30 years’ and 20,000 hours’ flying experience. Photo: James Brickwood

Usefully, page one of the Flight Experience Fear of Flying course manual contains a list titled Common Flying Fears, and the very first one reads: “The plane will crash and I will die.” Go no further, I tell Nikki Johnson, the psychologist who helped develop the course, which has just started in Australia. That’s me.

Johnson, a stylish, dark-haired woman wearing reassuringly confident glasses, nods. Most of my rituals, she explains, are what are called safety behaviours, and they’re a common way to cope with anxiety, in flying and in life. In my case, they’re mostly linked to feeling fearful about not being in control. “Do you feel like it’s your job to keep the plane in the air?” she asks.

Yes! I say excitedly: I feel certain that if I relax for a moment, disaster will strike. She nods solemnly. “Because it’s only your vigilance that will spot the engine exploding in flames, right? None of the actual air crew will notice. It’s all up to you.”

Are you saying I’m a control freak? I ask. Johnson grins.

I am also, it seems, a perfectionist and a catastrophiser, an unappealing combination that’s particularly bad for flying, where you have to not only relinquish control, but trust in someone else’s expertise and have faith in positive outcomes.

My task is clear. Physically, I have to learn to relax, and mentally, I have to change my thinking about flying. Inspired by Johnson, I spend the next week practising progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing, and monitoring my anxious/unrealistic/ridiculously catastrophic daily thoughts. The idea, based on cognitive behaviour therapy techniques, is to gather realistic information about your fears, and then use it to change your thinking, rather than torment yourself with endless million-to-one disaster scenarios. As Johnson puts it: “Is there any evidence that does not support your fear?” She smiles encouragingly. “For once, you’ve got to think about all the reasons you might not crash.”

Captain David Evans provides the most compelling reason I’ve had for years that I might not crash. Part of the course’s information-gathering phase involves talking to an actual pilot, and by the end of my session with Evans, I feel like clinging to his leg and demanding that he be in charge of every flight I ever take for the rest of my life.

Evans has more than 30 years’ and 20,000 hours’ of flying experience. He was the most senior pilot aboard QF32, the Qantas A380 crippled by an engine failure leaving Singapore in 2010. Today, in an office on Coward Street (!) in Sydney’s south, his job is to answer my “Why don’t the wings snap off?” questions, and provide me with some realistic evidence to counter my doom-laden thoughts.

He and young pilot Julian D’Arcy, who will run my simulator flight, take me through an exhaustive presentation in which I learn that, statistically, I could fly every day for 19,000 years without crashing; how every nut and bolt (literally) on a plane is logged, monitored and maintained; how many backup systems exist (there are, for instance, primary, auxiliary, backup and emergency brakes); how planes can fly into the heart of thunderstorms (but never do, unless they’re carrying meteorologists); and how they can withstand turbulence and G-forces that would kill everyone on board before disintegrating. “Aircraft are designed to fly through all these things,” says Evans. “They’re enormously strong, sophisticated machines.”

That can be hard to remember when you’re bouncing up and down in 57D, I say.

He laughs. “The simulator will help with that.”

The simulator does help with that. Secreted in a harbourside shopping mall, a replica cockpit of a Boeing 737 has been set up to run virtual flights that contain all the visual and flight information you’d get on a real flight, bar the 10,000 metres of air between you and solid ground.

Strapped into the seat beside D’Arcy, the first thing that strikes me is how low-tech everything looks. For some reason I’d expected it to resemble an Apple store or the bridge of the starship Enterprise – all sleek screens and white consoles – but in fact I’m surrounded by sheets of industrial-looking grey metal, dotted with large Apollo 13 style switches. Everything, moreover, appears to be clamped together using enormous clumsy screws. “Those are all aeronautical-grade screws,” D’Arcy explains. “Every single one has to meet international regulations for strength and durability.”

Gazing at the banks of switches, I catch sight of one labelled “ANTI COLLISION”. For one terrifying moment I think I’ve discovered the solution to every impact crash ever suffered by a 737. “It’s to stop ground services approaching while the engines are running,” D’Arcy says patiently.

After fielding more inane questions – “A clipboard! How much of my safety depends on a clipboard?” and “What would happen if I went mad and ripped this lever out with my bare hands?” – we start the preprogrammed flight of my worst nightmare: turbulence, a thunderstorm, steep banking, a missed landing and an engine failure. Through it all, D’Arcy coaches me about how turbulence-competent the aircraft is; how avoiding thunderstorms and turbulence is for passenger comfort rather than aircraft safety; how planes can roll right over but are restricted to 25-degree banking for passenger peace of mind; how routine missed landings are; how it’s possible to take off, fly and land using only one engine.

It’s a terrific information-gathering experience, and provides me, as Johnson explains, with valuable exposure to my fear. This in turn helps me believe that I, and the plane I’m on, can actually survive a flight. Nonetheless, I can’t shake a lurking awareness that I am not, in fact, on a plane. Will any of this help when I really am? And lying beneath that lurking awareness is another one: that in 48 hours, when I fly to Perth, I really will be.

The same night as my simulated flight, another 737 cockpit – this one attached to a plane owned by Lion Air – ditches into the sea near Denpasar. Almost immediately, Nikki Johnson sends me an encouraging email. “If yesterday’s crash-landing in Indonesia has left you a little unsettled,” she writes, “be sure to think about the quality of the airline, the fact that everyone survived, and the number of flights in the air every day around the world. I am sure you have already gone through this process of realistic thinking.”

In fact, I’ve been too busy to see the news or check my emails before I leave, so I board my flight blissfully unaware of the need to think about it at all. We take off and I begin to march my realistic thoughts into battle. “Just the landing gear retracting,” I say as a terrible grinding noise emerges from the bowels of the plane. “Just the thrust decreasing as the plane levels off,” as the engine noise suddenly seems to vanish. And, best of all, as the turbulence bubbles around the aircraft, “Just the plane entering the jet stream and encountering air at different velocities.”

And what do you know. I can hardly believe it, but the fear is gone. It’s as if the space in my head once taken up by blind terror is now occupied by a kind of personalised flight manual. I get off the plane feeling like Yuri Geller, as if I’ve performed some kind of spoon-bending magic trick.

Three weeks later, it’s the same on the return flight. Despite accidently seeing the unbelievable footage of a 747 cargo plane falling from the sky in Afghanistan three days before I fly, I do not think of death once while I’m in the air. Next time, I’m not even going to touch the fuselage.

Article originally posted at The Sydney Morning Herald