Working in the travel industry and having a huge passion for seeing the world, you might be surprised to hear that I’m actually scared of flying. But is it really a surprise? Not when you learn that 30% of the population are nervous flyers – and that’s only counting the ones who admit it. Have you ever let your fear of flying affect the enjoyment of your holiday?
I haven’t always been scared of flying though. I’ve been on hundreds of flights in the past and never batted an eyelid. But then one particularly uncomfortable flight in 2013 changed that for me. Now, the last thing I wanted was for this fear to take over – I’ve got the whole world to see, after all. So I bit the bullet and booked myself onto the highly acclaimed Virgin Atlantic ‘Flying Without Fear’ programme.
What does the course involve?
On the morning of the course, a room full of anxious yet determined looking individuals gathered, ready to face the day ahead of us. I was lucky enough to be seated on a table with Senior Flight Officer Adelle Roberts, who was to be mine and nine others’ team leader for the day. This was great news for us. Adelle has been a pilot for 17 years and is one of only 1% of female pilots worldwide.
Following an introduction from co-founder and former phobic Richard Conway, it was the turn of Captain Dave Mabbett to take to the stage and teach us everything there was to know about the technical side of flying. He explained exactly what it is that makes a plane fly and exactly why it is the safest mode of transport. We were able to ask about every possible scenario or concern and Captain Dave confidently and reassuringly explained how such situations would be dealt with safely and professionally.
Then it was over to Cabin Safety and Security Training Instructor David Gott, who took us through how all cabin crew are trained to deal with anything you could possibly think of on board. And then finally, Co-Founder Paul Tizzard covered the psychological aspect of the course, introducing us to a number of different techniques to help control fear. Who knew that twanging an elastic band on your wrist could be so beneficial?
And then it was time for the pinnacle. The climax. The dreaded ‘F’ word… It was time to board a flight and put our new found knowledge to the test. And boy did it test us! We experienced everything you could possibly experience on an uncomfortable flight. And that’s just it. Sometimes Mother Nature can make a flight feel a bit ‘uncomfortable’, but at no point are you actually in danger. Turbulence is not dangerous. We endured heavy rain, turbulence, strong cross winds and even a lightning strike. And guess what? We came out the other end laughing.
Take a look at the video I took of Captain Dave narrating the final bit of our descent:
What I found so great about the course was the laid-back, informal and even humorous style of teaching – it really helped to get the message across in a fun and informative way. If you feel like you too could benefit from the Flying Without Fear programme, then you can find out more information at https://www.flyingwithoutfear.co.uk/.
But now, scroll on to read my full interview with Co-Founder Paul Tizzard, Senior Flight Officer Adelle Roberts and Team Leader Paul Christien. In it, we cover such things as how to deal with children who are scared of flying, how to cope as a parent with a fear of flying and does alcohol really help?
Sadie Geoghegan = SG; Paul Tizzard = PT; Adelle Roberts = AR; Paul Christien = PC
SG: So what made you decide to start up the Flying Without Fear programme in 1997?
PT: I was working in the training department, training the cabin crew, and one of the things I noticed having had a psychology background is that when we were flying, we used to see people quite nervous. I also happened to have a friend who said to me we should do something together, like an on board channel so that people can relax when they fly. So it started like that. I wrote to Richard Branson with it because I thought as I could train, the on board thing is fantastic but we should be doing courses as well. So I said we can do on board and a course. Richard Branson was really up for new ideas and stuff and said yes, send me some information. And that was pretty much it.
SG: What sets you apart from others in the market that try and do this kind of thing?
PT: Some don’t have as many staff. One of the things that I’ve always wanted to do is to have small tables so people get to know each other. So whether we have ten people or two hundred, we always have staff to match it. So that was one of the things that we always invested in. We wanted to do proper food and we wanted it to be light-hearted and very much in the style of Virgin. So we wanted to ‘Virginise’ it. Others, you do the course and then come back the next day for the flight. We deliberately haven’t done that because we think people have momentum if they’re with you for the day. Lots of people travel so far, it would mean they’d have to get a hotel. We’re not saying it’s bad. It’s not wrong; it’s just not our model. We like to keep them all together.
SG: It works that way. I think people would chicken out as well if they went away. ‘Okay, I’ve done that part of the course I don’t need to do the flight now.’
PT: They could do, yes. On the face of it, it looks very adult and all together. And it is adult, but when people are scared they need a bit more support. So going home might be great for some but it might not be for others. We would rather keep them together and just sort of say right, let’s get through this.
SG: So would you say that anybody can be ‘cured’ of their fear of flying?
PT: Cured is a strong word. I don’t like the word cured.
SG: In control…
PT: Paul, you can pick this up. You don’t like the word ‘cured’, do you?
PC: No. People take steps forward. And it depends how far up the path they need to go.
PT: Or want to go as well. I think anyone can get over their fear of flying if they want to and they’re willing to keep going. Because some people will take to stuff quickly and others will really resist it. It’s nothing to do with age, gender, or how long you’ve had the fear, it’s about their mind set. So if somebody says ‘nothing’s going to work for me, that’s it, I’m never going to fly’ and they’ve only had it six months…
SG: Then they’re not going to be susceptible to any kind of help.
PT: No, that’s it. That’s really hard to help that. Whereas someone might not have flown for fifty years…
PC: But that person might get to the aircraft door, which is a huge step forward for them. Because people when they come on the course are all in different places, so they don’t always end up at the end of the journey. So cure? No. Very strong term, that.
PT: And also, you can get somebody who loves flying. We’ve had people who’ve been on the course and then come back ten years later and go ‘it’s come back’. And you say ‘well what happened?’ and they say ‘I just got into bad habits’. Because it never actually left. Physically. Like when you go to school and you learn a language and you start speaking it again. Then you go on holiday and within two days you suddenly start remembering stuff because it was always there, it just wasn’t accessed. I think fear’s a bit like that – you can park it. It’s always there ready to be rekindled if you get into bad habits again.
SG: If you could give somebody one key fact or piece of information – just one thing that would ease their fear, what would it be?
PC: I’d say they have to give themselves permission to actually move forward. And by meaning that, they want to do it, so they’ve got to give themselves the opportunity to do it. So it’s give yourself permission to actually open your mind and try. So it’s positive. Because what else do you say to people? I say that in the morning to people before we start sometimes. I say to them, ‘well just remember, it’s about giving yourself permission to actually open your ears, open your mind and then challenge these beliefs that you have’.
SG: And like you said about your family (PT), they won’t get on planes and you don’t try and make them do the course because they’re not willing to try.
PT: They don’t see the need to travel. Their desire’s not strong enough to overcome their resistance to face it. Tony Robbins always said that anything can be overcome provided you just don’t give up. But if the desire isn’t there, you’ll give up at the first difficult bit. You’ll go ‘oh, it doesn’t matter’.
SG: You run the course for children. Are there many children that develop a fear of flying? Because like you say, you’re not born with it.
PT: They’re not born with it. They often pick it up. We often find a lot of parents have some element of fear. They’re not 100%. The parents are often a bit nervous as well.
SG: So what advice would you give to parents with nervous children? If the parents seem fine, what advice would you give to them for helping their children?
AR: To come on our children’s course. When the kids come on the course, there’s a certain age where you notice a big difference, around eight or nine. When they become aware of concepts like Captain Dave was going through, obviously we don’t teach it to the kids like Dave taught it, but when they become aware of those concepts and the fact that those things are real, then they start to understand it and it actually becomes quite easy to explain things. Because they will have already learnt things like that in the classroom. Younger than that, it’s a bit more difficult to get the concept across. But certainly kids who have started to learn physics and stuff like that at school can come on one of our courses. They tend to get it. And they’re the ones that can tell mum and dad how it works. You usually have the kids like ‘Oh it’s amazing! That was amazing! Dad, dad, dad, can we go to Orlando?’
SG: What about parents that are scared and their kids are fine. Should they share that with their kids? Should they tell them? Or should they hide it from their kids?
AR: No, because these kind of behaviours can be learned and obviously children do like to copy adults. So if you have parents that do have a fear of flying, it is possible for them to pass it on to their kids.
SG: So you would suggest, to the best that they can, keep it from their kids.
PT: Get themselves sorted out.
AR: Come on this course.
PT: The main thing is that they get help. And the help that’s right for them: a course, maybe go see a therapist, whatever. Not drugs.
SG: And what’s your take on alcohol?
AR: It doesn’t work.
SG: It heightens anxiety, is that right?
PT: Short term fix, isn’t it.
AR: You don’t need to do it. You’re better off not medicating. Because the problem is people don’t know when to stop because they don’t know how much they need to control, in their eyes, the fear. If they present to the airplane and they are drunk and then they go to altitude, the effects of alcohol are greater at altitude. They then suddenly become drunk when they’re airborne and either emotional or aggressive. Because obviously people deal with fear in lots of different ways and they could find themselves having a way worse flight than they could have been. So we don’t like people to medicate with alcohol.
SG: Where’s your favourite place to fly?
AR: Favourite place to fly to is home. Doesn’t matter where it is, it’s always the nicest place to be. Because when we go away on trips, we’re away with people that we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to have gone away on holiday with. But the people that we love are at home, so we all love coming home.
SG: What’s your favourite thing about flying?
AR: My favourite thing about flying is when you break out of the clouds and it’s beautiful blue skies. I love that.