Air Travel

Scared of Flying? Face Your Phobia at Ellington Field

How one company, Flying Phobia Help, teaches you how to "model courage"—or at least fake it.

By Melissa Jacobs June 2, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

One Houston-area company helps fearful flyers overcome their phobia.

Image: Shutterstock

One minute we are gazing fondly upon a carpet of clouds as our pilot gently descends from 25,000 feet. Our approach to the airport is stunning. And then—

A stomach-dropping shriek. Suddenly, the view is a blur of rushing clouds. The plane is nosediving, plummeting 1,000 feet per second. 

“Why isn’t this a problem?” asks the pilot, rudely interrupting our panic.

For a second we think he is wrong, this is a problem. Then we remember it isn’t, and then we remember why it isn’t. Still, we can’t answer. Answers do not emerge from jaws locked in frozen horror. 

“A plane’s a plane’s a plane. It wants to correct itself,” says the pilot, sounding like a director saddled with actors who won’t learn their lines. 

As if on cue, the dive ceases, the plane rights itself. We teeter for a moment on an imaginary tightrope and then begin climbing again, smoothly, skyward. The carpet of clouds is back. An exhale. Relief. And then—

Turbulence jolts us from side to side, tossing our stomach into a hellacious, gut-wrenching green.  

Okay, wise guy with your fancy-schmancy flight simulator—Douglas Boyd, PhD or whatever—how the heck is what we’ve just experienced supposed to make us less fearful of flying? 

“Anxiety feeds on ignorance,” Boyd says. This we know too, and yet we still can’t believe what he’s just put us through. We’re almost offended. People don’t come all the way out to Ellington Airport for this. 

The flight simulation exercise is just part of a multi-pronged approach employed by Boyd’s company, Flying Phobia Help, which sounds like a name he might have come up with while parachuting from a doomed airliner. Filling out detailed questionnaires about one’s aviophobia and flight history is the first order of business at FPH. Then, the daylong workshop begins, usually with a small-group session led by a veteran commercial pilot, followed by a frank dialogue in which no question is taboo. On the day we attended, there were two men and five women in the class. One of the latter, whose job requires that she frequently fly on short hops throughout the south, asked which clothes are safest to wear on an airplane. (Answer: non-flammable cotton.)

Another session is led by a psychologist skilled in cognitive therapy and desensitization exercises. After that, depending on the type and severity of his condition, an aviophobe might submit to the flight simulator, or perhaps pay a visit to Intercontinental’s air traffic control tower. Sometimes a graduation flight is taken at the end of the course.

According to Boyd, 55 graduates have come through his program since FPH’s inception three years ago. Class sizes ebb and flow along with companies’ air-travel demands, although business is never good “when there is an aviation mishap,” i.e., a plane crash. People don’t tend to want to master their fears, it seems, when those fears appear justified. 

“I was terrified and just didn’t feel the need to fly,” says Helen Zeve, a Houstonian who hadn’t flown in years. “But I took the graduation flight to Harlingen with Douglas and have flown three times since then. Now I’m going to Hawaii. It’s still not easy, but I’m doing it.” 

Like Zeve, several of the students this day are prepping for long flights or special trips. A few would like to fly without fear, while a few more would like to do it without being inebriated (alcohol use reinforces anxiety, according to Boyd). “Nervous flyers are hypersensitive to their surroundings. They feel guilty and generally try to hide their fears,” he tells us, segueing into the story of a woman who avoided sitting next to her children on a plane so that they wouldn’t be afraid. Boyd says that the woman was actually “modeling courage,” all appearances to the contrary. 

The words prove talismanic for a burly ex-ballplayer in our group, who suddenly realizes that his nerves, the ones he gets every time he walks down a jetway, do not indicate weakness or embarrassment, but rather something else. 

“I’m courageous,” he says, “for stepping onboard to face my fears.”

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