- I took British Airways' Flying with Confidence course to help me overcome my fear of flying.
- The course, run by a team of pilots, cabin crew, and psychiatrists, taught me some valuable lessons.
For as long as I can remember, I have hated flying. Everything from take-off to turbulence, and landing can evoke feelings of sheer panic in me.
I have worried about flights days in advance, have had panic attacks mid-air, and have held many strangers' hands during turbulence. And I know I'm not alone: up to 40% of Americans have a form of aerophobia, otherwise known as the fear of flying.
So, in an effort to face my fears head-on, I recently attended British Airways' Flying with Confidence course.
The one-day course, located in the Sofitel Hotel by Heathrow Airport in London, is designed to give people the knowledge and techniques they need to overcome their fear of flying. It costs around £385 ($502).
It begins with a technical session led by a team of pilots and cabin crew members, who talk me and around 100 other nervous flyers through everything from how an airplane is designed to what turbulence actually is.
After lunch, a psychiatrist provides us with breathing exercises and other tools to help us manage our phobia. Then, we all boarded a British Airways flight and flew around Heathrow Airport for around 45 minutes.
The experience was incredibly emotional as the camaraderie and support I received from absolute strangers that day was heart-warming. But most importantly, it also taught me many new things, ultimately helping me rationalize my fears.
Here are some of the things I learned that might help other nervous flyers:
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1. A loud engine is a healthy engine
I have often over-analyzed every sound a plane makes, especially during take-off and landing.
But British Airways pilot Steve Allright, who runs the Flying with Confidence course, told us that a "loud engine is a healthy engine" because it means that it's doing its job.
During our test flight, Allright talked us through every individual sound coming from the plane. This included a loud squeaking noise that you hear after the aircraft has backed out of the gate and is preparing for take-off, which Allright described as the "barking dog" noise.
This is simply the sound of the aircraft's hydraulic power system working, he said.
"We encourage people to assume that everything is normal unless they are told otherwise," Allright told us.
2. Turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous
Like many people, my least favorite sensation in the sky is turbulence. But while it may feel uncomfortable at the moment, the pilots assured us that it is not dangerous.
By definition, turbulent air happens everywhere, from ground level to far above cruising altitude. It has two common causes: jet streams and weather.
But all of the pilots on the course said that turbulence is one of the most normal sensations of flying and that they will always try to find the most comfortable path to their destination without compromising safety.
We were also shown maps given to pilots before a flight that outline exactly where the jet streams are located, and where bad weather is — should there be any.
Allright likened turbulence to a ship that rests on a body of water and moves up and down as the water changes. Just like a ship, a plane is also resting on a body of air and moves the way the air moves, he said.
Turbulence is also rarely the cause of any major airplane accident. Between 2009 and 2021, there were only between five and 18 serious turbulence-related injuries per year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
3. The plane’s wing physically cannot snap off
As crazy as this may sound, I used to have an irrational fear that a plane's wing could snap off during turbulence.
But in the same way that pilots always prepare for the worst kind of turbulence, aircraft designers do too.
I learned that every modern aircraft has been designed to withstand far in excess of the worst conditions that could ever be experienced.
This includes the wings of a Boeing 787. During testing they are strained to way beyond what they would ever experience even in the most severe turbulence.
Also, did you know an aircraft only actually has one wing that is connected by the fuselage and therefore makes a plane more sturdy?
4. A plane can glide for up to 100 miles without any engines
Engine failure is another fear among nervous flyers, but it is also one of the most rehearsed and prepared-for events in the flight deck, according to Allright.
Before any pilot operates an aircraft on any given day, they run through what to do in case of an engine failure, Allright told us. This means that if an engine failure were to ever happen, they are already prepared.
Also, all commercial aircraft are able to fly with just one engine, in case the other fails. When an aircraft is taxiing to its take-off position, for example, it almost always uses only one engine to save fuel.
In fact, an airplane can still glide up to 100 miles even if both engines are off, Allright told us.
This was the case with US Airways Flight 1549, which safely landed in the Hudson River in 2009 after a flock of birds flew into both of its engines.
Even though both engines were damaged, the wings of the aircraft were still capable of producing lift and were therefore able to glide, and land on the water with no loss of life.
5. Pilots are highly-trained and qualified professionals
This tip might sound simple, but learning about how well pilots are actually trained really helped me combat my fear of flying.
I learned that commercial pilots are among the most regulated professions in the world. Not only is the training to become a commercial airline pilot very intensive, but they also have to undergo regular checks and tests as they continue to fly.
At British Airways, for example, every pilot has to do a medical and technical exam every year. They also have to regularly do training in a flight simulator.
All of the pilots I spoke to during the course reassured me over and over again that safety is in everyone's interest!
6. Breathing is key
One of the main takeaways from the course was how to control my fear of flying through breath control.
By forcing our body to slow down its breathing, it will start to relax. In particular, we were taught a breathing technique that Allright called the "Breathe and Squeeze."
This involves first breathing air out of your mouth before sucking it back in through your nose. While you inhale, you also squeeze the glutes and pelvic area. The exercise will not only slow your heart rate but will also reduce muscle tension.
Diaphragmic breathing, otherwise known as belly breathing, is another way to force your body to relax. This involves breathing into the lower part of the lungs, which will fill up the diaphragm.
Placing your hands around the tummy or ribcage and feeling the expansion and compression of the breath is also useful.
A life-changing experience
These tips are only a fraction of all of the things I learned in the course, which ultimately left me feeling empowered and ready for my next flight.
Just having the opportunity to ask pilots as many questions as I wanted, no matter how stupid they were, was extremely helpful for my anxious brain.
I already have a few holidays booked, so am already looking forward to the day I can sit through turbulence with no problems at all.