An air hostess scurries past my seat and up the aisle, her eyes wide and fraught with concern. My heart drops in my chest and my stomach slides up my throat. Adrenaline courses through my veins and I feel the hot panic rising up my neck. Something is wrong.
There is a bang and the engines start to scream. The aircraft banks hard to the right and plummets downwards. Gravity sharpens his knife and gets to work, pulling us rapidly towards the ground. All I can hear as we tumble downward is the violent thudding of my heart and the wailing of the 737. Brace! Brace! Brace! I glance out the window. Head down! Stay down! There is the sea. Rising towards me. I hold my breath.
It was usually at about this point that I was startled out of my terror, my body tense and icy, to find myself sitting in a classroom or wherever I had been before my nightmare had taken hold. Ever since I could remember, flying had been one of my greatest fears. Whenever I had a flight coming up, I would lie awake for weeks beforehand in the clutches of anxiety. I would listen to the planes fly over my house and list all the things that could and would go wrong on my flight. By the time I was 14, it had escalated to the point where I had refused to fly altogether. As a result, I rather selfishly dictated where most of my family holidays were spent – in the UK, a short safe ferry ride away. It wasn’t until after my Leaving Certificate when my parents boldly proposed a family trip to New York that things changed. Needless to say that like a spoiled brat, I kicked up a holy stink at the prospect of getting on a transatlantic flight. I mean, were they trying to kill me?
I mean, were they trying to kill me
But they booked the trip and the week beforehand I was marched to the Fear of Flying Ireland course in Weston Airport, Leixlip. “I don’t need therapy”, I huffed and shrugged during the car journey there. (My family had made a habit of bringing me to a professional anytime I got very stressed out). “I am perfectly happy never getting on a plane in my life. I don’t need to travel.”
But today, I still count it as one of the best decisions my parents ever made for me.
The following week, thanks to what I learned on the course, I made it onto that flight to New York. I didn’t vomit. I didn’t have to breathe into a bag. I was armed with ginger capsules and prescription proton pump inhibitors to settle the nausea and my sliding stomach. I was equipped with breathing exercises, psychological tools and knowledge that could help me banish my fears.
Since then, I have flown countless times by myself, seamlessly and largely anxiety free. But unfortunately last January, an overlap between Erasmus exams and Trinity lectures meant I was flying over and back to Brussels for two days every week. The constant flying coupled with the stress of the maths exams meant I caught myself falling back into my long-dormant ways. On one of my last flights into Dublin, on a rather windy approach to the runway, I panicked.
Last month, I very luckily found myself back on that same course with five other anxious flyers, all of us sitting apprehensively in a classroom. Some were seasoned flyers with flights booked for the following week. Others were not. In fact, one gentleman who attended the course had never flown on an aircraft in his lifetime.
“You’re normal”, assured Ruth Little, pilot, psychotherapist and our instructor for the day. In a world that, thanks to affordable air travel, is shrinking by the day, people are often baffled that a fear of flying still exists. Statistically it is seen as the safest form of transport, which is true (I’ve personally crunched the numbers to make myself feel better). But for our own reasons, some logical and some illogical, we are all terrified of flying. Mechanical failures, pilot error, turbulence, confinement – you name it, and we’ve thought about it. We know all the horror stories, so much so that we can almost relive them. We know the details of all the major air accidents, our knowledge stemming back several decades. But so does Little, and she is ready and eager to iron out all of our fears and queries. “Where do I start because I am just too excited about this?” she asks.
From the time she was in school, Little always knew she wanted to be a pilot. However, her pathway to the skies wasn’t always a clear one. She confesses to me that she was “a bit bold in school”, getting suspended at one point and in the end “kind of failed the Leaving Cert”. “My maths teacher roared laughing when I said I was going to be a pilot”, says Little. “So then I just had to do it. I left school, got three jobs, one working in Abrakebabra, one working in Dunnes and one working in Irish Life washing dishes. I started my flight training basically and did the three jobs and flight training for a number of years.”
Little soon became a flight instructor and tells me that she thinks she “was the youngest instructor in Ireland at one point”. Her next job was flying freight with TNT Express and UPS, and thanks to her prior instructional experience, she rose quickly through the ranks. “I think I was the youngest female captain at one stage as well”, she says. “It is an absolutely amazing feeling and a huge privilege to be a captain, and to realise that you’re the queen and you’re responsible for all the stuff.”
Little’s next venture was joining Ryanair, where she flew and captained the Boeing 737. Whilst there, she also worked as a ground instructor, a technical instructor and examiner on the aircraft. On top of this, over the course of her career, Little pursued both a psychotherapy and an emergency medical technician qualification, before eventually leaving to go back and re-sit her Leaving Certificate in order to obtain the entry requirements to study medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons, where she is currently in her fourth year. She’s a real high-flyer.
The idea for the course was dreamed up several years ago by Little and her colleague Glen Healy, a fellow airline captain, who both noticed that a growing number of people were developing a fear of flying. They set up their company Fear of Flying Ireland in the National Flight Centre, Leixlip. Their sole aim is give anxious flyers a jumpstart on their path to overcoming their fear. “This course was actually something I had been thinking of for a number of years because of my interest in psychotherapy and background in teaching training in aviation and really wanted to help people”, explains Little. “I just love teaching, I love people. I just thought I wanted to make a difference, to maybe help people overcome the fear of flying, but moreso really dealing with life issues and difficulties we experience as human beings.”
And for many, stress is what fuels this fear. In fact, a fear of flying could actually be rooted in some other issues. As Little reminds me, airports are incredibly stressful, bustling environments. Inflated and falsified aviation news stories are rampant online. They are often clickbait pieces, designed to scare readers. “I think we are in a scary time perhaps in the world”, says Little. “I think people’s stress response is high at baseline, and it doesn’t take much to push people over the edge.”
A fear of flying can also be symptomatic of deeper psychological issue. “I’ve seen a myriad of different people, really interesting people, people that you wouldn’t expect”, says Little. “The common factor is they probably score high on control, they seek control in their own life. They may be in a job where they are in a position of authority or control. It is a similarity with pilots so I feel I can identify with them. They are my people really.”
In my case, my bitten nails and habit of backseat driving can attest to this. I know Little has hit the nail on the head. And even if she hadn’t, I would probably still believe every word she says. There is a palpable assuredness, a confidence and absoluteness behind all of Little’s words.
The common factor is they probably score high on control, they seek control in their own life
During the class, she spends time focussing on each individual, taking the time to navigate their own fear with them. Any psychological defences you may have put in place before the course, Little dissects them, as well as your most irrational thoughts. She listens to every word you say and speaks in such a way that you know she understands your every single concern. By the end, you feel empowered to conquer your fear. I would have easily hopped on a plane there and then.
The latter part of the day was spent in the onsite Boeing 737 simulator with both Little and Healy. The simulator is an exact replica of a 737 cockpit with a 180 degree screen that wraps around the nose of the plane. Healy simulated a flight from Dublin to Liverpool, outlining along the way the various checks that take place before and during the flight. He explained the function of the main controls, alarms and screens in the cockpit, and as the simulator took off down runway 28, I could almost feel the power of the engines behind me and caught a glimpse of the amazing view that pilots have as their aircraft rushes towards the sky. “Firsts are big too,” Little tells me, breaking into a smile. “First solo, first solo cross-country when you go away from the circuit, that’s a major thing in a little airplane. And your first flight in a jet. I remember as a co-pilot, the first flight in a jet and whooshing down the runway, the sound of these engines, these really powerful engines and realising, ‘Oh my God this is just wow, amazing’”.
For those who know me well, I am self-confessed aviation geek. I tune into air traffic controllers while I study and can tell the make and model of an aircraft by the whistle of its engine. So for me, getting the chance to fly the simulator was the highlight of my day and it was surprisingly reassuring to see the inner workings of a flightdeck. If you bank too sharply, an alarm sounds. If you go too fast, an alarm sounds. The aircraft is constantly reminding you that it is one step ahead, catching you before you have the chance to make any major mistakes. I do wish cockpit seats were available for passengers. After no more than an hour in the simulator, I’d much rather fly in the cockpit, with some element of control, than travel as a passenger in the cabin.
Once you get into the aircraft and the doors close, the stress just evaporates
But even as a passenger, if you travel with the safe airlines, you are in the safest of hands. Little repeatedly stresses this throughout the course of the day. Becoming a pilot requires an intense amount of training, preparation and confidence, and passenger and crew safety is their number one priority. “The job of a commercial pilot is not stressful because you are so well trained, you are so well qualified, so competent really, without being arrogant about it”, says Little. “Once you get into the aircraft and the doors close, the stress just evaporates no matter what happens because it is our zone, we are good at it. So if any in-flight emergencies or difficulties [arise] it’s no problem because we are happy in that zone.”
“The first commercial engine failure I had was on a turboprop aircraft. It was my first week as a captain and the left engine failed. Myself and the first officer went through the procedure and shut down the engine, secured the engine, completed the checklist and we were just sitting there and I remember I was just amazed at how calm I felt, how the training actually worked.”
And while I may not be in the cockpit during any of the flights I have coming up, a comfortable passenger I will be. Much like three years ago, the course armed me with a set of practical skills to not only get me through my future flights and on to my destination, but to help me cope with exams, driving tests, difficult customers and moments of self doubt. They are skills that I can and have passed on to my family, friends, pupils and colleagues. For as Little notes, a “fear of flying is perfectly normal and it is easy to overcome”. People need to remember “to be kind to themselves and to understand the basics of stress management. It is really about self care, breathing techniques. Go to a yoga class learn to connect with yourself and with your stress response and you can learn how to manage your stress response.”
Every problem has a solution. For Little, with her unflappable optimism, nothing can’t be fixed. She regularly receives updates on the journeys her pupils have taken, from Doha to Sydney, from Spain to Nepal, months and years after attending the course. They send her updates on their battle with their fears, the doors that have been opened to them, and the countries and the clouds that are now beneath their feet.
So buckle your seatbelts and put your earphones in. The sky is no longer the limit.