Flying never looked so fearless

Welcome to Fly Fearless — here is your first exercise as we explore the concepts of altered realities,’ read the sheet in front of me as I sat in a room full of people with one very significant similarity: a fear of flying.

The first sentence on the sheet read, ‘flying is’ with a blank space for what I would describe my personal experience of flying as.

‘Stressful,’ I wrote, without any hesitation, before continuing with the exercise sheet.

The course director of the Fly Fearless course, Michael Comyn, proceeded to go through our answers.

Breda Graham, who has a fear of flying, is pictured in the Simtech Boeing 737-800 Advanced Trainer Simulator with pilot Karl Supple during the Fly Fearless course which she took part in recently at the Simtech Aviation facility near Dublin Airport. Photograph: Moya Nolan

He explained that the fear of flying is in fact not really a fear, but a form of stress and that the one-day course would focus on stress management strategies.

This course was my attempt to overcome my fear of flying, a fear which not a lot of people know about because I travel a fair amount, but a fear that drives the heart rate on my Fitbit up and keeps me awake the night before a flight.

Course participants had with them in the room certified Crew Resource Management Instructor (CRMI), Michael Comyn, and pilots Karl Supple and Barry Ryan, whose knowledge and insights put into perspective the differences between the rational brain and the emotional brain of those who have a fear of flying.

In an effort to define the fear, participants were asked to describe what makes them fearful of being in the air.

The outcome of the exercise confirmed that most people in the room were irrationally overthinking, particularly during turbulence.

During turbulence, the amygdala, the part of the brain that releases stress hormones, reacts.

This is why the first reaction of someone with a fear of flying is to grab the armrest and push their feet firmly down onto the cabin floor.

Instead, we learned to lift our feet off the floor and arms off the armrest and to go with the flow of the turbulence, rather than fight against it.

I was surprised to hear that the average distance the aircraft will drop during turbulence is only eight to 12 inches, despite it feeling a lot more due to the speed the aircraft travels.

Although the rational brain knows that air can hold a plane up, the primarily visual emotional brain can’t see anything holding the plane up, hence, the fear of falling from the sky.

For someone who had a fear of being 35,000ft in the sky, travelling 500 knots per hour in a tube-like structure — yes that was my line of thinking — here’s an interesting fact.

A cloud weighs about 500 tonnes, the equivalent of 100 elephants.

If air molecules can hold up one cloud weighing 500 tonnes then you can be sure it will hold up an 80-tonne aircraft.

One of the biggest comforts for me was gaining the knowledge of what each sound heard in the cabin means.

Breda Graham, who has a fear of flying, is pictured at the Simtech Aviation facility near Dublin Airport. Photograph: Moya Nolan.

I am an overthinker and a worrier, to the highest degree. If I cannot put an explanation to something I am experiencing visually or aurally, I panic.

I need to be able to make sense of a situation so that I am in control.

When flying, I feel as though I have no control and begin to question everything that happens around me — unfamiliar sounds and even facial expressions of cabin crew and fellow passengers.

Turns out, I’m not alone.

It was as though the course leaders had got inside my head, dug out all my worries and put a logical explanation to each one.

I found myself nodding my head in agreement and smiling at the fact that every other head in the room did just that.

We were in this together.

The noises heard during a flight made sense when explained, from the cabin crew’s communication through a two-toned combination of high and low tones, to the ‘boing’ sound of the engine’s power pulling back at 4,000ft after takeoff to reduce noise pollution over built-up areas.

The journey a flight makes, from takeoff to landing, was explained in detail, including the degrees of the angles at which a plane turns.

The most enjoyable part of the course was experiencing the Simtech Boeing 737-800 Advanced Trainer Simulator which gave a real-life insight into a pilot’s view of both inside and outside the cockpit.

The opportunity to sit next to an acting pilot in a real-life setting during different weather conditions such as fog and rain eased my issue with control.

The course also dealt with how to manage anxiety whilst flying and offered tips on how to relax whilst in the air.

We were shown a number of exercises which I was able to put into practice on my most recent flight to Edinburgh.

The flight to Edinburgh which I take regularly is a short 45-minute journey, but up until my recent flight, it was a nail-biting 45-minutes.

Breda's first flight after partaking in the Fly Fearless course proved a success as she landed at Edinburgh Airport stress-free after a comfortable flight.

In the airport terminal whilst waiting to board the plane, I was no longer creating a worst case scenario in my head or worrying about someone taking my window seat, which I always pre-book for the comfort of being able to see out.

Instead, I could hear Michael Comyn ensuring that fear is defined as false evidence appearing real, which is something I will take with me from the course, not just when flying but in all walks of life.

Making my way up the steps to the plane, I was no longer scanning its outer shell for marks or scratches or wondering if the windy conditions would inhibit its ability to fly.

I found myself taking the flight in stages, ticking off each sound as it occurred with the knowledge of what was happening around me.

I visualised myself in the cockpit looking out onto foggy conditions and felt a sense of ease, as opposed to fear.

I could now relate to what was once a strange and unfamiliar environment.

Dare I say it, but I was no longer afraid.

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