One in four people have a fear of flying. Catherine Wylie reports.
‘Breathe and squeeze,” the captain says, as we taxi towards the runway. “Everything’s normal. Just another day in the office for us up here!”
Armrests are gripped and hearts race as the plane thunders along, before beginning its bumpy climb into the skies over Heathrow.
A cabin crew member leaps into action to help a woman in front of me, who’s crying uncontrollably. But the pilot continues to reassure us that the turbulence we’re experiencing is perfectly natural.
I realise that I am remarkably relaxed. Usually, flying’s a terrifying experience - not enough to stop me taking to the skies altogether, but a big source of anxiety.
This is no ordinary flight, though. It’s the final stage of British Airway’s Flying With Confidence course.
It turns out I’m not alone in my scepticism - the course has been running for 25 years and there are around 120 of us here today.
In a conference room, a large chunk of the course revolves around explaining how planes manage to stay in the air, with talks by two BA captains.
We’re also told about Air Traffic Control and a psychologist speaks to us too. Ours is a common phobia, we’re told. One in four people have a fear of flying, so it’s perhaps ironic that just 16 per cent of people are phobic of death.
But when you have a phobia, you convince yourself that your plane is one of the doomed ones, even if the odds deem it massively unlikely.
My own phobia took off following the 2009 Air France disaster, when a plane from Rio de Janeiro went missing over the Atlantic. That summer, I was travelling alone to Buenos Aires with Air France. I knew I’d be flying on a similar flight path and I believed I was next. Now, I realise that such a lack of understanding unites everyone on the course.
To combat this, we’re taught that ‘breathe and squeeze’ technique (breathing deeply and calmly and clenching your buttocks!), and to re-run disastrous scenarios through our minds with happy endings.
Boarding the plane at the end of the day, it’s time to put it to the test.
Once we’re up in the air, it’s quite incredible to see the difference in many of my fellow phobics.
As we fly over London, the captain tells us about how much he loves his job and that the clear view of the city below us is, “quite simply a privilege”.
Soon, it’s time to land. The captain compliments his co-pilots on their smooth landing and us passengers hold hands to celebrate.
One young Irishman explains that he’d embarked on a 12-hour journey, travelling by boat and by road, in order to complete the course and, while he found the flight terrifying, he’s delighted at what he’s achieved.
There’ll be no ferry home tomorrow; he’s catching a flight.
As for me, I’m amazed to say it, but I’m not imagining my face splashed across the newspapers any more – and I’m thrilled. Just breathe and squeeze.
The British Airways Flying With Confidence course costs from £275. Visit flyingwithconfidence.com or call 01252 793 250.