Somewhere between my travels to Kenya and Colombia last year, my fear of flying resurfaced.
I had battled it long ago, finally beating it, or so I thought. I come from a family of pilots and I love to travel - in fact I travel for a living. I know plenty about flight technology, and if you ask me where I'd rather be at any time, I'll usually answer "at the airport".
I simply don't like to... fly.
But before I tell you MY story, let's first look at conquering fear of flying.
According to Wikipedia, fear of flying is a fear of being on an airplane (aeroplane), or other flying vehicle, such as a helicopter, while in flight. It is also referred to as flying phobia, flight phobia, aviophobia or aerophobia (although the last also means a fear of drafts or of fresh air).
Its causes aren't really clear, and some professionals believe it is just one manifestation of a greater condition of anxiety, such as fear of enclosed spaces. In some cases a traumatizing event might have caused the condition, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or a plane crash. Or maybe you've recently had a terrible flight, or even an accident, and the mere sight of an airplane triggers your fear.
Perhaps. All I can say is that when I'm on the plane, I don't really care where it comes from - I just want to bring my heart rate down and get over fear of flying, period!
It's often a reflex for some people: when anxiety hits, take a pill. Yet it seems like the more powerful medications actually worsen the physical symptoms (scientific article) of anxiety when flying. Sadly, there is no instant fear of flying medication that can simply get rid of the fears and make you dance with joy at the thought of take-off and landing.
But that doesn't mean there are no solutions to fear of flying. There are many – they just don't all work for everyone and you may have to engage in a bit of trial and error. Here's what can work:
Information is also considered a type of fear of flying therapy (although I'm a bit doubtful that logic can overcome fears that are usually irrational). Still... statistics do help clarify and give you a bit more control.
In 2015, more than 3.5 billion people flew commercially. It was a particularly bad year, with the suicide crash of the Germanwings plane and the Russian Metrojet bomb in Egypt hiking the number of deaths to 510. Yet annual road deaths are an astounding 1.25 million. According to statisticians, driving is 100 times more dangerous than flying. One thing is clear: it's a lot riskier to drive to the airport than to get on the plane.
Yet how many of us actually tremble at the thought of slipping behind the wheel? I don't. Fear of flying is an irrational fear, indeed.
I've never been a "comfortable" flyer. When the wind is down and the sun high, I can actually look forward to a flight and watch the clouds with wonder and joy. But bring in a few drops of windy rain, some uncertain terrain and a rust spot on the wing and I begin to doubt my sanity at having bought that ticket.
For years I kept that fear of flying under control and until recently, I thought I'd won.
Somewhere, lurking beneath the surface, was the deep-seated belief that humans are not meant to be bouncing around in a metal tube suspended in the sky.
So rewind to my latest trip: heading home from Kenya, I'm fine. Relatively. A little nervous tension around turbulence over the Sahara, but that's perfectly normal - few people like to be shaken.
Then I start preparing for my trip to Colombia. Looking over the schedule I'm seized by panic. Twelve flights. Ten days. High mountains.
I also know the planes will be tiny, from unheard-of airlines, and will fly into airports whose landing strips look smaller than the path across my garden.
Panic sets in and overshadows everything else.
I have to act fast; the words "I hate flying" are seeping into my brain and I'm a travel writer. I can't travel the world (and pay my bills) with an airplane phobia. (I've written more about fear of flying on this page.)
I considered taking flight anxiety medication. But I was looking at a dozen flights in ten days and if I succumbed to some kind of chemical treatment for fear of flying, I might be so off-balance I wouldn't be able to complete my assignments. (And the meds probably wouldn't work.)
None of my past remedies would do the trick.
Not fast enough.
Not this time.
I urgently needed help with fear of flying and I remembered reading about the SOAR Fear of Flying course.
I emailed the CEO, Captain Tom Bunn. I explained my problem and asked if his program might finally reveal why I was scared of flying and whether he might be able to help me in time. He went one further and let me try his course free of charge in exchange for a review, no strings attached other than letting him know when I published it. He seemed confident it would help.
But I was still skeptical. After all, I had taken a much-vaunted course at an airport years ago and had somehow managed to be in the 1% that failed. And I had tried pretty much everything else under the sun.
I took the SOAR Complete Relief Program, (there are several courses at different price levels) which consisted of 18 videos covering four areas:
I watched the videos (a bit haphazardly, I admit, jumping around the easiest ones and avoiding the ones that didn't interest me as much).
I did the exercises. (Most of them, anyway.) One of the exercises involves breaking down the cycle of negativity that spirals into panic. Another is designed to kick in if you're gripped with panic by making you focus on items within your peripheral vision.
A particularly effective tool to overcome the fear of flying is an offshoot of the movie reel exercise and involves using images in a sequence that somehow deconstructs the entire flying adventure and makes it palatable, pleasant even.
The course has plenty of other exercises designed to alleviate or even cure fear of flying, along with explanations of how planes stay up in the air (the "jello" example), how the engines should sound and why our minds make turbulence seem worse than it is. SOAR also has a brilliant app that measures G-force, or gravity, and shows you how little your plane is actually moving, even in major turbulence).
One of the things I liked most about the course was direct access to Captain Tom Bunn.
More than anything, I was scared of the planes and airports in stormy Colombia, so he began by reminding me that planes flew easily in storms and that lightning wouldn't bring the plane down.
We spoke on the phone (he's very accessible) and together we looked up every airport I was scheduled to visit. He showed me the approach was safe and the airports' technical capacities were perfectly adequate. Although I only believed 80% of what he said, I was slowly coming to terms with my trip.
SOAR happens to be one of the oldest fear of flying therapy courses around.
The first travel phobia courses started in the mid-1970s at PanAm (remember them?) and were simple: how flying works, statistics and relaxation exercises. While a number of satisfied students graduated, success was measured by the number of people who took the test flight. Problem was, many of them never flew again after that.
Captain Bunn has a distinct advantage over others providing fear of flying courses: not only did he fly for the Air Force, but he was a commercial pilot for years on the Jumbo Jet. He is also a trained therapist and social worker with a graduate degree and years of therapeutic experience. His work is considered groundbreaking and by all accounts offers the best and quickest chance of overcoming fear of flight.
He even sounds the part. By the time we finished our phone call, I was relaxed enough to board the plane right there and then.
But as is the case with everything, the course has its strengths and weaknesses.
✅ The course is taught by a former pilot and trained therapist with ample experience in teaching people how to deal with flying anxiety (or outright terror).
✅ The personal contact element is key and the one-on-one phone call makes a huge difference by building on what you've learned.
✅ The course is comprehensive: in addition to the videos and the consultation, Captain Bunn holds regular group calls each week. A Facebook page and a student forum round out the outreach.
✅ The course can work quickly (if you don't have time to take the full course, you can schedule a paid consultation with the captain).
✅ The process is sound and SOAR's therapeutic approach has received plenty of kudos.
❌ You do have to do some work yourself. The exercises have to be practised regularly (I did them occasionally and the course still worked but I'm sure had I been more diligent it would have worked better).
❌ You don't get a flight at the end of the course (for me that's actually a benefit!) But the course is quite realistic and that might be enough for you.
❌ It's not an instant fix and while relief comes quickly, it's not instant.
❌ Some of the videos look a bit old-fashioned and the editing leaves something to be desired. Still, the information is current and bottom line, it works.
In my rush to overcome fear of flying, I did a lot of things wrong on this course. I hurried through it. I only did some of the exercises. I skipped around. What can I say... I'm impatient.
But even so, most of my fears dissipated. (They would probably have disappeared altogether if I'd done things correctly.)
As Travel Day rolled around, I was relatively confident I would make it from Europe across the Atlantic to Bogotá. And that was only the beginning. From there, I flew in a propeller plane in the clouds and rain across the mountains to the heart of Colombia's coffee country, with each successive plane getting smaller. I took one scary flight after another, and slowly my fear of flying phobia started to weaken.
By the end of my Colombia trip I was looking forward to the transatlantic return. I even upgraded myself to Economy Plus so that I'd be more comfortable. (I don't usually care, since part of me is somehow convinced I'm going to die, making any extra comfort pretty irrelevant.)
Do I consider myself cured?
Not "cured" perhaps, but not panicked, or even afraid.
If I feel the fear rising within me, I know exactly what to do.
One of these days I plan to return to the course and do it properly, without skipping around.
For now, I'm back on track. I do have plenty of upcoming travel scheduled, and that's just fine. My transportation will be by large, stable aircraft but you know what? Even if I come across a small propeller plane, I'll be able to get on without nearly passing out - not with joy, perhaps, but at least with serenity.