Are you so terrified of flying you'd almost rather cancel your trip?
13 December 2017 - Somewhere between my travels to Kenya and Colombia, 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 enough 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.
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 a plane 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 had 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 with an airplane phobia.
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 fear of flying treatment, I might be so off-balance I wouldn't be able to complete my assignments.
I needed help fast and none of my past remedies would work.
Not fast enough.
Not this time.
I remembered reading about the SOAR Fear of Flying course, so I researched it.
I emailed the CEO, Captain Tom Bunn. I explained my problem and asked if his program might reveal why I am scared of flying and whether it might be able to help me in time. He let me try it free of charge and 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.
Captain Bunn offers several courses. I took the SOAR Complete Relief Program - there are several courses at different price levels - which consists 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 by making you focus systematically on items within your peripheral vision.
A particularly effective exercise is an offshoot of the movie reel and involves using images in a sequence that somehow deconstructs the entire flying adventure and makes it palatable, pleasant even.
There are 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 has a brilliant app that measures G-force, or gravity, and shows you how little the 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.
He looked up every airport online with me to show me the approach was safe and the airports' technical capacities were perfectly adequate. Even though I only believed 80% of what he said, I was comforted to go ahead with my trip.
I did a lot of things wrong on this course. I rushed through it. I did the exercises but only intermittently - not with the regularity I should have. I skipped a few videos. What can I say... I'm impatient.
But even so, most of my fears left me.
I flew across the Atlantic from France to Bogotá. From there, I flew in a propeller plane in the clouds and rain across the mountains to the heart of Colombia's coffee country. I took one scary flight after another, and slowly my fear of flying phobia started to lessen.
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 usually convinced I'm going to die, making any extra comfort pretty irrelevant.)
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.
As is the case with everything, the course has its strong points.
✅ 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 - and reputation matters.
❌ 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). I'll have to do them again before my next trip...
❌ It's not a quick fix and while relief comes quickly, it's not instant.
❌ Some of the videos can be a bit old-fashioned and the editing leaves something to be desired. Still, the information is current and bottom line, it works.
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 travel scheduled in the coming months, 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.