Tears streamed down one woman's face as the mobile home lounge lurched away from Dulles International Airporrt. A burly, gray-haired man nervously fingered, a tiny blue tranquilizer, then shoved it back into his pocket. A middle-aged woman gripped her seatmate's arm with one hand and a rosary with the other.
Nearly 100 "avio-phobes," enrolled in Pam Am's course for Fearful Flyers, were preparing to take their graduation flight to Detroit and back again.
Most of the well-educated, well-dressed group either hadn't flown in years or flew in terror -- semi-conscious -- drugged or drunk. Some had spent thousands of dollars on therapists, but their flying phobia was still damaging their marriages, their careers and their self-esteem.
Jim Crosby stared glassy-eyed at Sports Illustrated, reading the table of contents over and over again. "Raw terror" forced the 34-year old sales manager from Great Falls, Va., to stop flying 11 years ago.
It's the "feeling of helplessness" -- being closed in, high in the air -- that paralyzes him in airplanes. When his wife and 10-year old daughter flew to Europe and to Disneyworld, Crosby stayed home alone. He enrolled in Pam Am's Fearful Flying class after being promoted to a job that requires extensive air travel.
A free trip to California convinced 40-year-old Irv Dauffman, a jovial construction-equipment manufacturer, to try flying last year for the first time since 1967. He took a triple-dose of Valium before going to the airport to make the reservation, but the pills had no effect.
He tried making reservations by phone, but hung up on the airline clerk three times. Finally his wife got the tickets, and Kauffman swallowed the strongest tranquilizer his doctor would prescribe. But when he got off the plane, frozen with fear, he vowed never to fly again.
Kauffman enrolled in the course to "prove to myself that I can get over this thing" and to "take a vacation in place further away than a day's drive."
A silver-haried executive's eyes widened in panic as he sputtered out the words "landing gear" in an attempt to describe what made him stop flying 15 years ago. He had taken the train to Washington from his Atlanta, Ga., home to attend the Fearful Flying course at the Madison Hotel.
As a vice president of Universal Pictures he traveled extensively, but always by train -- even to California. He ran the Puerto Rico office by telephone and estimated that he could double his income if he could fly.
But unlike Crosby and Kauffman, the executive dropped out of the course the day before the graduation flight.
As the mobile lounge crammed with Fearful Flyers neared the waiting 747 airliner one man croaked: "My God, there's an airplane out there! What am I doing here?"
Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd, and then a rich, deep voice came over the intercom and stilled the mounting panic.
"Breathe in strength, and breathe out tension," instructed Capt. T. W. "Slim" Cummings, the charismatic, retired Pan Am pilot who leads the classes. "Today your body and your sprit are going to fly."
Former avio-phobes call 62-year-old Cummings the "Guru of Guts. "Since he started teaching the class in 1974 he has helped 2,000 people shed their fears.
"I've always been interested in psychology, says Cummings, who studied the subject before joining the air force in World War Ii. "I heard about a similar class in the early '70s, and decided I'd love to do that kind of thing after I retired."
Cummings uses techniques gleaned from behavior modification, hypnosis, relaxation, assertiveness training and Silva mind-control in his seven-session, $150-course. Psychologist and phobia specialist Diana Ronell assists him, and the two plan to write a book
Class members received a cassette tape of relaxation exercises before the first class. At the first meeting he encourged members to admit aloud, Alcoholics Anonymous-style: "I am a fearful Flyer."
"An estimated 25 million Americans are Fearful Flyers," Cummings told the group, which included Georgetown socialite Vickey Bagley and an ex-airline stewardess. "You are not alone."
Many were multi-phobic -- about a third admitted to claustrophobia and fear of heights. Some wouldn't ride in elevators or drive the Beltway. Conquering the fear of flying, Cummings stressed, makes it easier to shed other fears.
Cummings also related encouraging statistics about air travel, such as the National Transporation Safety Board's estimate that air travel is 33 times safer than automobile travel. He discussed aerodynamics and airport operations and took the group on a tour of an airport control tower.
But the acid test was the graduation flight. Usually more than 90 percent of the participants take the flight, says Cummings. He encourages members to schedule another flight as soon as possible to reinforce the experience.
Two people didn't make it off the mobile lounge when Washington's Fearful Flyers took to the air earlier this month. Others entered the plane with varying degrees of apprehension.
"What's that burning smell?" One woman asked the stewardess, who told her it was the "normal odor of the inside of an airplane."
"What happens if I have a heart attack?" Lee Cassidy asked her seatmate, as she took a portable tape recorder (already loaded with Cumming's relaxation message) out of her briefcase.
Although Cassidy said she woke up singing "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" and donned her lucky T-shirt, the 30-year-old secretary stocked her briefcase with three Tabs, three beers, two vodka tonics, a Bible, a rosary and $300 in cash to take the train back home -- just in case.
As the group settled into their seats, Cummings strode up and down the aisles like a great, fatherly cheerleader, hugging the occasional person who dissolved into tears or the shakes.
While the 747 taxied into position, he led the group in a relaxation exercise. Passengers in the next cabin craned forward to see what was going on.
"Hold hands," Cummings said, as white-knuckled, hand clutched white-knuckled hand. "And don't forget to wiggle your toes. It may sound silly, but it distracts you from take-off anxiety."
Hundreds of tense toes wiggled in time to the engine's roar as the 747 slipped into the air. "We did it!" shouted one man, and the cabin erupted with a mighty cheer.
When the seatbelt light switched off, flight attendants served champagne, and Cummings urged everyone to get up and move around. The excited hugging and kissing rivaled a singles bar on payday.
"I can't believe I'm in the air sober," crowed Jerry Fisher, 39, of Capitol Hill. "No Valium, not snookered -- I even remember takeoff.
"Outsiders might think we're all a bunch of chickens. But to face your phobia and lick it -- well that takes a hell of a lot of guts."
"I think a lot of people are afraid of flying, but won't admit it," said Anne Graham, press secretary to former Appolo astronaut Sen. Harrison Schmitt.
"It's helped me to learn about how an airport and airplane work. I can't believe I'm so relaxed thousands of feet in the air. This group and Slim are the greatest."
The party-like atmosphere carried through to the graduation ceremony in Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The now-Former Fearful Flyers presented Cummings with perhaps the ultimate symbol of security: a large and fuzzy teddy bear. Each person received a diploma for "reluctantly, but courageously leaving the planet earth."
"I've learned a lot about relaxation, about airplanes and about myself," said Joan Cerney, 46, a mother-turned-college student from Davidsonville, Md. Cerney had wept and remained "frozen" on the mobile lounge during the group's dry-run trip to the airport the week before graduation.
"Knowing that we were all pulling to gether gave me a lot of courage. takeoff was traumtic, but once we got up in the air everything was fine.The landing was beautiful, and I'm not at all scared about going back."
Others were not so calm about the return flight, and a few boosted their courage in the airport bar. But despite some people's insistence that they'd take the train back, the entire class flew back to Dullles.
"I never looked out the window before," beamed Mary Schwing, 36. "I loved it." She'd turned down several free trips to Europe because "flying terror" hit after the birth of her first child.
"Conquering the fear together was a touching experience," said Donna Lane, 34, a Potomac real-estate agent. "It's a whole psychological change. You understand yourself more, you've grown and you know you can handle it."
"I never thought I could do it," Jim Crosby confessed quietly. "I may need some reinforcing. But I'm scheduled for a business flight next week.
"And you know what? I think I'll make it."