This is crazy. Dick has finished his pre-flight inspection and buckled my shoulder harness. He doesn't know how incredibly frightened I am. I had told him "thanks but no thanks" two days ago when he generously invited me to fly from Lyndonville, Vt., to New York City in his Cessna 210. I couldn't do it because I had a lifelong fear of flying. Big jets were bad enough, I said, but there was no way I was going to strap myself into a six-seat, single-engine plane no wider than my car and stay sane during a four-hour flight over the wilds of northern Vermont.
Look at your fellow passengers the next time you fly -- if you fly. One out of every 10 people riding on a commercial plane is scared, according to studies by several U.S. airlines, with another 25 million Americans too frightened to even board a plane. That's more than 40 million fearful flyers missing out on faraway vacations, limiting their advancement at work or flying nervously instead of enjoying the freedom and safety of air travel.
Don't bother quoting safety statistics to aerophobes. Don't tell them U.S. airlines made more than 60 million regularly scheduled commercial flights from 1974 to 1985 with only 20 ending in fatal disasters. Or that major U.S. air carriers flew 1.6 billion passengers between 1981 and 1985, and that there were no fatalities in 1980, 1981, 1984 and 1986.
Don't tell aerophobes that almost 45,000 people are killed in automobile accidents every year, that the average American's chances of being murdered are 1 in 133 or that the odds of being killed on a commercial airliner are 1 in 3 million.
The average aerophobe probably knows all this because he is -- according to airline industry research and psychologists specializing in phobias -- highly intelligent and creative. Probably a little too much for his own good. Nor are fearful flyers agoraphobes, people who are afraid to leave their homes. According to phobia specialists, aerophobes are usually successful in their fields and socially mobile. They are athletes who risk injury in a game, actors who confidently strut and fret before thousands of people and ordinary people who commonly face challenges and stress in their daily lives. Yet all may suffer fears of being groundless, and they pay for it with narrowed options and lowered self-esteem.
We are taxiing down the runway and I'm trapped, watching the asphalt blur beneath the wing, hearing the little engine strain to lift us into the sky. The ground drops away with my stomach, and I'm near panic. It's not a fear of heights or of being confined, I tell myself, analyzing my terror -- I've happily gone rock-climbing and caving. Perhaps I fear trusting the technology of flight itself. But it doesn't matter now. Sick of being grounded for life, I've finally decided to stare down the fear.
Fear of flying isn't merely a fear of technology. Computers and the intricacies of an automobile's engine may befuddle us, but eventually we ask questions, absorb information and learn to live with the risk of the new. But aerophobes practice avoidance, so their fears are compounded by the anxiety itself. Every time they avoid a flight, every time they say "I can't," the fear swells malevolently, pressing on their psyches like a cold hand.
The cause of their fear is complex, say psychologists, lost in a collage of years. Why they fear flying is less important than what they do with the fear. Aerophobes' active imaginations work against them, exaggerating every engine noise, vibration and bump into impending doom, whipping the symptoms of angst into a brushfire of the mind.
We are wearing foam earplugs to cut the noise, but I hear Dick clearly when he says we're cruising at 4,700 feet, going through a bit of light turbulence (please God please deliver me from severe turbulence). Every stomach-churning dip is a punctuation mark to my fears: What if we collide with another plane or the engine suddenly stops or we drop like a stone or a wing falls off or the door opens and I fall out or we run out of gas or Dick has a heart attack or we get flipped by wind shear? "Want to take the controls?" Dick asks pleasantly. I swallow the drop of saliva left in my mouth and turn to him. You're kidding, aren't you?
Fear of the technology of flight can't be cured by applying more technology. You don't ease a computerphobe's discomfort, for example, by moving him from a microcomputer to a mainframe. You begin with information, not merely statistics: explanations of how a plane flies, how the engines work, how the crew navigates and manages the plane. The aerophobe flies with an unrelenting internal dialogue that batters away, asking, "What if? What's that? What if?" An understanding of what's happening begins to erase the underpinning of many of these terrors, giving one's fearful imagination less data to magnify or distort.
Humor and gentle support also help. Layne Ridley says in her recently published White Knuckles, a superb guide to "Getting Over the Fear of Flying" (Doubleday, $5.95), that she extinguished her terror "without psychiatrists, classes, clinics, hypnosis or drugs -- and if I did, you can. If I did, anybody can." Ridley's funny and factual book has chapters titled "The Horrible Things That Could Happen -- and Why They Don't"; "Entrusting Your Life to Strangers"; "Worst Cases"; "Getting Through"; and "Getting Over." She also includes a list of seven programs and classes for fearful flyers.
Listening to the 90-minute 3-D sound cassette "Overcoming Fearful Flying" (Simon & Schuster Audio Publishing, $9.95) will also help. Smooth-voiced Capt. T.W. Cummings, a leader in workshops for aerophobes, narrates the binaural recording of an actual flight -- startlingly realistic 360-degree sound when heard through earphones. Cummings' warm, authoritative explanations help defuse aeroanxiety. But tapes and books don't work in a vacuum. Cummings, like Ridley, emphasizes that the skies will open up only when the fearful finally confront and master their dread.
I'm flying the plane! Dick, always meticulous, has been patiently explaining the Bernoulli principle and what all the dials do. He's complimented me for keeping the plane at a steady altitude. An hour out and the wings haven't fallen away, but much of my fear has, replaced by exhilaration. I'm beginning to understand how planes fly and why so many people love being up here. I laugh and shout to Dick that I'll never be another Chuck Yeager. But now I know one thing for certain: Reading Sunday's travel section is going to have a whole new meaning for me. ::