On her first day of class Sara refused to enter the room without her husband. At the next session, the sight of a stationary airplane made her tremble with horror.
But Saturday, after a seven-week course aimed at curbing a fear of flying that had been so complete that it had grounded her for more than a decade, the District woman, along with 17 classmates, piled into a USAir DC-9 at National Airport and took a graduation spin around the Washington region.
"Two months ago I would have rather died than get in an airplane," said Sara, who asked to be identified only by her first name. "I would have never flown again. What they have done for me is something I thought just could never happen."
Of all the phobias that plague modern man, one of the most disabling is the fear of flying. It keeps people apart; it can chill a thriving career; it can make someone feel isolated in today's world.
"Boeing did a survey and found that more than 25 million Americans are afraid to fly," said Carol Stauffer, a clinical social worker who for the last six years has taught fearful flyers how to relax for USAir. "These are not just nervous people. These are very frightened individuals."
Stauffer and Frank Petee, USAir's director of special projects, travel the country together, teaching people that there is no reason to worry about streaking through the sky in 60 tons or more of metal. So far there have been 1,000 graduates, but this was the first course taught in the Washington region, and it drew the fearful from as far away as Philadelphia.
The course, which has two basic components, costs $195. Petee teaches the students about aviation itself: what the noises are, the basics of turbulence and how a plane gets up and stays in the air. This year, which has produced the greatest number of fatalities in the history of aviation, he constantly reminds his pupils about the rarity of plane crashes.
Stauffer teaches the students how to relax.
"Attend to the heavy, warm tingling feelings associated with relaxation," she tells them in a steady slow voice that is her version of the pregame pep talk. "Imagine yourself sitting in a chair with a soft, warm breeze caressing your face."
She uses a variety of techniques, including equipping the students with a tape of spoken instructions on how to relax that helps them calm themselves and learn to accept what happens once the hatch is sealed.
In each week's class, the teachers up the ante slightly. First, they talk about a plane, and then they enter one. One class is devoted to exploring the cockpit, and there is a day when they practice taxiing down the runway. Finally, graduation comes and the class flies around the Washington region for more than an hour.
"It was so beautiful I can't believe it's finally happened," said Lois Duling, a Philadelphia woman who commuted by car to National Airport, after receiving a diploma that honors her for "reluctantly, and courageously" leaving "Planet Earth." "I have missed so many events in my life because I just wouldn't get on a plane," she said. "I can't believe the Wright brothers ever had more fun than I did today."
The graduation flight is a celebratory whirl around the region for students and friends. A solicitous flight crew offers repeated updates on weather and location, and all passengers are invited to visit the cockpit and chat with the pilot.
Stauffer said that the program has about a 97 percent success rate. She said that many of the students are successful achievers "who are used to being in control most of the time. It just kills them to get in that plane and turn over their lives to another person."
Stauffer's job does not end with the graduation flight. She gets calls every week from alumni in search of moral support.
"They've been my gurus," said Audrey Laurine, a Maryland emergency room nurse who fears flight even though (or perhaps because) her husband owns and flies a Cessna 150. "Just knowing Carol and Frank are out there makes all the difference for me."