Sunday 18 August 2019

'We had to cancel our flights. I just couldn't get on a plane' - how these Irish people conquered their fear of flying

One in ten people admit to being terrified of air travel. With holiday season round the corner, could a course help you conquer your demons?

Joe Duff, who used to have a crippling fear of flying, pictured in Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport. Photo: Damien Eagers
Joe Duff, who used to have a crippling fear of flying, pictured in Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport. Photo: Damien Eagers
JD Flynn completing the Ironman in Barcelona
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was an achievement that JD Flynn once thought impossible - and it happened two weekends ago. But it wasn't just completing the gruelling Ironman triathlon in Barcelona that made his heart swell with pride, it was the fact that he was able to fly to the competition - and back home - without a loved one or friend to keep him company on the plane.

It was the first time since he was a teenager on a J1 US break that he had been on a flight with no friendly hand to squeeze when the nerves kicked in. Now 32, the Kilkenny man believes he has pushed through yet another obstacle on his way to get over a deep-rooted dread of flying.

"Honestly, in the weeks before Ironman, I was more concerned about the flight that I was about the course," he says, "even though it's an especially gruelling course in Barcelona, particularly for the cycling stage."

There was even a point when Flynn thought about abandoning the competition, such was his anxiety about flying alone. "But I had done so much training for the Ironman and I knew that flying alone was a particular fear that I needed to face. Now, that it's done, I need to book a flight soon - and fly alone again, to make a habit out of it."

JD Flynn completing the Ironman in Barcelona
JD Flynn completing the Ironman in Barcelona

JD Flynn is one of an estimated one in 10 of us who feels a morbid sense of fear around flying. Some experts even claim that one in six will feel anxiety about being in an airplane at some stage. And with holiday season around the corner, nervous fliers will be contemplating if there is anything they can do to help themselves.

For Flynn, the director of the Kyteler's Inn in Kilkenny city, the phobia that first took hold on that J1 when he was 19, got so out of control that he refused to fly for the best part of 10 years. "My mother's family are English and I missed out on so much because I wasn't able to go across the Irish Sea - or, if I did, it took ages on ferries and trains."

He managed to come to terms with his fear on the Fly Fearless course, run by Michael Comyn, the RTE broadcaster whose CV includes the detail that he first piloted a plane solo when just 16.

"The course helped me rationalise the fear and to take it slowly, one short flight at a time," Flynn says. "They do everything from talking about the extremely low-risk of an accident happening to explaining what all those plane sounds on a flight mean.

"I know it sounds like a cliché, but I had to face this fear and I did it with my now wife, Una. I'd really wanted to come to terms with flying so we would not be limited about where we went on holidays and so we could have a really special honeymoon - and if it wasn't for Fly Fearless, we wouldn't have had our dream honeymoon in the Maldives."

Michael Comyn meets people like JD Flynn all the time. "It can happen to anyone from any walk of life," he says, "and it often affects people who had flown a lot and were fine with it. But then something happens and it affects their ability to think clearly about flying and it grows into something enormous."

Thanks to the expert advices of airline pilots that Fly Fearless use to dispel misinformation about flying, Comyn believes that the vast majority of people who seek help can be assisted.

The scale of the phobia - although Comyn dislikes talk of such a word "because it means an irrational fear" - varies from person-to- person, but runs from those who are ableto take a flight, but dread it for weeks in advance, to those who can't even go close to an airport such is their fear of flying.

For Joe Duff, the fear of flying became so intense after an especially bad flight in 1980, that he didn't get on a plane again for another 30 years. "I lost out on a lot," the 67-year-old taxi driver says, "and the fear I had affected my wife and children too because we were limited about where we could go."

Rather than a few hours on plane to Spain, family holidays in the sun meant getting the ferry from Rosslare and then driving through France and down to Spain. "It used to take two days just to get there," he says. "I tried to confront the fear before and I remember we had flights booked in 1989, but my fear was so bad that we had to cancel them. I just couldn't get on a plane."

But learning about the nuts and bolts of aviation and why turbulence is completely normal as well as reassurances about the comparative safety of flying - compared to driving or cycling - Duff began the long road back to flying.

"My daughter was due to get married in Orlando and I really wanted to be there for it," he says. "The first thing I did after the course was to book a flight to Kerry. It's one of the shortest flights you can do. Once you get used to how normal it is and get it under your belt, you can go on progressively longer flights."

From a feeling of not wanting to get close to a plane to travelling to Australia and New Zealand, Joe Duff has come a long way. "I was 60 when I decided to do something about it - I had tried hypnosis and therapy in the past but they hadn't worked. I don't think it's every too late to get flying phobia under control."

It's a sentiment echoed by Ruth Little, a commercial airline pilot with 25 years' experience. She runs the popular Fear of Flying course and she says anyone can be helped, provided they really want to be helped. "A lot of it is about mindset," she says. "People might say they never want to get on a plane again, but if a small part of them wants to be helped, I think they can be."

Part of the course involves bringing people into the simulator of a typical commercial airline. "It helps to demystify the process of flying," she says. "And they get to ask any questions they have. There's a lot of misinformation out there about flying and some of the fear stems from that."

Little, who is now in the third year of a medical degree has a qualification in psychotherapy, and says flying is sometimes blamed for the general anxiety a person may have. "Often, the root of the problem has nothing to do with flying, but with a feeling of a lack of control."

She believes that once people learn to take back control, they can be much more tolerant of flying. JD Flynn feels he is in much greater control when it comes to flying although he cautions against those thinking there's a magic wand that can make everything better overnight. "I'm still nervous," he says, "and I don't know if that will ever go away, but I'm not debilitated by it any more. I've learnt strategies that help me - such as being last to get on the plane in order to minimise the amount of time I'm sitting on it before take off - and they're working for me.

"And because I'm coming to terms with it, I'm getting to see parts of the world I never imagined I would get to see."

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