Fear Factor | Flight Today | Air & Space Magazine
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Fear Factor

Panic attacks in an airliner? Try a smaller airplane, with a friend as your pilot.

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The Latin agora means “open public spaces,” but it’s actually a fear of panic attacks that drives agoraphobics from public life. The sudden spikes of adrenaline and random spells of unprovoked terror are typically treated with therapy and benzodiazepines like Xanax, but I made my greatest strides in recovery with the help of a private pilot.

My first episode came soon after being hired as a structural engineer on the space shuttle program. Columbia had gone down a year earlier, and Discovery was in the early stages of making its comeback. I had just wrapped up a whirlwind tour of suppliers in California and was watching the Arizona desert unfold beneath the wing of a Delta Airlines 767 when the rush of a sudden drop went through my body. I gripped the seat, and as the airplane swung from freefall to recovery to sharp climb and slow, rolling bank, I closed my eyes to keep from getting sick.

The engines changed pitch from a high whine to a low hum and back again. I imagined the pilots up front, fighting off alarms and unresponsive controls, calling the controllers in the Phoenix tower for clearance to land. All the while I could not stop the thought: This had happened before. The same airplane, the same passengers, the same empty desert below. This had happened before and somehow I knew how it would end.

When I opened my eyes, the cabin was not filled with the chaos I had expected. People were reading newspapers, typing on laptops…the man next to me was snoring softly.

Back in Florida, a doctor explained panic attacks. They're not harmful, he told me, just uncomfortable. You cannot die from a panic attack, even if the speeding pulse and tunnel vision last for more than a few minutes. Panic attacks don’t spawn more serious mental disorders. Often the most immediate cure for an attack, he said, is to step out of the situation you’re in and allow the anxiety to dissipate.

The next week, another business trip brought me back to Orlando International. This time, the smell of Jet A and the hum of idling engines triggered aftershocks of panic, little rumblings of anxiety that threatened greater tremors if I followed the other passengers down the jetway and into the cabin. The gate agent made the announcement for final boarding call, adding that they were still waiting for one more passenger. I ran through the doctor’s assurances in my head, weighing the psychological pain of boarding with the occupational risks of failing to take a business trip. The gate agent raised her microphone again and called my name. She stared out at me, the only passenger sitting within 50 feet of her gate, and notified the rest of the terminal that this would be my last chance to board Flight 2515 to Huntsville, Alabama.

I stood, gathered my bags, and walked away. Minutes later, I watched my airplane push back from the gate. As it taxied out to the runway, my panic subsided, and I was left with the realization that after half a lifetime of window seats, frequent flier miles, and red-eye flights, I was now afraid of flying.

Over the next few months, the process repeated in various places to varying degrees. A small panic attack at a grocery store would spawn a temporary preference for fast food, while a larger one at a movie theater would turn me into a renter of videos. Regardless of what was added to my growing unable-to-do list, I missed flying the most.

According to Elke Zuercher-White, a psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral treatment of anxiety orders, “Agoraphobia essentially involves the fear of internal sensations in external situations. Both components need to be treated. Panic attacks are treated by doing little exercises that bring on the feared sensations. When a person is willing to do exposures [to what they fear] in spite of anxiety, one begins mastering one’s anxiety. We should learn to let anxiety work for us, in real-life danger, rather than against us, in everyday, low-threat situations.”

If driving on the interstate is the problem, you start by simply sitting in a car in your driveway. Then you drive around the block. You gradually work your way to streets, two-lane highways, and interstates so that each step brings you closer to the fear without being hit with it all at once. With flying, it’s not as simple. As Zuercher-White says, “Flying is an all-or-none exposure.” You can’t taxi out onto the runway, then ring for the flight attendant to let you out at the next intersection.

So I tried other methods. I would buy a ticket to whatever city was cheapest that weekend, and as I got closer to the boarding area, I would try to push past the surge of adrenaline and catastrophic thoughts. When that repeatedly failed, I got more creative.

I tried medication; I tried having a few drinks. Having a lot of drinks. Planning flights on small airplanes, on big airplanes, window seats, aisle seats. After hypnosis. From different airports, different gates, different times of day. I once called a phone-a-pilot, who spent my half-hour consultation explaining how wings produce lift with the conviction that knowledge is power.

More than 25 spent airline tickets later, my face surely became familiar (if suspicious) to the Transportation Security Administration agents at Orlando International as I passed through their lines without baggage, only to walk past an hour later with my boarding pass still in hand.

I managed to keep these attempts a secret from my colleagues. Nothing is as embarrassing to aeronautical engineers as a fear of flying. But when word got out—as secrets tend to do—it was a friend and colleague, Hari, who offered assistance. A specialist in the vibration loads of a rocket launch, Hari was also a private pilot and an astronaut wannabe who couldn’t stand the idea of anyone not sharing his excitement about flight.

Our first trip to the air field at Titusville was less than encouraging. Hari proudly showed me the four-seat Cessna 172 he had rented and took me through the preflight checklist. While he removed the pitot tube covers and checked for blockages, I checked my quickening pulse and initiated calm-breathing exercises. By the time he called out “Clear prop” and started the ignition, I was struggling to catch enough breath to fight off the pinpoints of light scattered across my field of vision. I bailed before we could even taxi onto the runway.

Hari promised that flying in small airplanes was safe, and that he was up to date on all his certifications. I tried explaining that the fear is not about the airplane, or the heights, or the possibility of crashing, but about my ability to escape the situation if I’m hit with another panic attack—something not easily done at altitude.

Other co-workers went up with Hari, making a point to stop by my cubicle afterward, report on his flying skills, and encourage me to give it another try. Eventually Hari told me that he had booked the 172 again. “You don’t have to fly,” he said, “but you should come. We can taxi around all day if you want. And if we take off, we can land whenever you want.”

This time, with the chance to back out at any moment, the adrenaline didn’t pump quite so heavily. We taxied around the airport and Hari offered me the controls. “Just keep us out of the grass,” he said.

When we got to the end of the runway, Hari radioed the control tower to give me time. I looked out at the open space of the air field, my mind running through three years of inspirational quotes and psychological assurances. With the authority to say yay or nay, a calm fell over me. I could breathe. I could relax. I could tell Hari to taxi back to the hangar. But now, with a clear mind, my only thoughts were ones of anticipation to see up over the treetops, to look out over the ocean and to try to see the space shuttle in the distance on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

A Beechcraft Bonanza pulled up behind us. Hari looked over at me. “Are we flying today?”

I took a deep breath and nodded. Hari quickly radioed the tower and applied full power. For the first time in years, I watched the ground drop away beneath me.

Jeremy Davis finds a way to both love and fear airplanes from his home in Seattle, Washington.

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