We live on an island. A small island. The ferry can only take you so far. You MUST conquer that fear of flying or forever spend your holidays in a leaky caravan in Wexford.
Here’s how Nicole Buckler got over her fear of flying.
I boarded a plane in Taipei, Taiwan, and knew right away that things were going to be dodgy-shaped. I was headed for Hong Kong, to celebrate the “Handover” back to China in 1997. And yet, I couldn’t think about the Handover… because the aircraft looked like it was held together with toothpaste. And there was another factor on that day of takeoff that pointed to danger with a capital Freakin’ Hell. At the time of Hong Kong’s handover back to China there were two typhoons whipping the bejaysus out of the skies over Hong Kong. One was spinning clockwise, the other anti-clockwise, making the air a rather unsavoury and unfun place to hang out. Rain was lashing at the windows and I was suddenly consumed with fear, which came from the pit of my stomach and leeched up to headbutt me in the face.
I remember thinking that there was no way we would be allowed to take off. Someone ugly and strict would come and accost the pilot and tell him to get home to his wife. Many passengers drew this conclusion considering that the wind was so fierce that it was shaking the plane in the same way that a cattle grid hit at high speed vibrates the bones of driver. A branch even hit our window, which was amazing considering that there were very few trees actually near the airport. But before you know it, we were taxiing down a runway in a plane with a wobble factor of a drunken toddler.
I got a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was not right. I was deeply, deeply terrified in a way I had never experienced before. Not even seeing my great Auntie in a PVC stretch jumpsuit was as terrifying. But of course, the pilot didn’t go home to his wife, he was told to take off. He probably just wanted to go back to his duckbuns in the staff lunchroom. Me too. It is a terrible feeling to not be in control of your fate.
I then realised we would soon be flying between two cranky typhoons on the world’s dodgiest Airline. As proof of how dire the safety was on this particular aircraft, I looked up to see that the baggage compartments were held together with band-aids. I’m not sure if we could have set up the situation in a way that ensured we could have had more odds stacked against us. Terrifying weather, utterly awful airline, non-existent safety. Life seemed cheap, especially in Asia where I was just one of 4 billion people. I was way more expendable than a decent set of luggage.
Once we were in the air I started to understand value for money, because I wasn’t getting it on this flight. We weren’t even allowed to go to the toilet; the plane was being thrown so violently about the sky. And this would be one time where a toilet should have been a necessity for many passengers. All I could do was sit and wonder what else in the plane was held together with band-aids. I was hoping that the list didn’t include the landing gear. I also noticed the ashtrays in the arm rests. I think smoking has been banned on planes since about 1714. I put all the clues together: we were in serious danger. And not like the kind of danger you are in when there is a dog with diarrhoea walking in front of you. We were in deep peril. I was so deeply scared, so truly frightened that it was changing the way my brain worked. It was operating in simple mode, like when Windows crashes.
Just when I was trying to assess the size of the pile of peril we were in, things suddenly got rocky and creaky, and stuff started to be propelled around the cabin. That made sense seeing as the band-aids showed no will to hold together compartments with about 40 kilos of bad tourist gifts including ceramic chop sticks, tatami mats, and fake china. What taste-challenged person buys this stuff and considers it style? They deserved to go down into the Asian Sea. But I had taste. I deserved to live.
The band-aids got flung in the air, a symbol of the human ability to be deeply makeshift.
The plane ploughed on through the thick lumpy air. My travelling companion, Samantha and I clutched at each other. I felt like I was in a washing machine and I was the jumper that got ripped and shrunk and changed into a stupid colour that nobody likes. I decided to check out the air stewards’ faces, a sure sign that everything was completely fine. I was already very panicked that they were not allowed out of their seats at all. I searched their faces longingly, desperately wanting to see the plastic smiles that they have exhibited effortlessly throughout the boarding process. But there was nothing. It worried me that I was not getting any plastic love from these people.
The plane lurched again and a bag of toys tipped all over us from the above compartment. A rubber snake fell into my lap and I screamed and threw it across the cabin. I remember yelling at Samantha, “Rubber snakes for feck’s sake? Are we going to make it?”
The wind outside the plane was howling like a dying goat. I realised that I was strapped to a rust bucket, waiting for my opportunity to talk to spirit guides from the other side. I looked around the cabin and realised that maybe I should be talking to the other side – because that’s what everyone else was doing. A woman held onto a cross praying quietly. A Chinese man behind me was gripping his prayer beads like he may lose his mind if he let them go. All of a sudden, it hit me. We were gonna die. Still, the trolley dollies stayed in their seats. I knew what they were thinking – “I can’t believe this is my job! Why didn’t I go into a television career like I really wanted to? Now, I am going to die, and not just die, but die with damn tourists.”
I even heard one steward say “Jesus!” I and knew she was praying for her butt. You know you are in the deepest shite possible on a plane when the air stewards are resorting to making deals with God’s only son. I am wondering why DJ Pilot in da house doesn’t get on the mike to reassure us. I would have liked to be informed that we weren’t going to die, and that all is well with Washing Machine Airlines, your airline of choice. As far as good outcomes go, I wanted to be eating duck buns by nightfall. But silence from DJ Pilot put that hope pretty much to bed.
I remembered my friend Sam sitting next to me. Okay so I might go into a fireball, but at least I had Sam to accompany me and make it better. But after seeing her face, I realised that she would be of no use to me or herself. After another lurch and fall, Sam’s brain started to get scrambled like an egg on a Saturday morning. I remember her saying, “I forgot to ask my mum to feed my fish. They are going to die.” I looked at her, thinking, who gives a flying duck’s arse about a few gold fish that may perish from no food? Let’s talk about me. ME. I don’t want to die. I don’t particularly have a taste for death by limb extraction and fireball. Fish, my friend, don’t even appear on the consideration radar unless I am eating them tonight fried with black bean sauce.
Another bump, and fall. This led me to pull my shirt up over my head, much like when you are three and someone puts a blanket over your eyes and you think you are mysteriously invisible and no one can see you. I reasoned that if I was not really there, then I couldn’t possibly die. I was soon getting the feeling that I was not really good at adventure. In fact I was crap at adventure. Who the hell was I trying to impress, flying all over the world like some sort of hippie maniac? I came up with a new life resolution. I decided to admit defeat and divorce adventure as a life partner. If I ever got down safely, I would happily watch TV every night in a house with nice floral tablecloths and matching doilies. Adventure is meant for Xena the Warrior Princess, not for me. Okay, I’m done. I’m at peace with a life that includes doilies.
We looked out the window and could see black, seriously grumpy clouds getting whipped by lightening. A small break in the storm allowed us see the city below. We felt better immediately that we could see the ground. It’s wasn’t so far to fall at that point. I was jolted by a flash of hope. I thought, we may just lose body parts, rather than stop breathing altogether. Just when I was thinking that we’d make it, my hopes for a good outcome were short-circuited. It’s like seeing your house burn down with everything in it, only to watch the departing firetruck run over your dog on the way back to the station.
Abruptly there was no engine noise. We spent three or four seconds in suspended animation. All of a sudden, the plane creaked like an old woman and then dove towards the earth. 300 people on the flight screamed like banshees on cocaine. It’s the worst sound ever – mass hysteria with a valid reason.
I looked out the window again. Just because we were near the airport was no reason to presume that we might get down alive. There was added factor of danger to be considered when falling through the air and onto an airport – the time of our landing was of unnatural circumstance. Due to the massive influx of people into Hong Kong Airport on the eve of the Handover, many planes missed their scheduled landing time and were required to circle over Hong Kong waiting for an opening to land. Anyone who landed at the old Hong Kong Airport knows that it was a balancing act most treacherous. Hong Kong is so so small and is crammed with millions and millions of people. They are all sardined together betwixt concrete monstrosities, loosely named high-rises but more aptly could be called stratospherically-sized concrete walls. Nowadays, Hong Kong has a fantastic new airport. But the old airport, was anxiety-attack inducing. To use it, without a snippet of doubt, you took your life into your own hands. Even in great weather it was a pretty tight fit to land the planes, using the high rises as guides to the landing strip. One coffee spill onto a crotch by a nonchalant pilot could have consequences of the exploding variety.
Still, the terror continued. As we fell towards the ground, we were so close to high rise apartment buildings that I could see what the people inside were having for dinner. The plane tipped even more. That was fun. Everything that wasn’t pegged down fell onto our side of the plane. Which was pretty much every material item plus other immaterial ones too, like a wave of panic from 300 people. I got hit with the rubber snake again. It was like an old friend returning to see how I was doing. It found out the hard way that I hated its guts.
I braced myself for the splat. I was thinking, well, this is it. And my mind was totally blank. Should I not have been having flashbacks now? Should I have seen a well-lit tunnel? Should I get tested? I felt horror for my family, who would have to find out that it was me who blew up in a fireball like a Chinese cracker. Awful.
The ground was now close enough to poke with chopsticks out the window.
The moment of truth.
I braced for the bang. I was no longer concerned about flying snakes. I just wanted to not be dismembered if I could help it. And if I had to step over someone else’s pristine luggage to do it, I was ready. I had shoes with excellent grip.
And then, the plane strightened out, and it seemed like we had every chance. We all hoped that in the 10 seconds that all of this happened, that the pilot had been given clearance to land, because he had managed to get pretty close to the runway as far as we could see. Most people had assumed the crash position, and the lights flickered off. Sam and I were grasping each other thinking well, this is it. The plane creaked, thudded violently, and skidded forever and ever. We were on the ground but we weren’t survivors just yet. After more violent smack-arounds, the plane finally slid to a stop.
We all looked around in disbelief. We weren’t on the runway entirely, but we were alive with no blood anywhere. I looked out, feeling very happy to not be dead. I could see that we had landed in about 30 centimetres of water. The undrained flooding on the tarmac looked like an ocean. But we were down and I swore I would never get on a plane again. Which meant I would have to row myself out of Hong Kong. My mind was set: flying was not for me.
A few years later, after convincing myself to get back on a plane, I was flying from Brisbane to Sydney. As I got on this flight, I felt like I was going to the gallows. The rational part of my brain was telling me that the chances of anything bad happening to me again were miniscule. But still I was panicked out of my mind and not hiding it very well. But I forced myself to get on that plane, because my life needed me to. And of course then something happened. At 30,000 feet, over Coffs Harbour, we hit wind shear.
Wind shear is a rapid change in winds over a short horizontal distance experienced by aircraft, conditions that can cause a rapid change in lift, and thus the altitude, of the aircraft. When we hit the wind shear, we were all seated, except for the stewards. They instinctively grabbed onto the seats as their legs flew in the air. No one was hurt but a lot of stuff went everywhere. And it was damn scary. The plane felt like it had braked suddenly in the air, a jolting stop, then a drop. As it was happening, I was thinking, “Goddammit, I was right to be scared! This is the end! This plane is going down!” The captain then came on the speakers, saying that we had hit wind shear, but that now everything was fine. By then, my mind wasn’t fine. I was truly committed to my fear of flying. It was here to stay.
Everyone has their moment of frustration that leads them to a cure. Mine was when I sat in my house in Dublin, I attended my brother’s wedding in Australia by Skype. My sister carried her laptop around so I could “be there”… I felt like a severed head. It was 2am and I was in my pyjamas and sober while everyone else was glamorous and drunk. I knew it was time to snap the feck out of my fear of flying. I was missing big events with alcohol because I wouldn’t get on a plane. Damnit!
So what happens to someone who has a deeply locked in fear of flying? There are a few things that can help. The majority of options offered are truly unhelpful. I know, I have tried all of them. But one I decided to try was course to get fearful flyers back in the air. I chose this one. It is held in the Dublin Airport Logistics Park, where they also have a flight simulator. The seminar room is businessey and welcoming; it feels more like attending a conference rather than a seminar on how not to be mental. The course is run by Michael Comyn, therapist, pilot, entrepreneur, hyperactive human. He is assisted by a team of experts made up of cabin crew and pilots.
Michael Comyn was the one of the youngest people to fly solo in Ireland at the age of 16 over 30 years ago. He has a passion for aviation combined with his knowledge and interest in working with phobias and anxiety. Over 10 years ago Michael began looking at the fears associated with flying and was surprised to find that it can take only moments to become phobic. But the good news is that he believes that it only takes moments to fix it. His teaching methods are along the philosophy that the more you know the less anxious you become. He says, “You also need a strategy to calm your brain’s attempts to keep you safer than it needs for a simple flight. Our passion is to set you free from your fear and anxiety and to see you happy to travel. This course will help you regain that missing sense of control and get you on your way on that holiday, business or family flight.”
The good news is that the course leaders let you ask all those stupid questions about flying that you want covered. Like, can any idiot become a pilot? (No you have to pass exams that are heavy in maths and physics). How old are Ryan Air’s fleet? (Around 3 years old) Do airlines care if you are nervous? (It depends on the airline. One airline boss doesn’t care because nervous passengers buy more alcohol. You know who said that. But others have stewards specifically trained to assist you, and on long haul flights you can be given medication if you feel you are losing the run of yourself.) Is turbulence as scary and dangerous as I think it is? (No it isn’t, in fact it isn’t even a big deal, it is just uncomfortable.)
The seminar also includes information like recordings of general plane noises. (No that bang isn’t the wing falling off; it is the landing gear folding itself up.) And you find out that most of the bangs and clicks come from the cabin, and not from the plane itself. And you know all the bing-bongs you hear? Well it isn’t the captain alerting the cabin crew that the tailfin is on fire. It is usually just the top cabin crew telling the bottom cabin crew that they have run out of crisps and Diet Coke.
And then there is the crooked landing. I have had a few of those in my time, and I never knew what the hell was going on as we came at the runway sideways, only to straighten as the tyres hit the tarmac. But video footage of this is shown and the two pilots on hand assisting Michael with the course explain why they land like this. It is not to scare the bejesus out of you and make you think the plane is going to tumble and spin into a fireball. It is just that the cross winds make a directly straight landing impossible.
The course covers a solid lesson in turbulence, the nemesis of anyone with a fear of flying. The long of the short of it is that pilots do everything they can to avoid turbulence, not because it is dangerous, but because it is uncomfortable, and airlines are worried that you won’t fly with them again. But wings on a plane are made for ridiculous bending. And it is okay to be okay with turbulence.
But the highlight of the course is sitting in the flight simulator. It actually genuinely feels like a cockpit, and the pilot on hand shows you just how many systems are in use to make the aircraft as safe as possible. I was verging on wondering why I ever had a phobia. I felt like a hysterical idiot afterwards.
And then there is the psychological part of the course. It is explained that the way you remember traumatic events is different to the way you remember good events. I know after hearing this part of it that I had to let it go. Let it the hell go. My horrible experience isn’t going to happen again, and if it does I’ll be fine. My face won’t catch on fire, the pilot won’t abandon ship, and the tailfin won’t fall off. In fact we are reminded on the course that if you did die on a plane you would be a member of an extremely exclusive club. Only 12,500 have died on planes since flight started. And considering that over 3billion tickets on flights were sold last year, that’s big numbers. And 2017 was the safest year on record to travel.
What you do realise is that knowledge is power. If you are scared of flying, the gaps of knowledge that you lack, you fill in to your detriment using your imagination. And if you are scared that can mean you tell yourself all sorts of wild and crazy stuff. In this course you feel welcome to ask every crazy question, and soothe every panic-stricken thought in your head. Ask those crazy questions. The team will correct your thinking to your benefit.
Since I had my two plane incidents in 1997 and 1998, technology in the cockpits has changed phenomenally. Now there are sophisticated systems of detection of such wind pockets and turbulence, and also pilots all talk to each other using a text messaging system, and other methods, whereas they didn’t used to before. So if one plane experiences some wind shear, any of the pilots flying behind will know about it pronto. Many airports now have wind shear detection equipment near the ends of runways to warn aircraft if it is too dangerous to land. It’s a new world, and it has never been safer.
So is the course worth it? Yes. And you can do a top-up a bit later down the track for a vastly reduced price.
I was very dedicated to my fear of flying. But now I think I am ready to let it go. We’ll see how my flight to Australia goes in July. As long as my feet don’t catch on fire, I think I will be fine. The tailfin will stay on.
If you want to register for the course, it is here. www.flyfearless.com. I can 100% recommend it. It was the cause of 98% of my recovery. The other 2% was me and a very strong brandy. Do it.