April 7, 2015 / 12:12 PM / 2 years ago

Terrified fliers confront fears in Phoenix airport class

Lynzi Jessen, 10, prepares to launch a paper airplane during Captain Ron Nielsen's "Fearless Flying" class at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona April 4, 2015. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Heidi Cattey first became scared of flying when she saw news reports of hijackers seizing planes in the 1980s.

A decade later, she mistook vapor in the cabin of a flight in Texas for smoke from a fire, flipped out and hasn’t flown since.

“I just started screaming,” Cattey said, blushing at the memory of scaring the other passengers.

Last month’s Germanwings disaster, in which the co-pilot is believed to have crashed the plane on purpose, killing 150 people, did not help matters.

But Cattey has a special reason to conquer her fears: In two months she needs to pick up the 6-year-old twins she and her husband have adopted, all the way over in Kenya.

The owner of a Christian day care center in Mesa, Arizona, Cattey was one of about 30 people attending a regular “fear of flying” class last Saturday evening in a conference room at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport.

With the others, she folded and flew paper planes to learn about aerodynamics – and to break the ice.

Then they discussed how aircraft and crews work, and how brains process information and respond to anxiety. Most attendees took the chance to quiz three veteran pilots about anything else that came to mind.

Cattey and her husband Tommy, a retired U.S. Marine, have started learning East Africa’s Kiswahili language, and recently sang “Happy Birthday” to their prospective children Mary and Joseph in their local tongue down the telephone line.

“So, I’ve just got to get over this fear of flying,” she said. “Because we’ve got to go and get these kids”

‘YOU SHOWED UP’

Captain Ron Nielsen, who has been leading classes like this for 27 years, says often half the people who sign up for the free, four-hour session are no-shows.

“Not everybody gets over their fear of flying,” he told the group. “You stand a really good chance because you showed up.”

Fearful fliers can be afflicted by one or several different factors, including fears of sudden mechanical failure or terrorism, phobias of enclosed or crowded spaces, or heights or strange noises, and even the fear of embarrassing oneself in front of others.

Nielsen estimates as many as a quarter of his passengers during his 16,000 hours at the controls probably suffered from fear of flying to some degree.

The idea behind the Sky Harbor classes is to learn to deal with fear, rather than seek to avoid it or dominate it by sheer will.

Lawrence Spalla, holding his service dog Danny, attends Captain Ron Nielsen's "Fearless Flying" class at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona April 4, 2015. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec

After the classroom session, the group filed aboard a parked Southwest Airlines plane, where they were shown the cockpit and then sat about the cabin asking more questions.

The youngest was 10-year-old Tyler Speckhals. He has never flown - but he is not keen, said his mom, Sara Blake.

“He’s very scientific,” she said. “I think it will help, to have how it all works explained by people with lots of experience.”

When Nielsen asked, “Who believes planes are the safest form of travel?” only Tyler, clad in a Stars Wars T-shirt, raised his hand.

‘GET ON THE DAMN PLANE’

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Nielsen scoffs at TV interviewers’ frequent requests for “three tips” to help someone get over their fear.

“It’s complicated, you all know that,” he told the group.

“Every one of you out there has a different thought process by which you scare the bejeezus out of yourself, and you’ll find a process to get over it.”

A Reuters/IPSOS poll last week showed Americans now fear pilots purposely crashing an airliner as much as they are afraid of a hijacking. [ID:nL2N0WW1DP]

Nielsen advised fearful fliers to stay away from rolling TV coverage of crashes, and instead read only dry, factual National Transportation Safety Board reports.

“Anxiety is a growth industry in the world,” he said. “Don’t fall into that. Don’t stay glued to the news.”

Sitting in the class to support his sister, Susan Rivera, was Tom Raasch, a burly 45-year-old senior investigator at Wal-Mart.

He travels a lot for work, and once unsuccessfully spent $5,000 on virtual reality flight simulators to try to conquer his own fear.

Raasch met Nielsen eight years ago and credits his success flying since then on the pilot’s coaching and advanced classes, during which Nielsen takes participants on a short return flight for lunch in California.

Raasch and Rivera plan to fly to her daughter’s May wedding in Hawaii.

“The anxiety never really goes away,” Raasch said. “You just learn a skill set to deal with it. ... I get anxiety the night before, but then I just get on the damn plane.”

Editing by Mary Milliken and Ted Botha

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