A Visit To The Airport To Quell Fear Of Flying

Posted: May 31, 1987

The group exhibited no exceptional signs of nervousness as it walked through the airport toward the Eastern Airlines jetliner. No sweaty palms or rapid pulse rates. No thoughts of escaping through the nearest door.

A quick check of its SUDS level, short for Subjective Units of Discomfort, confirmed that the fearful flyers class from Temple University's Agoraphobia and Anxiety Program was handling the trip to the airport surprisingly well.

Then they boarded the plane, and their SUDS level shot up like a 727 on takeoff.

"I'd like you to take your Walkmans out and listen to your relaxation tapes," psychologist Blanche Freund instructed the jittery trio.

Sitting ramrod-straight in their seats, they strapped on their recorders,

closed their eyes and tried to imagine they enjoyed flying - not an easy assignment after years of avoiding air travel or experiencing extreme nervousness whenever they did fly.

But the three members of this all-female group had a special reason to overcome their anxiety: Each of the women is planning a trip to Europe this summer. For Kathleen Carter, whose fear of flying was so bad that it stopped her from visiting her family in England, it will be her first trip home in six years.

Carter, a 27-year-old secretary from Camden, said she was suddenly gripped with the fear of flying on a short flight from New York to Philadelphia.

"I was fine on the flight from London to New York," she said. "Then I had to transfer to this little plane to Philadelphia, and all of a sudden I was overcome by fear. I have no reason why I got that way. But since then, I haven't been near an airport."

Similarly, Donna Smith developed her phobia midway through an ascent on a flight from Houston, where she had gone on a business trip. Takeoffs had always been her favorite part of air travel, but this time she began to imagine that the plane was falling.

"There was nothing wrong," said Smith, a 28-year-old computer programmer

from Philadelphia. "It was a beautiful, clear day. But my heart began to beat faster, my breathing came faster. I thought I was going to fall out of the plane. I swore I would never fly again."

Smith has flown a few times since but never without the fear that either she or the plane was going to plunge from the sky. Then for days afterward, she would relive the terrifying experience.

"I'd wonder why am I doing this to myself when it's all over," she said.

The visit to the airport last week was a practice run for the class, which was scheduled to end the four-session course, held at Temple's Bala Cynwyd clinic, with a 45-minute graduation flight to Boston. Both are part of the $315 treatment program, which includes two in-class sessions in which participants listen to tapes that simulate the sounds of an airplane and practice relaxation and anxiety-management techniques. The cost of a ''graduation flight" is additional.

At the airport, the group talked with a pilot and inspected a 727, parked safely on the ground, "to dispel myths and misconceptions that feed the fear of flying," Freund said.

The pilot, Joe Woodward, a silver-haired, square-jawed veteran, patiently explained all the noises and twitches that a plane makes during flight. He talked about the electrical systems and touched on aerodynamics. He boasted that Eastern was the first airline to back its planes out of the hangar rather than pull them out, saving time, money and manpower.

But what the group really wanted to know was, do pilots ever fall asleep? And can a plane float? Will it fly upside down? Do flight attendants know CPR? What happens if the landing gear jams? What are the chances of being in a midair collision?

Yes, he said, pilots sometimes doze off on long flights, but he never has. Planes are built to float 20 minutes. He has flown upside down in a simulator but never on a commercial flight. Flight attendants are trained in CPR. Planes are equipped with hand cranks to manually lower landing gear. And as for midair collisions, "your odds are better of winning the lottery," he said.

In fact, in 21 years as a commercial pilot, Woodward said, he has never had an emergency. His planes have been struck by lightning three times and lost an engine once, but "I don't consider those emergencies," the pilot said coolly.

"Most planes can fly with one engine," he assured the group. As for the lightning, "it scared me a little, but it didn't knock me out of the sky."

But Woodward quickly dismissed the idea that pilots were always gutsy. With unabashed candor, he admitted that he, too, had a fear - of heights. But only when earthbound. "We're human beings like everyone else," he said.

"That's a scary thought; I would prefer to think you're godlike," said Mary Ann Coopman, a teacher who lives in Philadelphia.

Like her classmates, Coopman had always enjoyed flying, and even took a few lessons several years ago. Then she got caught in a violent thunderstorm on a flight from North Carolina - "Lightning hit us, the lights went out, food

went all over the place and nobody told us what was happening" - and she's been a white-knuckle flyer ever since.

Feeling confident, the group moved to the Eastern counter to purchase their round-trip tickets to Boston and then proceeded to the main event - a tour of the waiting plane.

Once aboard, they listened to their relaxation tapes and then boldly squeezed themselves into the tiny cockpit to inspect the myriad dials and levers. As Smith settled into the co-pilot's seat and grabbed the controls, it was obvious she was going to make it to Europe this summer.

"I wish I could take off right now," she said confidently. "I feel really good."

This month, two of the three people in the course - Carter and Smith - flew to Boston. The trip went smoothly, and both women said they were happy to be flying again, according to Freund.

"Donna said she basically did not fly with terror as she did in the past, and Kathy said she was ready to get on a plane and go to England," Freund said. Coopman didn't make the trip, but she said she was ready for her European trip.

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