Are you afraid of flying? It isn't the coolest thing to own up to, but one in three people experience extreme discomfort during a flight. The fact that two in three of those are doing an Oscar-winning impersonation of being relaxed, can make it seem as if you're the only person on the plane who is making out their Last Will and Testament during bouts of severe turbulence. I am a frequent flier: a frequently terrified flyer. It started out with mild distress, migrated to sharp anxiety, and has descended to the level of full-blown panic attacks. As a panic attack can appear worse to the observer, this isn't an ideal situation for the cabin crew and fellow passengers to have to deal with, never mind that it's absolutely no fun for me. While fear of flying can cause distress in the air, for some people it reaches phobic levels, meaning they can't set foot in an aeroplane and are effectively shut off from world travel. However, helpis at hand. Assisting the aerophobic is a fledgling industry, but British Airways (under Aviatours) and Virgin Atlantic conduct day-long courses outside London roughly once a month (which are in heavy demand). When I call BA's captain Peter Hughes, a 737 pilot with 13 years' commercial flying experience, he says I've made a giant step. 'A classic symptom is avoidance,' he states, adding that 25,000 people have been through his course and 70 per cent are well on their way to recovery. The causes are manifold, he says, ranging from a simple lack of knowledge to claustrophobia - which is the toughest problem to cure. His Fear Of Flying course held on the weekend fields four pilots and four Harley Street psychologists, followed by a 45-minute flight in the afternoon on a Boeing 757. It costs ?189 (HK$2,389is this correct?), but that's not the problem: the last thing I want to do on the weekend, or at any other time, is take an unnecessary flight. When it comes to the day, I know I'll be a no-show. So, Virgin Atlantic seems a much better option - given the airline's rivalry with BA, it's not surprising that its course is called Flying Without Fear, and takes place outside Gatwick in Virgin's headquarters. It's a full day - starting at 9am with a morning session with captain Norman Lees, followed by an afternoon with a 'relaxation counsellor' . The course finishes at 6pm, costs ?99, and doesn't involve flying. I don't have much confidence that I'll be cured; I've tried every sedative and sleeping pill on the market, not to mention the drinks trolley - I can hardly remember the last time I flew sober. Given the extent of my air miles, I might become the first person to check into the Betty Ford Clinic with a flying-abuse problem. Still, captain Lees reckons it's worth a shot: 'You have to fly at least once a week,' he reasons. 'Do you want this to take over your life?' He's right, because recently it has begun to. Lees is passionate about his work. He has clocked 10,000 hours as a 747 pilot - and is determined to cure his 'patients': this comes across in the morning session where he talks animatedly for four hours to 26 fidgeting, chain-smoking, nervous flyers. The make-up of this group assembled on a wet Sunday morning comes as a surprise: with three exceptions, everybody is under 40 and it is neatly split between men and women. The seriously phobic ones are in their mid-twenties; three people have never been on an aeroplane, and one woman even refuses to go into a mock-up cabin at lunch time, even though it's obviously a room on the ground floor of the Virgin building. One girl is a repeat visitor - if Flying Without Fear doesn't work, they'll have you back at no extra cost. 'Public transport flying is the safest mode of transport in the world,' begins Lees, and I think, yeah, yeah, yeah: I've heard this one before. Yes, 26 times safer than driving, I know: did I have to get up at 7am to hear this? However, his approach soon takes an interesting turn. Instead of avoiding the topic of accidents, he deconstructs the major crashes one by one and admits that he's only talking about public transport flying - dunking your light aircraft into the sea around Martha's Vineyard when your leg is in a cast is a whole different subject. 'You need to have an understanding of the aircraft structure and the dynamics of flying,' he adds. 'Planes don't plummet, wings don't fall off, and a lot of what you think is going on in the cabin exists only in your imagination.' To that end, we briefly run through what the 'ping-ping' noises mean; I'm almost disappointed to discover that the plane suddenly becoming quiet after take-off signals is a bog-standard reduction in engine power, not the end of the world. When Lees adds that, 'I do not communicate an emergency by beeping the cabin crew,' I realise I'm going to have to make up a new death fantasy. Instead of going on the defensive, Lees patiently explains, and explains again: and the questions are still coming hard and fast. 'Yes,' he admits, 'engines do fail. And normally this takes place in the early stages of a flight. However, even if four engines failed - and this, to my knowledge, has only happened five times when craft flew into volcanic ash and on each occasion they were able to re-start - the plane can glide for 200 miles, longer if there's a tail wind.' What about birds getting trapped in engines? 'Again, you'd have to get four big birds in exactly the right formation to take out four engines. A commercial craft recently flew into a flock of 40 Canada geese; they only lost one engine.' It goes without saying, but he also advises us to choose our airline carefully. Everybody on the course is mildly obsessive. We've read every single airline accident report in the press with devoted horror. 'You need tactics to beat this thing and knowledge is the most important,' says Lees. 'You need to know what is real and what has been exaggerated in the newspapers.' The group looks accusingly at me as I have already been identified as - shudder! - a member of the press. I immediately switch sides and start tut-tutting when Lees talks about irresponsible reporting. He continues: 'An old aircraft does not mean old engines; it is mandatory to replace parts over a specified time frame. Get to know the planes and what you are most comfortable with; check when you make your reservation what craft you will be flying on. Identify yourself as a nervous flyer. But let me assure you that every aeroplane is routinely checked once a day; more thoroughly every two weeks; every 580 hours it has a line check, where every part is tested; and every 1,060 hours it goes in for a hangar check where it is basically stripped.' On every airline? 'Certainly on the ones which are allowed fly into the US, Australia and Europe; they must meet the standards.' We run through air traffic control, who flies the plane in an emergency situation (most likely the first officer, while the captain manages the craft), why cockpit crew often read the newspaper ('we actually have long periods of low arousal') and it is already 1pm and time for lunch. We haven't even touched on turbulence yet. With one exception - and she eventually relents after 30 minutes - 26 nervous flyers sit in the mock-up Virgin Atlantic cabin and are served a rather tasty airline meal (rosemary chicken). This is designed to encourage comfort; but it just makes me realise how much I detest everything associated with flying, down to the very smell of the aircraft. After lunch, captain Lees animatedly explains: 'Turbulence is horrible. But you must know that there is no amount of turbulence that will bring a plane down. There is no such thing as an air pocket - there are no holes in the air. We will always try to negotiate with air traffic control to move the aircraft to a smoother altitude, but sometimes it's safer to ride the turbulence out. You feel more than is actually happening. Only once in my life have I dropped 100 feet in a craft - and that is most unusual; back in the cabin, it would have felt like a thousand. But planes do not drop thousands of feet in one jump, despite what it might feel like or what the press might report.' We're still not convinced. What about the much-vaunted 'clear air turbulence'? 'It does exist, but you do not drop thousands of feet in one go, you descend gradually,' he re-states. 'It can mostly be forecast, but we do request that you keep your seatbelt on for this reason.' More importantly, he adds, 'you face a bigger threat from passengers shoving heavy and unsafe luggage above the seats. If you see this happen, demand to see the pilot. This can kill people if it falls out.' It is now 3pm, and captain Lees has to be dragged off the podium to make room for David Landau, the touchy-feely relaxation therapist. It seems as if most everybody in the room would prefer to ask the captain more questions, but instead we are mildly hypnotised with a tape and urged to 'make friends with fear'. 'Imagine your fear is a big, ugly red ball in the pit of your stomach,' he says. 'Spit it out and exhale it.' It seems much more useful to think up more questions for the captain when he comes back at 5pm; can anybody open the doors in flight? (no), can you be trapped in the loo? (no, they can open it from the outside); what about mobile phones? (an over-exaggerated threat). I can't believe it, but I really am feeling much better about the whole prospect of air travel. Could this be working? Captain Lees said at the start of the course that one of the first Flying Without Fear attendees actually went on to get a pilot's licence. I'd be happy to just eat my meal. Closing questions actually last until 7pm, when the course administrator reluctantly breaks us up. The Captain has a few final tips: sit above the wing if you're scared of turbulence, he says. Tell the airline staff that you are afraid of flying. Get to the airport early so you don't increase stress levels by being late. Get to know your aircraft. Ask to visit the flight deck. And remember, why would you be trapped on the aeroplane or need to get off if you actually want to get to the destination you booked for? As we depart, Virgin hostesses, who volunteer to help out on weekends, give us a T-shirt, a relaxation tape, a book about aviation, and an extremely naff certificate signed by Richard Branson stating that we've completed the course. (All the above, with the exception of the certificate, come at an additional cost on the British Airways course.) We are given phone numbers to follow-up, especially with future reservations (Virgin undertakes to advise other airlines of your fear), and captain Lees hands out his e-mail address for further questions. A couple of days later, I take my next flight: the 8am London-to-Amsterdam hop (a mere 50 minutes) to attend the Netherlands Film Festival. I do as I was told: I play my tape, re-read my notes, and try desperately to 'adjust my mindset'. I'm not surprised that I'm still nervous at taxy; but it's definitely a shock to be comfortable during take-off, and to be able to, somewhat shakily, drink a cup of coffee without going into full-scale panic mode and asking for a vodka-tonic before midday. Since then, I have completed two international and four transcontinental flights in the USA. By the last, I was perfectly comfortable: I watched a movie, I ate my meal, I almost enjoyed it - and there was bad turbulence. Fear of Flying? It seems, right now, as if I really can fly without fear, and these courses really do work. One problem remains, though: do they have any classes for fear of flying economy? Virgin Atlantic, Flying Without Fear (tel: 44-1293 747056/74464). British Airways, Fear Of Flying (tel: 44-1252 793250). Fighting the fear His own debilitating fear of flying into a panic on an aeroplane forced self-confessed aerophobe James Macky to seek help. Here's how he did it. When my fear of flying started to interfere with my work I knew I had to do something. It was not an easy decision. Accepting that you have a problem and asking for help is one of the most difficult things in the world. I realised the situation was serious when I considered turning down a lucrative, exciting writing assignment because it involved long-distance air travel. For the first time in my life, the thought of flying filled me with terror. It wasn't the prospect that the plane would crash that frightened me. And I'm not afraid of heights. What worried me was being trapped on a plane for twelve or thirteen hours, unable to get out. All I could think of was, 'What if I get claustrophobic and panic?' Even though I knewthis was an unrealistic fear - I've never panicked or been claustrophobic in my life - the thought of 'What if' was like opening up Pandora's box. Whenever flying was mentioned, my body tensed up, my heart raced and I got butterflies in my stomach. At the time, I thought I was the only person to ever feel like this. I now know, having read Conquer Your Fear Of Flying by Neil McLean, that my fear of claustrophobia turning to panic is one of the most common fear-of-flying phobias. McLean has published a DIY version of Ansett Airline's successful Fear Of Flying programme, which he developed in 1983His self-help kit consists of a text book, a half-hour video and an audio tape. The video and the booklet essentially cover the same information, explaining why you have nothing to fear from flying, except fear itself. The audio tape is an excellent relaxation guide. According to McLean, a clinical psychologist at the University of Western Australia, at least 20 per cent of the adult population has a fear of flying. This fear ranges from a mild sense of worry to a crippling anxiety that prevents them from even entering an airport, let alone boarding a plane. People fear flying for all sorts of reasons. Some worry about the safety of the aircraft, terrified that it will crash. Their anxiety levels peak at various stages, generally during take-off and turbulence. People with a fear of heights find flying uncomfortable. And then there are those, like me, who fear claustrophobia. Our anxiety centres around being held within the confined space of an aircraft for a lengthy period. This may sound odd, but I was happy to read this information. There's comfort in numbers, and also in knowledge. And to know that I wasn't alone made me feel much better. This was the first step towards conquering my fear. I also found comfort in discovering that the manner in which my fear escalated was also a text-book situation. According to McLean, 'Once the fear of flying has become established, it is not uncommon for a fear of fear to develop. In this instance, the fearful flyer becomes concerned that their intense symptoms of anxiety may escalate to a point where they will lose control, suffocate, faint or have a heart attack. It is not surprising that these concerns make the anticipation of a flight even more anxiety provoking.' McLean divides the task of fighting the fear into three sections. First, he explains the physics and the mechanics of flying. For the first time, I know what's behind all those strange, thumping sounds during a flight. I've learned what those chime sounds mean and I now know that they do not signify the fact that turbulence is about to rip the wings right off the plane. Secondly, he quotes statistics to demonstrate how safe modern aircraft are. The numbers are comforting: 31 major airlines have enjoyed a fatality-free record of 20 years - that's 15,521,623 flights without a passenger death. . In 1996 over 55 million passengers passed through London's Heathrow airport, and over 67 million flew through Chicago's O'Hare airport without dying during a flight. McLean also details pilot selection and training, and how the hundreds of rules and regulations make flying in a modern commercial jet far safer than travelling in a car on a suburban street. And thirdly, he explains how unrealistic fears can feed on themselves, creating a vicious circle of mental anxiety and physical responses that can make life unbearable. For me, the most important comment he makes is this: 'To change the way we feel (ie become less anxious), we must change our beliefs about the situation. But is that possible? Look back over your life and you will find numerous examples of beliefs you have given up or modified. At an early age we changed out beliefs about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. We did this because our beliefs did not hold up in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. 'I almost developed a mantra every time I felt my fear - 'Look, this is childish. If you can get over Santa, you can get over this!' Remembering I'd overcome an earlier erroneous thought pattern gave me the confidence that I could do it again.' Besides helping to fight fear on an intellectual level, McLean shows how to control and conquer irrational fear. Using the audio tape, he leads the fearful flyer through exercises in relaxation and positive thinking.His calm, soothing voice gets you to settle in your seat, breathe deeply and, through a pattern of clenching then releasing various muscles, completely relax and calm your mind and body. After a few weeks I found that I had managed to completely banish any nervous apprehensions about flying. Convinced I was cured, I stopped practising my positive thoughts and my relaxation exercises. Not a good idea, because slowly the old, negative thoughts crept back into my head. I returned to Conquer Your Fear Of Flying and found that this reversal of my thought patterns was totally expected. McLean writes, 'In the early stages of changing a belief, it is as if two competing 'tapes' are playing within an individual's thinking. The 'old tape' carries the familiar worrying thoughts about flying, while the 'new tape' carries the positive affirmations of safety and security in the air. The challenge is to tune in to the new tape and forget the old one.' Sad to say, there is no magic button to switch off the unwanted thoughts and switch on the desired ones. The key word in this process is practice. By watching the video regularly, and repeatedly reading the book, new thought patterns are consolidated. And regular use of the audio tape to practice relaxation helps to control anxiety symptoms. Flying now holds no fears for me. I recently had to take a long flight to visit my sister and her new baby. Before my departure, I reminded myself of the very good reason to catch this plane, and of the pleasure waiting at the other end. I also listened to my relaxation tape at least once a day. I boarded the plane, secure in the knowledge that I could easily relax and calm myself should I need to. And when those doors shut, I reminded myself that there was no danger within the aircraft - no reason to want to escape. I managed to eat my dinner, drink some wine and watch the movie. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much, I almost forgot I was on a plane. Neil McLean can be contacted at the Department of Psychology, University of Western Australia, Nedlands, Western Australia 6907. The Ansett Australia's Fear Of Flying self-help kit can be ordered at www.ansett.com.au (see services category). Prices vary according to the type of video: PAL A$79.50 (HK$397.50); NTSC $89.50, plus $13 for international postage and handling.