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You could say I was born to fly. My mother worked for Pan Am for almost 35 years, including a stint as a flight attendant, and my father was a member of a flying club as a child and a member of the Yugoslav air force as an adult, before he settled in the US and had me. With the help of my mother’s generous travel privileges, we flew to Hawaii every summer and spent weekends in the Caribbean. As a kid, I was even signed up for Pan Am’s first flight to the moon. (I didn’t go. Neither, for that matter, did Pan Am.)
Starting in college, though, something changed. A terrifying flight in bad weather from Fort Lauderdale to New York-JFK left me so shaken up that I still can’t even recall the landing. What I do remember is that I had what was my first panic attack in the air: racing heart, difficulty breathing and feeling like I was about to pass out for 45 minutes. I vowed I would never fly again.
Of course, I had to, though I avoided airplanes whenever possible. Graduate school took me to Europe, and I settled in Brussels and then Paris, where I live now. (Full disclosure: I’m not writing this under my real name, because my employer doesn’t allow me to write for other publications.)
But on each flight, the experiences grew worse, the strange takeoff noises more terrifying. Xanax and other solutions didn’t work for me. By 2012, when I was pregnant with my first child, I stopped flying entirely.
It would take me six years before I could step foot on a plane again.
In 2016, for my birthday, my husband enrolled me in an Air France class for people with aviophobia. It took me nearly two years to actually attend, but I missed home, I missed the US, I missed my friends and even the giant malls and Pizza Hut. And I didn’t want my children to grow afraid of flying like their mother.
I promised myself I was going to fly again.
Before I took the class, though, I had to sit down with an Air France psychologist at the carrier’s fancy offices between the Seine and Esplanade des Invalides. We spoke for an hour, and he told me what I’d need to focus on in my upcoming class. He also said he was available for a follow-up visit, if I needed it. It would turn out I didn’t.
The class itself convened at the Air France training facility for pilots at Paris Orly (ORY), a 45-minute train ride away for me. It was a modern, one-story building that included a large room full of flight simulators and part of a plane interior for cabin crew to practice emergency procedures. The first part of our class, however, was in a plain old classroom, half high-school lecture and half group therapy session.
The class was limited to three students. My classmates were both 30-something office workers, a man and a woman who didn’t know each other. He’d just gotten engaged and was planning a honeymoon across the globe with his bride. She had an upcoming transatlantic trip. Both wanted to learn to control their panic attacks in case the planes hit bad air.
“Whenever there’s turbulence, I feel like I’m going to pass out!” he said.
“Me too!” the rest of us chimed in, as the teachers smiled at each other, knowingly.
The teachers, by the way, were all Air France personnel, and had all volunteered to teach the class. They weren’t getting paid extra to do it, they just wanted to help people overcome their fear of flying. One was a pilot and two were flight attendants, one of whom was a sophrologist (a practitioner of a yoga-based relaxation technique popular in France).
Not surprisingly, we started off with exercises designed to help us relax, including how to sit, breathe and visualize peaceful scenes. But then they talked about they themselves felt during a flight: The flight attendant who wasn’t a sophrologist walked us through the training she got and what her job entailed, including how she dealt with nervous flyers. The pilot, who lived in Toulouse with her two kids and flew regional routes, did the same from her point of view, explaining that she didn’t feel afraid when she flew, even in turbulence, because it was all so routine and because she knew how it all worked. She answered any questions we could come up with. Hearing how the the crew felt during a flight was more reassuring than I’d expected: If anyone had reason to be afraid of flying, it was them. And yet here they were, teaching us to be unafraid.
That’s when the pilot delved into the technical aspects of flight — she essentially demystified how airplanes stay in the air. She even described the sounds a plane makes, including those mysterious bangs, shrieks and pops that made my stomach churn, and painted a mental picture of what was really going on, and why we didn’t need to worry. The malevolent gremlins that had held me hostage at 35,000 feet were now mundane and ignorable — climate-control fans, airflow over the fuselage and the creaking of flight spoilers — about as nonthreatening as a house settling or an air conditioner rattling as it hits speed.
Then came the fun part:.
We walked over to a big room full of them and lined up just like the other pilots who were there waiting their turns — after all, this was where Air France pilots really went to polish their skills. The simulators were big boxes on hydraulic lifts that moved up and down, forward and backward, to give the illusion of flight. Each looked exactly like a cockpit inside, with all the instruments and displays, two seats in front and two in back and photorealistic, computer-generated scenery out the windows. Over the next two hours, we three students took turns as co-pilot while the pilot led us through simulated takeoffs and landings in a variety of conditions, like fog or night landings. We went through flight checks, took off, flew, landed and practiced more emergency situations than I knew existed.
The simulators just impressed upon me what the teachers had already told me: Flying is routine, the pilots are trained to the teeth, and when something bad happens, they react with their training, not by instinct. They also taught me that computers are involved in so much of a flight, especially when there’s low visibility, that the possibility of human error is remote — though they also stressed that the pilots can and do take over when the need arises.
Still, I found myself scared inside the simulators. It was claustrophobic, and the turbulence, even simulated, was unnerving. I had trouble breathing and realized my fear ran even deeper than I’d thought.
“The class isn’t a magic solution,” one of the teachers said.
Instead, conquering my fear would be a process, taking a lot of time, patience and work on my part.
When we emerged from the simulator, three Air France pilots were waiting impatiently for their turn. We’d gone two minutes over our allotted time, and time is money. The next pilots quickly popped into the box to begin their session — the simulators, I learned, are how they get practice on the latest guidance for the planes they fly.
Technically, the class was over shortly after we emerged from the simulator. But I still had to take my final: a real flight.
But I wouldn’t be doing it alone.
When I signed up for the class, Air France entered my name into a database it keeps of nervous flyers. The crew of any Air France flight I take from now on will know that I have issues with flying, and will be prepared. (You can ask Air France to let other airlines know if you’re taking one of their flights. The teachers said they’re mostly all understanding.)
Before I even boarded my flight from Paris CDG to JFK a couple months ago, the staff knew I was coming. While we were still on the tarmac, they introduced themselves to me and made sure I was comfortable at my seat. They even took me into the cockpit to meet the pilots, a special treat. Once we were in the air, they paid me special attention and checked on me at key points during the flight.
One of the key lessons we learned at Orly was that you should try to nip a panic attack in the bud, getting it under control before it becomes uncontrollable. Once your panic reflexes set in, it’s hard to stop that ball from rolling. I won’t lie: I still have problems with turbulence. But when we hit some rough air over the Atlantic, one of the flight attendants came over, helped me improve my sitting posture and led me through breathing exercises. I sat upright. I breathed. I breathed again. I breathed more deeply and more slowly. I calmed down.
The descent into JFK was a bumpy one. It was my first time, so I was already a bit antsy. I had a window seat on the wing, and we were stuck flying circles over New York because we were caught between two thunderstorms. The guy next to me decided he’d tried to relieve my stress by telling jokes about plane crashes. In other words, it was prime material for a panic attack.
But I thought back to what they told us at the training at Orly. I remembered the simulations where we practiced flying through storms, and how there was seemingly a protocol for every possible situation. My fingers dug into the handrests, but I smiled politely and nodded as I let each dumb, inappropriate plane joke wash over me. I looked out the window and watched the enormous wing swing up and down and instead of panicking, I realized, with growing pride: “Well, here I am, coming home. This would’ve been impossible a year ago. It’s progress, after all.”