‘Get me off!’: Terrifying flight I’ll never forget
I am about 75m above ground on a blustery Victorian winter's morning, admiring a panoramic, 360 degree view of the landscape surrounding Melbourne Airport.
A steady flow of aircraft - big, small and in between - take off, land and taxi across the two intersecting runways at Australia's second-busiest airport, which hosts more than 35 million people every year.
Being so far above the ground in an enclosed room, watching planes wibble and wobble their way back to firm ground would normally send my mind into overdrive, my heart racing and palms sweaty but I'm struck by how calm I am. It's almost a serene experience, witnessing the seemingly endless stream of aircraft doing their thing from such a great height, almost like watching a highly organised ant colony go about its work with mechanical precision.
It's day two of an intense course I hope will finally end, or at the very least minimise, my fear of flying. I'm inside the operations centre at the top of Melbourne's Air Traffic Control Tower, with a handful of "class mates" who have also been granted access to this usually restricted area as part of the four-day Fearless Flyers course - the second oldest of its kind in the world, which has been running since 1979.
At 39 years old, I have flown extensively from a young age and as a child never felt any fear towards flying. But as I got older, my anxiety and fears (especially during turbulence) have grown exponentially worse.
I've never avoided a flight but have generally self-medicated with prescription drugs and/or alcohol, with the aim to try to sleep through as much of a flight as possible, so as to not be conscious of my anxiety. But after a trip to Europe last year with our first child when he was three months, I had to stay alert and engaged with our baby because it's a gruelling, challenging journey and I couldn't knock myself out and leave my wife to handle our child by herself.
That trip to Europe and back was enormously challenging for me to do "sober" and at times I was a nervous wreck. My wife and I have spoken about my nervousness on flights for years but I'd never acted on it, but upon our return from Europe, we decided the situation had to change and I had to do something to get over my fears.
Supported by Qantas and Air Services Australia, this course offers unparalleled access to aviation facilities including flight simulators, stationary aircraft, emergency training centres, air traffic services and of course the striking 75m-tall control tower.
Held in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, each course is a run by a team of volunteers including experienced Qantas pilots, aircraft engineers, cabin crew members and ground staff - as well as aviation weather experts from the Bureau of Meteorology - who educate and reinforce just how safe flying actually is. A highly experienced clinical psychologist with expertise in fears, phobias and anxiety issues is employed to complete the package that costs $950 including return flights on "Graduation Day".
It is estimated that 10 per cent of the world's population refuses to fly, with between 20 and 40 per cent experiencing some form of anxiety when they do so but as Dr Alison Smith reinforces regularly during our program, fear and anxiety are often unrealistic.
"Anxiety and fear are emotions," she says. "Fear of flying may involve a fear of the consequences - 'what if the engines fail?' - or it may also result from other worries, such as being in enclosed spaces, or not being in control, or fear of panicking, or heights.
"Extreme, uncontrollable anxiety, where there is no real threat, is very unpleasant. It can have long-term consequences and can interfere with our normal activities."
Our group is diverse, made up of young and mature, professionals and students, city slickers and country folk ranging in age from early 20s to 60s. There are those with extreme phobias - some having refused or been unable to fly for years - and those with milder cases, myself included, who just want to be able to fly without constant anxiety or having to self-medicate with prescription medication and/or alcohol. Others are there to be educated about the perceived mysteries of aviation - how the aircraft stays in the air, such as the "what ifs", turbulence and pilot training. One of the attendees flew in from Adelaide - the irony of having to catch a flight to attend a Fearless Flying course not lost on anyone!
Our time with Dr Smith is invaluable. In group sessions and one-on-one chats, she helps drill down into the emotional, physiological and physical causes of our fears, and how to overcome them.
Dr Smith says a key weapon is the ability to draw upon the lessons from the experts we've spoken with - information is power, after all - and trying to focus on the facts rather than what she terms "anxiety biases." She adds that accepting one's anxiety, rather than trying to fight it, is also a powerful tool.
"Accept your anxiety," she says. "You can say to yourself 'I notice I'm feeling anxious - but it's OK'. Practice being comfortable with your anxiety.
"And always focus on the facts, rather than your feelings - you may fear the wings will fall off, or that the plane will be unable to handle turbulence. But is there any evidence to support your fear? No. So try to tell yourself - 'I may feel this, but I know that.'
"You may be uncomfortable - but you're never unsafe."
Each of us are encouraged to create a plan for our next flight, reinforcing key lessons to help us cope during what is still a stressful experience.
It's a plan we have to put into place during our "graduation flights" from Melbourne to Sydney and back on the final day. We fly as a group, accompanied by a Qantas pilot and engineer, airline industry staff and Dr Smith but despite our best intentions and improvements from day one, it doesn't go smoothly for everyone. Two class members don't make the flight, while another experiences a fairly significant anxiety attack on the takeoff from Melbourne. It's a confronting sight to witness, with screams of "Get me off!" and "I don't want to be here!" echoing through the cabin as our plane surges into the sky.
Thankfully, the volunteers guiding our class are on hand, assisting the panic-stricken passenger to remain calm for the rest of the flight.
Our half-day in Sydney before returning is spent eating a sumptuous lunch and bonding over our worst flight "war stories" and our renewed confidence about what our future sky-high adventures may hold.
We're soon back in Melbourne, on terra firma after a drama-free flight. We're all amazed at how far we've come in a matter of days. Most of us doubt we'll ever be able to enjoy flying but all of us already feel less anxious and, more importantly, confident in our education and techniques which we can work on before we next take to the skies.
About a month after the completion of his course, the author again flew from Melbourne to Sydney return. He felt uncomfortable, but not unsafe, and trusted the facts over his feelings.
To get full details of just what this comprehensive course covers visit fearlessflyers.com.au
Have you got a fear of flying? Email us your experience at email@example.com