The Daily Mail: My name is Jenny Coad and I am afraid of flying.
And I am not alone. There are more than 12 million of us sufferers in the UK, all of whom are terrified at the idea of being 35,000ft up in the air in a vast metal bird.
This is what brings me to a bland, windowless conference room at Heathrow Airport with 250 anxious people split into groups of ten. We are all, to various degrees, affected by The Fear. Some will fly, but only in a state of sweaty paralysis. Others cannot even contemplate boarding a plane, not even to visit loved ones.
We all need help - and have signed up to Virgin Atlantic’s 'Fear Of Flying' course - a programme that is designed to unmask fear, teach us how to conquer it and become content (or at least calm) flyers. The answer isn’t a stiff gin – though I usually find that wonderfully soothing. Too much of the dulling drink and you could end up caught short in a Gerard Depardieu-style pickle.
Our instructors believe that knowledge is power. Their aim is to explain everything about the physics of flying, from how a plane takes off to why it doesn’t matter if lightning strikes (the fuselage, we are told, acts as a 'Faraday’s Cage', spreading the electrical charge over the plane’s surface and protecting the interior).
Even better is the news that turbulence is safe, only uncomfortable, and all those alarming bumps are only inch drops in terms of altitude. These are caused by slight changes in temperature and unstable air. I will try to remember this next time I’m on a wobbly flight. It might just stop me from grabbing the leg of the person sitting next to me – particularly embarrassing when it's snuggly newly-weds.
It is reassuring too, to hear that the wings are virtually indestructible. They won’t simply fall off mid-flight – so there is no need to watch them intently, waiting for signs of impending disaster. To me, this all sounds hugely reassuring. But some people in the room haven’t flown for years - one of them because of a ‘mid-air incident’ that he refers to in sinister tones.Others fear they may pass out, panic, lose control. But we’re all in this together - and concerns, ranging from worries for the health of the pilot to whether the aviation industry is conspiring to withhold the true risks associated with flying - flood the room.
When people ask, ‘how does the pilot know if the wheels have gone down, what if he forgets to shut the doors, what if he’s hung over?’, I wonder how Captain Dave Mabbett - who has flown over 40,000 engine hours and presumably knows a thing or two about aviation - manages to keep his cool.
He does, admirably, and answers everything – and if he can’t, he promises to find out. He explains the complete importance of safety within the airline industry. Air travel, as well as being the safest mode of transport, is constantly improving, he says. There are accidents, but all of them are investigated and lessons quickly learned.
Captain Dave doesn't avoid talking about past crashes. These serve, for many, as examples of why you would be mad to fly. Take the horror of Air France flight 447, which plunged into the Atlantic in 2009, resulting in the deaths of all 228 passengers.
The speed measuring device, which iced up on that particular model of the Airbus 330, was immediately modified on all aircraft. Pilots now attend a training programme outlining exactly what to do when faced with that situation. They are taught to prepare the plane as if for a normal landing by lowering the nose towards the horizon. The aircraft will act like a glider, reach what’s called a ‘known speed’ of roughly 280 miles per hour, and come down at approximately 1000 feet per minute.
David Nott, a 'Cabin Safety and Security Training Instructor', is also on hand too to dispel a few myths about the role of crew on board. They are not just there to sell cigarettes and alcohol. Did you know that all cabin crew members are medically trained? That they can assist with on-board births (one baby girl born on a Virgin flight was named Virginia – poor thing)? That they know exactly how to treat panic attacks and are able to administer life-saving first aid? Training is rigorous and they are re-tested constantly.
Facts, though, aren’t always enough. This is where Geoff Rolls, assistant to Paul McKenna and our hypnotist (I’m not kidding) for the day - comes in. He is here to trick us into flying with confidence – and even enjoying it - again. And not with gin.
Rolls has us tapping our foreheads, pinging elastic bands on our wrists and even holding our tongues. It might sound silly, but this is designed to be a distraction. Holding my tongue and trying not to giggle is certainly diverting. But the technique worked for the aviation-phobic Whoopi Goldberg. The Fear Of Flying team flew to the US to give her one-on-one tuition in 2009. She crossed the Atlantic on her own, quite happily, soon after.
So we take to the air. Up, up and away. Flying with a plane load of petrified passengers is not fun. But the flight is part of the cure. While in the air, the pilot explains exactly what is happening when the plane banks, the engines growl or discomforting mechanical noises sound. I am sitting next to a pale-looking father who hopes to iron out his, and his daughter’s, fears. She’s here too, and so is his wife. He tells me, ‘I usually throw up on flights, so I’m hoping that today will help me with that.’ Me too.
It’s a great relief, for everyone, to land on firm ground. Certificates are handed round, tears wiped away and elastic bands pinged for the last time. I have flown since and, despite it being with Ryanair, found the experience a relaxed one.
The Fear Of Flying course is not a jolly day out. But when you’ve recovered from the experience, you might find that your fear of flying has gone. Otherwise, I’d recommend sticking to the gin and tonic.