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White-Knuckle Crowd Can Learn to Leave Terra Firma Behind

May 15, 1995

FEAR OF FLYING leaves many people earthbound.

Everyone knows a friend or relative who shuns the sky for terrestrial transport by train, bus or car. The phobia is further fueled after an airline disaster, when sufferers read media coverage of icy wings, wind shear, pilot error, mechanical failure and the grim search for the black box.

Boeing Co. estimates 25 million Americans have flying phobias. If each canceled but one flight, the fiscal toll would top $9 billion. The psychic toll is incalculable.

But it’s not incurable. While many people simply load up on alcohol or sedatives to mute their fears, thousands are trying another way.

Plane-scared travelers now are attending some 30 classes nationwide sponsored by airlines, pilots’ groups, and independent therapists. Many airports offer consumer referrals.

Several times a year, a clutch of fearful fliers gather in United Air Lines’ VIP Lounge at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday nights for two months _ in a quest to master their anxiety.

Steeped in safety statistics, briefed by pilots and mechanics, and armed with a firsthand look at maintenance operations, they end the class with a short graduation flight.

Jeanne McElhatton, director of the San Francisco Fear of Flying Clinic for 20 years, claims a 95 percent success rate.

Ms. McElhatton, a pilot herself, says fear of flying may flow from acrophobia (fear of heights), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) or simply a feared loss of control.

Magnifying that fear can be any major life change: marriage or divorce, job change, death of a parent or birth of a child, she says. Many working parents who must leave a child for business trips suffer acute separation anxiety _ often a prelude to a flying phobia.

WHAT FINALLY propels people into a class may be a job opportunity requiring travel, a lost promotion because they wouldn’t travel, a vacation prize, or the need to visit a sick family member. Clients range from 11 to 80 years old, from never-fliers to white-knuckled frequent fliers.

``We’ve been credited with saving marriages,″ Ms. McElhatton says.

One man’s family canceled several trips to Hawaii after he bolted from the gate right before takeoff. The third time he balked, his family flew without him. He took the class.

Of course, most people already know flying is statistically the safest mode of travel. The classes work to let intellectual knowledge percolate down to gut-level emotions.

Psychologist Paula Zimmerman, a key member of the teaching team, uses behavior modification with deep breathing and relaxation exercises to break the spiral of panic. She also insists clients confront and dispute their irrational fears with facts.

Clients write down lists of things that unnerve them in flight _ like noises or bumps _ and how they interpret them (usually as a harbinger of doom).

For example, clients were asked to write their usual thoughts during turbulence. They wrote: ``I’ll be shaken out of control.″ ``We may plunge downward.″ Panic reigned.

But after several classes in aerodynamics and weather, clients wrote different thoughts: ``Pilots are trained to fly in turbulent weather.″ ``Most turbulence is uncomfortable, but not dangerous.″

One recent graduate is a fashion merchandiser who needed to fly monthly from San Francisco to Chicago _ and occasionally to Europe _ for work. Each groan or tremor of the plane gripped her with ``a paralyzing fear,″ she says.

In class, she learned to master fear with facts about weather and aerodynamics, and calm her anxiety with deep breathing. ``Now when there’s turbulence, I say, `Aha, it’s an air current.′ I know what the noises (like hydraulics and landing gear) mean.″

SINCE HER graduation flight last November, she’s taken nine trips, and now counsels other white-knuckled passengers. ``I’m very proud of this,″ she says.

Another graduate is a Silicon Valley CEO, who used to dodge trips. ``Then I decided this was a career-limiting move, and I’d better get over it,″ he says. He enrolled in the clinic.

``It worked in mysterious ways,″ he says. ``Being a scientist, the information worked for me, especially the stats on crashes compared to other causes of death,″ he adds. After that, ``the more I flew the better it got.″ Since taking the class, he’s flown 15 trips to Europe and Asia and countless trips within the U.S.

``I no longer consider myself a fearful flier,″ he says.

CLASSES ARE AVAILABLE at many major airports around the country:

_ In New York City, Carol Cott Gross runs the Fly Without Fear Program at La Guardia Airport.

_ In Seattle, pilot June Blackburn runs a Fear of Flying Clinic that is a sister program to the San Francisco clinic.

_ In Los Angeles, psychologist Glenn Arnold runs seminars and private therapy sessions out of his Newport Beach, Calif., office.

_ At Chicago-O’Hare International Airport, fliers are referred to the Pegasus Foundation and United Airlines Capt. Dave Linsley, who gives seminars in several major cities and is developing a video course.

He also recommends ``The Fearful Flyers Resource Guide,″ edited by Barry Elkus, published by Argonaut Entertainment of Cincinnati.