Two wings and a prayer

Harriet O'Brien joined some white-knuckled passengers facing phobia on a Virgin Atlantic non-flight
Can't get out. No control. Turbulence. Toilet problems. We were sitting in a seminar room in Horley calmly listing anxieties at one of Virgin Atlantic's new "Flying without Fear" one-day courses.

Toilet problems? Most of us looked puzzled. This contribution, it later transpired, came from one participant who once airborne would beat a terrified path to the loo and bolt up the fear for as long as possible - acknowledging, once back on the ground, that this was not only irrational but also highly inconvenient to fellow passengers.

Others, meanwhile, related similar symptoms of panic. The 20 course participants were a mixed bunch: several were fairly frequent flyers who would regularly, and grimly, sit through their ordeal (their holidays ruined by dread of the return trip); one had never been in a plane; and some admitted to near-phobia of even entering an airport. Perhaps significantly, there were only four men on the course; it is not, came the quick explanation, that women are necessarily more neurotic than men, it's simply that without macho constraints they tend to be more open and practical about their fears. For my own part, I had been invited as an observer, but one who hoped to gain from the experience - despite an in-built wanderlust, I had recently found myself increasingly uneasy about air travel.

Anxiety over flying is a common problem, we were assured, affecting one in every five people. The course, they said, was designed to eliminate such fears totally - but, they added, even if it didn't completely cure us, we would feel a great deal happier about air travel - provided that we took a flight within two months.

And there lay the paradox: the day's fear-busting did not include a flight itself (unlike similar courses held by several other airlines). The Virgin staff were keen to stress that this was deliberate - keeping pressure and apprehension off participants. It also, they explained, enabled group numbers to be kept small (unlike other courses) so that all questions and all anxieties had a chance of being aired.

So how were they going to be convincing, without presenting us with the final challenge? First off was a session with Norman Lees, one of Virgin's pilots, who heroically (and with an air of missionary zeal) undertook the job of explaining the basics about aerodynamics and the construction of an aeroplane - all within about two hours.

Whoops, you might think, stodgy stuff. In fact this turned out to be gently reassuring: we learnt why it is that a wing couldn't ever just fall off a plane, how 350-plus tons of aircraft actually get off the ground, and how and why aircraft bank (the tilt is never more than 30 degrees, even if you feel as if you've suddenly and involuntarily joined the Red Arrows). And above all we learnt, repeatedly, about the built-in redundancy factor of the average 747 (as flown by Virgin) - four hydraulics systems where only one is really needed, two methods of getting the landing-gear down when only one is necessary, four engines although the plane could get by with one, two pilots ...

Most reassuring of all was being played a tape of engine noises, with accompanying explanations: the high level of noise just before take-off; the unnerving thunk as the wheels are retracted and the undercarriage doors close; the sudden change in volume as engine power is reduced.

Commonly held and deeply rooted fears were also put to rest - "No amount of turbulence on this planet can cause an aircraft to break up," said Captain Lees firmly. And as for total engine failure, this is now extremely unlikely: "The only five occasions when all four engines have cut out have all been over volcanic ash - and, of course, we now have forecasts for volcanic eruptions." Engines, he added, were repeatedly tested - even to the lengths of having frozen chickens thrown at them (presumably with the wrappers off) to simulate flying through flocks of big birds.

It was doubtless without any intended irony that chicken was on the menu for lunch. This was served in full airline packaging in an impressively realistic mock-up of an aircraft cabin - and contrary to my own flights of fantasy we really did eat lunch at lunch time, rather than a set of improbable meals at impossible times of the day.

Having dealt with the hard mechanics of flight, the afternoon was spent exploring the more touchy-feely mechanics of the mind. David Landau, an eminent psychoanalyst and Einstein lookalike with a velvet voice, dwelt on such notions as being in control and the need to get in touch "with the frightened child within". We were talked through methods of relaxation - and put this to the test back in the simulated cabin. Then, once we had been handed a party bag (complete with a relaxation tape) our course was over.

Had it worked? For my part, I certainly feel much happier about the prospect of air travel. And the others?

"Great," said one participant. "It was especially helpful getting hard facts from the pilot. I wasn't quite so convinced about all that mind stuff."

"Not really," said another, looking strained and tearful. "I still don't feel very positive."

"Well," said a third. "I wouldn't have come if we'd had to fly at the end - I'd have imagined that I couldn't have coped. Now I think I'd be prepared to give it a go."

For details of the next Virgin Atlantic course, which costs pounds 99, call 01293 744664.

Several other airlines operate programmes for fearful flyers, all of which culminate in a "flight to nowhere": Britannia Airways (01582 424155) stages two courses a year at its East Midlands training centre; the next is on 18 April. The day includes the a visit to the mock-up cabin used for training crews. The price is pounds 130. A British Airways pilot, Captain Peter Hughes, holds regular courses. The next is at Heathrow on 18 April (pounds 179), with another a week later in Manchester (pounds 149). For bookings, call 0161-832 7972. Air 2000 also runs fear of flying courses; call 0161- 745 4644 for details.