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.

Suggested Topics
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Network Manager - Oldham area - Up to £30,000

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

Teacher of special needs required for Burton on Trent

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Exciting Opportunity, Rand...

Behaviour Support Assistant

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Behaviour Support Worker Th...

Youth Worker / Teaching Assistant - Nottingham

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are looki...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home