Clear the fear and prepare for take off: learning how to fly with confidence

As British Airways steps up efforts to reassure anxious passengers, Simon Calder joins a course designed to calm nerves

The main reason to be cheerful about getting on a plane on a dull afternoon at Gatwick, in my experience, is the prospect of landing somewhere exotic a few hours later. Not on BA flight 9220C. It's going to … Gatwick. And while conditions are calm, this Boeing 737 promises to be an emotional roller coaster for people profoundly convinced they should keep their feet on the ground.

Aerophobia is a dismal condition. Travellers who are fortunate enough to rejoice in the UK's world-beating air-safety record may find it difficult to believe that not everyone is delighted to be aboard an aircraft. But plenty of people harbour deep fears about flying, with tough consequences – feeling unable to visit far-flung family, suffering professionally by declining to fly on business, and missing out on the wonders around the world that aviation unlocks.

"Emotions are far more powerful than thoughts," says Captain Peter Hughes, who has been running the Flying with Confidence programme for 25 years –helping nearly 50,000 anxious travellers. Today another 90 or so have signed up for this latest event, taking place at a hotel beside Gatwick's North Terminal.

By the end of the sessions in the lecture theatre, the participants will learn a great deal. Sessions take you from the Bernoulli principle (by which air flowing above a wing is less dense than that beneath it, which is convenient for getting off the ground and staying aloft) to how to control breathing. Then, from theory to practical: a round-the-houses flight with a skilled team on board to soothe nerves.

This week, British Airways announced a Flying with Confidence book is scheduled to arrive shortly. BA has also loaded a video for nervous flyers on inflight entertainment systems. Yet for Annabel – who works in aviation but was traumatised by severe turbulence during a flight over the Bay of Bengal –there is nothing quite like seeing a real-life line-up of pilots and cabin crew. "I want to be a normal passenger again," she confides.

What she needs is a confident, softly spoken Scot to reassure passengers that stepping aboard a BA jet is about the safest activity they could contemplate. Handily, Captain Andy Shaw is leading proceedings. Yesterday, Capt Shaw commanded a 777 from New York to Heathrow. Today, he has a trickier job: "I want to make sure that people enjoy the flying experience."

The reality is that flying on a UK airline is about the safest activity on the planet. The last fatal event involving a British jet aircraft was in January 1989 at Kegworth, Leicestershire. Since then, around two billion of us have travelled safely.

Yet a significant minority of people (perhaps one in four) are, for their own good reasons, terrified of being aboard a plane. Women are more susceptible, often acquiring a fear after becoming a mother. The media has a lot to answer for, with the popularity of shows such as Air Crash Investigation – and headlines such as "Jet plunges thousands of feet". (Google that phrase, and you get 3.3 million results, none of which involve jets plunging thousands of feet.)

Even confident flyers can take away plenty of useful information. While the angle of banking during a turn may feel like 90 degrees, in fact the maximum is 25 to 30 degrees. Light turbulence is like driving a car over cobbles. Anything trickier is usually avoidable due to sophisticated, colour-coded weather radar: "I don't get paid enough to fly through the red bit," says Capt Shaw.

Lunch is convivial, with pilots and cabin crew on hand to listen to travellers' tales. Sian has to fly because of her work in the theatre, but she hates the lack of control involved in flying. Her coping strategy? "I make myself really tired so I'm knackered when I get on the plane."

To deal with the tangle of anxieties, the speakers include Patricia Furness-Smith, a psychologist who is co-author of the new book (along with Captain Steve Allright, part of the Flying with Confidence team). "Fear is like a bully," she tells the audience. "The more you allow it, the stronger it gets. Today you have decided to stand up to it." She also points out: "Whether you're wearing your lucky red knickers or not will have no effect on how the pilot flies the plane."

More than 100 people, an indeterminate number of whom are wearing charmed underwear, turn up at Gate 55 for the flight. Some participants are joined by their partners (who pay a discount rate) for emotional support during the flight.

A handful of people go no further than the boarding gate. One declines to step over the threshold from the air bridge. Perhaps next time.

Those of us who elect to fly are treated to a journey like no other. Captain Shaw could get a job on talk radio, with his ability to speak non-stop. (He isn't flying the thing, just talking about it.) "All they're listening for is a voice," he tells me. "It doesn't really matter what I'm saying." Yet his commentary is fascinating – explaining every bump and whirr, with highlights from the control tower. "You may be just about to see a 'go-around'," he says, as an easyJet plane approaches the runway while another aircraft takes off. Gatwick has the world's busiest runway, but Britain also has the best air-traffic controllers; the inbound plane does not abort, and lands normally.

As the take-off roll begins, the tension increases – but the cabin crew, accustomed to identifying the most fearful flyers, is on hand to soothe and even find time to serve tea. After the ceremonial letting-go of the armrests – and the revelation that the plane stays aloft – we cruise over Sussex, Hampshire and the Channel for 40 minutes, then come back to Earth with barely a bump.

As the plane taxis to the gate, there are plenty of tears and hugs (in the cabin – not, as far as I know, on the flight deck), plus a sense of elation. The toughest thing these people had ever done was to turn up for the day. Now the world has opened up. "At the start of the year, I couldn't have believed I could do this," says Duncan, in the next seat. "Life is too short to cut yourself off from so many experiences."

Getting airborne

Flying with Confidence courses (01252 793250; take place at Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow; prices from £249 to £279. Virgin Atlantic also runs courses (

The new book Flying with Confidence from British Airways by Patricia Furness-Smith and Captain Steve Allright is published by Vermilion on 7 March, 2013, £9.99.

BA's inflight video is at

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
world cup 2014LIVE BLOG: Hosts Brazil take on the Netherlands in third-place play-off
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
life...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice