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Conquering a Fear of Flying
AOL Family Health
Published: Sep 8, 2010

For 25 years, Judith Kiss' fear of flying made her avoid airports.

"I've driven to Florida; I've driven to Alaska," said Kiss, a social worker who lives in New York state.

She started suffering from claustrophobia in 1985 when she became pregnant. She said that as soon as the airplane door closed, she would panic that the plane's ventilation system wouldn't provide enough oxygen.

Over the years, her family has had to reject overseas vacation invites from friends. But this past spring, she completed a class designed to help people with a fear of flying, and last month, she was able to go to Bermuda. It was a place she loved in her 20s and had dreamed of revisiting.

"There's a place that everybody feels is their paradise," Kiss said. "The cleanliness, nice people, turquoise water, the pink sand, the palm tree in the breeze, the blue sky. That was my dream to go back there. It was wonderful."

Called Freedom to Fly, the course helps students conquer their fear by having them board stationary planes. Twice a year, a group of 15 to 20 students meet at the White Plains Airport, located about 35 miles north of New York City.

Students range from teenagers to octogenarians. They get fake boarding passes and have to clear security -- a lesson in itself for the students who haven't flown in decades and are unaware of post-September 11 practices.

"I didn't know anymore what planes were like," Kiss said.

Participants learn aviation facts from a former airline pilot, including that a plane can glide to safety even with all engines out. Martin Seif, a New York-based anxiety and phobia specialist, teaches the students tips like how to keep yourself in control by rating your anxiety on a one to 10 scale at several points during the flight.

As many as one in five Americans dread getting on planes, Seif said. Busloads of celebrities reportedly avoid planes, including Aretha Franklin and John Madden.

Since 9/11, the number of those afflicted with the phobia has risen even more due to tightened security and the threat of terrorism, he said.

Fear of flying actually combines several phobias -- claustrophobia, fear of heights and agoraphobia, said Mark Pfeffer, a Chicago-based phobia specialist. One plane-phobic person may get sweaty imagining the plane falling from the sky, while another doesn't obsess over death but feels trapped when the airplane door is shut, he said.

The final Freedom to Fly test is the last class of the seven sessions: a round-trip on a regular commercial flight to Boston.

Last spring, students faced a wind-whipped and rain-soaked Boston. The flight was wildly bumpy, Kiss said. Afterward, Dick Bracken, the former on-board pilot, said it was one of the most turbulent flights he'd been on in his 30 years of professional flying.

Only one flight was worse, said Bracken, 76, who has worked with the Freedom to Fly program since it started 12 years ago.

"I always say to these people I admire their courage," Bracken said. "You can't be courageous if you don't experience fear."

Weeks later, Kiss took another commercial flight with two other students she met in the class.

"We ended up sitting on plane in D.C. for two hours. That's a situation when my claustrophobia could have kicked in, but it didn't," she said.

Kiss' successful experience with the program is typical, said Judy Chessa, the Freedom to Fly program coordinator. Graduates send her postcards from places they later fly to.

"I have a door full of postcards; it's fabulous," she said.

If a fear of flying has developed into a phobia, seek a doctor's guidance before trying to overcome it on your own. However, if you have only a mild fear of flying, you may want to consider these tips before boarding your next flight:

- Consider preparing an "in-the-moment" bag with a crossword puzzle, electronic device, notepad, piece of candy or gum, and a picture of someone to distract you when anxiety begins to strike.

- Realize that you've overcome other fears, such as being afraid of the dark or worrying you would fall off a bike when you were a child.

- Know the stats. Plane crashes have declined over the years. In 2007, the chance of being in a fatal plane crash was one in 100,000, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.