I’m not afraid any more. by Hazel Gilbertson
When it comes to flying, former aviophobic Hazel Gilbertson has her feet firmly on the ground. I took my first flight more than a decade ago. I remember how excited I was as the plane taxied towards the runway. As it paused for the final okay from air-traffic control, my excitement grew. Then, suddenly, the engines roared into life, the plane started shaking, and even before we’d started moving, my fingers were wound tightly round the arm-rests and inwardly I was screaming desperately for someone to let me off. I was terrified. Things went downhill rapidly from there. By the time I got off the plane at the other end, I was a quivering mass of nerves. It ruined my holiday as I spent the two weeks worrying about the return flight. Once home, I swore I would never get on a plane again – a promise I have broken only in extreme circumstances. My team for the day consisted of Captain Keith Godfrey, a retired British Airways captain and training pilot; co-pilot Mike Elms, a first officer commercial pilot; I was surprised by how bad I felt that morning. I knew I would be in a simulator. I knew I wouldn’t be leaving the ground. But I was suffering from nausea and trepidation, as if I was about to get on a real flight. I would have given anything to get up and walk out. “Okay, then, Hazel,” Keith began, “let’s start on a few basic points. What are your main concerns about flying?” Where to begin? “Well, I don’t like the feeling of taking off much,” I offered. “I’m always waiting for the back of the plane to hit the runway, and bang, a complete ball of flames. Then once we’re up, and the plane’s banking, I’m terrified we’re going to clip something and bang, ball of flames.” I was in my stride now, grateful to be able to let it all out. “Landing is just as bad. Coming back down through the clouds with all that turbulence is awful. When I came back from Spain last year, the cloud was so low, and the plane was being buffeted about so much, I swear when we finally made it through the cloud, the plane was practically at a right angle and the wing was that much off the runway.” I pinched my fingers together about an inch apart. “When we actually do get on the runway, what if the brakes fail? We’ll go scooting off into a building and bang, ball of flames.” Embarrassed, I paused. But nobody was laughing at me. “Am I the worst?” I asked. “Not at all.” said Keith. “So taking off and landing are problematic, but you’re okay while you’re up there?” “Not exactly. I have panic attacks about the engines failing mid-flight and we fall out of the sky. Bang. Ball of flames.” “Well, we’ve certainly got some work to do today,” said Keith. “Come on, let’s go flying.” We entered a corridor with glass on either side from which I could see the four simulators available. They were bigger than I’d expected. My nerves were beginning to jangle again. As we approached the B767 where my “flight” would take place, I could feel my legs start to wobble. Keith took me through the safety procedures for evacuating the simulator in the event of a fire in the building, or a breakdown in the mechanics of the simulator, and, after strapping me into my seat – with a prime view out of the front of the cockpit – showed me where the panic buttons were, which would stop the simulator immediately if I felt the need. “We stop whenever you feel it necessary, and we don’t do anything you don’t want to do,” said Keith. Although I was at Heathrow, the simulated flight was to be from Gatwick airport. The view of the runway when the simulator started up was frighteningly real. Keith talked me through what was happening in the plane as we headed up the runway. He explained why the engines made the noises they did, why the plane shuddered so much before take off, and why on most flights, banking happened so quickly after leaving the ground. More important, he explained how the plane couldn’t “overbank”, and would most certainly not clip anything. But it still took us three attempts to get up the runway before I would let them take off. Once up, of course, you have to get down somehow. Keith and Mike took me through the whole process again, talking me through every noise, every bump, every aspect of landing. They even showed me how it would have been impossible for my flight from Spain to have come in to land the way I had described earlier. I could feel my confidence growing, and I wanted more. I wanted turbulence. We took off again from the now familiar Gatwick runway and headed towards the south coast. Mike hit the button for slight turbulence. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so bumpy but I stuck with it. When we hit medium turbulence I was a bit less sure. Severe turbulence pulled me right back down to earth. I was scared again. Keith turned round in his seat to talk to me. I turned in my seat to see what Mike was doing, and to my horror instead of flying the plane he was looking out of the window. I panicked. “Mike, what are you doing?” He didn’t even look round. “I’m just looking to see if I can see the Isle of Wight,” he replied. That’s when it struck me. We were 35,000ft over the south coast, experiencing severe turbulence; the pilot was holding a conversation with me and the co-pilot was looking for the Isle of Wight. If they felt in complete control then why shouldn’t I? That was the turning point for me and I felt myself relaxing. When we finally left the simulator for the post-flight talk, I felt great. I could have got on a plane right there and then and flown anywhere. “We do advise people to fly within four weeks of doing the course,” said James. “Memories of what you’ve experienced in the simulator tend to dim slightly after that.” Still confident, I booked a flight to Cork to visit some friends three weeks later. The morning of the flight I rang Keith. I admitted I didn’t feel great, but I had slept the night before, which I didn’t normally do before flying. He assured me that was a step in the right direction, and told me how brave I was for doing the course in the first place. Sitting on the runway waiting to take off, I began to panic slightly. The engines burst into life and we sped towards take-off. I closed my eyes and imagined myself back in the simulator. I heard Keith and Mike talking me through everything, and I began to calm down. After that, whenever I felt anxious, I did the same again. I ended up quite enjoying the flight, and hardly thought about the return trip the whole time I was in Cork. Three months on, I have trips planned for the coming year. All of them entail flying, and I’m almost looking forward to it. Of course I’ll be taking my own personal crew of Keith and Mike with me. Just in case.
Reproduced from the Sunday Telegraph, 19th June 2002.