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A Fear Of Flying Essay By Susan Cross, Ph.D.

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  • A Fear Of Flying Essay By Susan Cross, Ph.D.

    Susan Cross, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in California with an interest in fear of flying. She wrote - and sent - an essay on flying that was inspired by the performance of Southwest Captain Tamie Joe Shults who was impressively calm when dealing with a life-threatening inflight situation.


    The Right Stuff

    I was intrigued this week to spot an unusual headline that read, “Southwest pilot, a former Navy fighter, praised for HER nerves of steel during emergency.” It sounded like a heroic effort, reminiscent of Captain Sully Sullenberger’s famous emergency landing on the Hudson River. As a fearful flyer, I am exquisitely attuned to stories about aviation mishaps and disasters. The biggest jolt to my consciousness, however, was my surprise that the pilot was a woman. Whoa, I didn’t see that coming! I wonder if I’m not alone in assuming that fighter pilots and airline captains are men. I recall a well-known riddle from the ‘70’s about a car crash in which a father is killed, but not his son, who is taken to an emergency room. The surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate on him, he’s my son.” How can this be? The not-so-obvious answer back then was that the doctor was a woman. Research indicates that most people today still struggle to come up with an answer when presented with this riddle, just as I struggled to comprehend that the pilot was a woman. The problem of gender bias is long lingering.

    However, I have an even more embedded bias when it comes to pilots and airlines. The truth is, I avoid flying whenever possible. My fear of flying has been a constant since my first solo flight on a propeller plane when I was in fourth grade. I was probably more uncomfortable leaving home than I was being in the air. But, the seeds of discomfort were planted and, as much as I have flown, I am unnerved whenever the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign goes on. Psychologically, I know that gradual, repeated exposure to feared objects can reduce anxiety. Numerous flights to Europe, Hawaii and other destinations have helped me address my uneasiness, but each trip still feels like a new hurdle. I know that flying is by far the safest way to travel. According to recent statistics, only one flight in eight million crashes. But, every time I board a plane I wonder about my odds.

    Back in the 1980’s, I was one of the first participants in a fear-of-flying program developed by Captain Tom Bunn, who had been a Pan Am pilot. His audio course had written materials that explained how aircraft operate and how relaxation counteracts anxiety. I spoke with him on the phone several times, and his soothing voice was reassuring. The best part of the training was a written letter, signed by Captain Bunn, that I was instructed to show to boarding personnel and flight attendants explaining that I was enrolled in a fear-of-flying course under his supervision. This golden ticket has allowed me to board airliners before other passengers and to be escorted to the cabin to meet the pilot and co-pilot prior to take-off. Family members and others who have flown with me find it amusing and tease me about my special treatment. I think they’re envious. But, truly there’s something about meeting the friendly engineers of my fate that puts me in a good mood.

    Today, after reading articles about the steely-nerved Southwest pilot, Tamie Joe Shults, I realized that I have not once seen a female in the cockpit of a commercial airliner. She’s my new hero and role model for grace under pressure. I listened to her recorded dialogue with the air traffic controller while she was preparing to land the airplane after an engine exploded and a piece of shrapnel blew out a window. Her melodic voice sounded remarkably upbeat and self-assured in the midst of turmoil. According to one story, “Things looked grim aboard the Southwest Airlines flight, but you wouldn’t have guessed it hearing the air of calm from the former Navy fighter pilot guiding the plane to safety.” A passenger relayed, “When it was all over, the pilot came out of the cabin and hugged everyone, telling them, “you all did a great job. You did a really good job.’” Since most of us fearful flyers want to be in control, it is reassuring to hear of a warm, gracious pilot who sees passengers as part of her team.

    My next scheduled flight is to Philadelphia in September for a wedding. In anticipation, I have already re-visited Captain Bunn’s website, fearofflying.com. He has developed sophisticated videos and provides helpful articles and forums for his followers. He contends that people who are reluctant to fly have higher than average intelligence and are extremely creative and imaginative. Of course, I can attest to that. We skittish flyers are able to picture all kinds of dramatic scenarios with little provocation. I plan to continue to use his tools and to attempt to reprogram my thinking. I’m grateful to have a new positive image in my mind of a plane being held in the strong, nurturing hands of a competent female pilot. This mental picture will provide me with more fortification than a vodka tonic. When it comes to women’s capabilities, I’m convinced, more than ever, that the sky is the limit.
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    • A Fear Of Flying Essay By Susan Cross, Ph.D.
      Capt Tom
      Susan Cross, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in California with an interest in fear of flying. She wrote - and sent - an essay on flying that was inspired by the performance of Southwest Captain Tamie Joe Shults who was impressively calm when dealing with a life-threatening inflight situation.


      The Right Stuff

      I was intrigued this week to spot an unusual headline that read, “Southwest pilot, a former Navy fighter, praised for HER nerves of steel during emergency.”...
      05-13-18, 11:17 AM
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