Short, Fast Trip at LAX : Class on Fear of Flying Gets Test

Times Staff Writer

The last time Ada got up the nerve to fly was five years ago. It was a flight from Florida to California and she nervously paced the aisle the entire trip. She wasn't herself.

"I had five Valiums and four glasses of wine," she said.

It has been 15 years since Don last flew. That flight--for reasons he still can't pinpoint--left him afraid to fly, even though as a child he often accompanied his father, a private pilot, into the wild blue yonder.

"I just had a horrible anxiety attack," the 45-year-old Huntington Beach resident said. "God, I couldn't breathe, I thought I was having a heart attack, I broke out in a cold sweat. It was like my heart had stopped and I was in suspended animation."

Meet Once Weekly

Don and Ada are among 34 people who have met once a week at a South Bay hotel since January, hoping to overcome their fear of flying--a phobia that some experts say afflicts as many as 25 million Americans.

For six weeks now, they have gathered one evening a week to listen to Carol Stauffer, a clinical social worker, and former USAir pilot Frank Petee. They tell them why they should not be afraid. A large part of their message boils down to this:

The odds of being fatally injured while flying are a whole lot less than while cruising a Southern California freeway. One estimate says that on a per-mile basis, a person is a hundred times more likely to die on a highway than in an airplane.

"The most common fear is not being in control of the situation, that you are turning your life over to someone else," said Stauffer, who has taught the class since 1975.

'Never Hear Good Things'

"You almost never hear the good things about flying," she said in an interview. "It is not newsworthy."

Stauffer and Petee conduct their classes for USAir. It is similar to others conducted around the country by different individuals or groups. Students, who pay a $250 fee, come from all walks of life. Despite their dread of flying, most of them do so out of necessity and they enrolled in the class to make the experience less traumatic.

"Just sheer grit gets them on the airplane," Stauffer said.

Last week's session was a major event for the students, especially those who had not set foot aboard an aircraft for some time. The lesson plan: Sit aboard a jetliner at Los Angeles International Airport as it races down a runway.

No, there is no takeoff. The class is not ready to leave the ground just yet. This is just a warm up. The jetliner reaches a speed of 138 m.p.h. before braking to a halt. Petee described the experience to the students as an "almost takeoff," designed to link what they have learned in class with the actual experience of being on a moving plane.

Before leaving the hotel for the airport, the class was introduced to the aircraft's crew, including its three flight attendants. The attendants explained how they are trained to handle any emergency that might arise during a flight.

"I guess the obvious question is, 'Have any of you been involved in an evacuation?," one student asked.

No, the attendants replied, although one said she had been aboard an aircraft when its cabin lost air pressure.

"What happens in that?" asked another student.

"You die," joked another student.

Crew Introduced

Once the students were assured that depressurization--when oxygen masks drop from the plane's ceiling--is nothing to fear, the other crew members were introduced. Next, the classroom lights were dimmed and Stauffer led the students through some relaxation exercises. They were told to wrinkle their foreheads by raising their eyebrows. Stauffer slowly counted to five, then told them to relax.

The students then headed for the airport, where they gathered at about 9:30 p.m. at Terminal 1, Gate 14.

Some appeared confident, others nervous as they looked out a window at the 727 that they would board.

As she waited, a woman with fear of flying named Kim said she had not flown for about a year and half. She said her fear was gradual and may have begun years ago when an airliner crashed near her home in the Chicago area. "I had worked myself up to the point where I would almost cry before I had to fly," she said.

Once they were aboard the jetliner and strapped to their seats, the students repeated the relaxation exercises. Then the plane began to taxi as Petee gave a nonstop commentary over the plane's public address system, telling students exactly what was happening inside the cockpit.

Before long, air traffic controllers gave permission for the make-believe takeoff to begin, and Petee passed the word along. He kept talking as the aircraft headed down the runway.

"The airplane is already accelerating quite fast. We are already up to 80 knots, 100 knots . . . "

"Let's get it on," Don blurted out, grinning nervously.

" . . . 115 knots, 120 knots," Petee continued.

Then the student passengers felt as if they were being pulled forward, the way air passengers normally feel during a landing.

"We are reversing," Petee explained. "The brakes are on, the power is back and the spoilers are up."

The students, now familiar with such terms, applauded, and Petee asked if they wanted to try it again. They did.

"Now that was so much easier than the first one," Don said after the second trip down the runway.

Congratulations

Back at the gate, people who once might have rushed off a plane lingered on board, congratulating themselves.

A student named Elizabeth said she was not frightened by the experience. "I knew we weren't going anywhere," she said.

Another student, a middle-aged woman who did not want to divulge even her first name, voiced a similar sentiment: "I have a great sense of reality. I wasn't in the air."

But 36-year-old Celia, who stopped flying more than a dozen years ago, proclaimed a personal victory. "I am so proud of myself, I am elated," she said.

Celia said she is still apprehensive about the one-hour graduation flight that she and the other students were to take this week. Nevertheless, she said, she will definitely be there.

As for Ada, she had "no problem" with racing down the runway. And she, too, said she will attend the graduation flight. Being afraid to fly, she said, puts a crimp in your travel plans. Pretty soon, she said, you run out of places you can drive to.

"I have seen all of California."

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