Overcoming aversion to flying expands options for the (formerly) fearfulEric Macho of Grand Forks isn’t sure when it started, or why, but he does know that fear of flying had a powerful grip on him that eventually he decided was taking too big a toll.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Eric Macho of Grand Forks isn’t sure when it started, or why, but he does know that fear of flying had a powerful grip on him that eventually he decided was taking too big a toll.
The fear was so severe it forced him to cancel nuptial plans in Hawaii, his fiance’s home state, several years ago.
“She was not pleased,” he said.
In December 2008, he refused to fly with family members to Florida for a Christmas vacation. Instead, they drove for three days.
“Nobody was too pleased about it,” he said.
As Macho and others have found, fear of flying can be life-limiting and cripple one’s career.
Different causes may bring it about in different people, but the level of anxiety can be so great that it triggers panic attacks or vomiting merely at the site or mention of a plane or air travel. The fear, a symptom not a disease, is thought to be widespread despite evidence that air travel is becoming increasingly safer.
‘Not about heights’
For Macho, fear of flying is not about heights, he said, noting that he has climbed mountains with no problem.
“It’s tied very much to rides. I don’t do roller coasters.”
Before he got married, a trial run on a scaled-down version at Camp Snoopy in Minneapolis’ Mall of America nearly reduced him to tears. The experience convinced him that a 10-hour flight to Hawaii was out of the question.
Rather, the aversion is linked to feeling trapped and a lack of control.
“You’re in this giant bomb, filled with jet fuel and miles of wiring, that was built by the lowest bidder, traveling 300 miles an hour.”
Macho wondered too about the pilot.
“Who knows what kind of day he’s having? Maybe his wife just left him.”
No matter what comparative statistics he heard about the safety of plane travel, he was not persuaded.
Fear of flying was not always an issue. At age 6, he recalls, he had no trouble on his first plane trip to Florida for a family vacation.
“I have no recollection of a bad experience. In fact, one of my great memories was looking out the window at the clouds.”
About 15 years later, however, facing his second airplane trip, just after the Flood of ’97, it took massive amounts of “self-medication” (beer) to ratchet up sufficient courage to board a plane out of Grand Forks.
He had no car at the time, and a relative found him “super-cheap” airfare to the Twin Cities, he said. As the departure date loomed, fear took over.
“This was pre-9/11,” he said. “The level of inebriation it took to get on the flight probably wouldn’t fly today.”
On the plane, he promptly dozed off until the pilot announced the pending touch-down.
“I realized I was in a plane,” he said. “It’s hard to describe the level of panic and fear that gripped me. Literally, everything in me said, ‘get out of this plane.’ I wanted to rip open that (emergency) door. It was a full-on adrenaline rush.”
The only thing that held him back was knowing the flight would soon end.
A comment his brother made years later led to a change of heart.
He remarked that Macho’s fear was closing him off from opportunities, and that his kids would see that fear.
Macho was determined his children not adopt that mindset, he said.
Also, a chance opportunity to take a helicopter ride, offered by a private group in Grand Forks several years ago, helped to undermine his fear.
The day he saw the helicopter over his house “something just came over me,” he said. “I knew if I could get on that, I could get on anything. I thought, ‘Do it; now’s the time.’”
Mounting the copter with his kids, “the panic set in pretty hard,” he said. “I don’t know how I got on it, but I figured (the ride) was 15 minutes, beginning to end.
“If I started crying or (saying) expletives my kids had never heard come out of my mouth, I thought, ‘I could do some real damage here.’”
He made it through, he said. “It was actually kind of fun.”
Later, his wife, Jamie, mentioned his fear to her doctor who recommended Xanax, a prescription drug used to treat symptoms of anxiety and panic disorder.
Since then, Macho has been taking the prescription when he travels by plane, and “it made all the difference in the world.”
Decision to change
For Diane Olson of Buxton, N.D., the prospect of losing out on a chance to go to Nashville, Tenn., for a professional meeting in 1993 was her milestone.
“I had opportunities before but didn’t pursue them because I was afraid to fly,” she said. “I had a million excuses.”
When the Nashville trip came up, she and her husband, Lee, discussed it.
“He said, ‘either you’re going to have to go for it, or you’re going to miss out on opportunities.’”
She decided that, if she didn’t go, her employer may not offer the opportunity again.
She remembers she “lost a lot of sleep” in the weeks leading up to her trip. And it didn’t help matters when, two days before, a Mesaba aircraft went down near Duluth.
“That kind of shook me up. They blamed it on icing.”
The trip “was tough, but I did it,” she said.
It still unnerves her a bit if she’s on a plane that has to be de-iced, she said. “But I figure nowadays they have things to take care of that.”
Olson traces her fear of flying to a 1941 plane crash near Moorhead that claimed the life of her mother’s first husband.
Years later, growing up as children of her mother’s second husband, Olson and her brother would hear family and friends mention the accident, she said. “When you’re little, you hear things you don’t understand, (and) your parents don’t know you hear...”
They never said anything negative about air travel, she said, and she’s been careful not to pass on her fear to her children.
“They are all OK with flying,” she said. Her son, Lionel, is a pilot.
‘As rational as any fear’
Fear of flying is not irrational, said Ellen Feldman, a psychiatrist with Altru Health System in Grand Forks.
“It’s as rational as any fear.”
Fears develop for many reasons, she said, and are “part of life — part of survival, for that matter.”
Genetics plays a role, too, she said. She often tells her patients not to deny their feelings or think they should not feel what they feel, she said. “It’s important to accept our fears, and not disavow them. That adds another layer of dysfunction.” It may be difficult to isolate the reason for the fear — and it may not be necessary, she said.
In her field, “we ask, ‘does it interfere with functioning?’” she said. “If you don’t fly very often, to take a minor tranquilizer to calm down the cascade of symptoms is reasonable.
“But if you’re in business and have to travel a lot, you may want to look at something else.”
Alternatives to medication include working with a therapist or psychologist and learning biofeedback techniques such as controlled breathing and other steps to slow heart rate.
“If it’s a control issue, and you’re worried about other people being in control, looking at the reasons can be helpful if you want to get to the bottom of it.”
In a program he developed to help people overcome fear of flying, called SOAR, Tom Bunn, a pilot and psychologist, suggests taking a moment to introduce oneself to the pilot upon boarding.
“Giving up control is a major issue, and if you can meet the person that has the control …. then you have a kinship with the person who does have control,” he said in an interview with Fox News.
Macho said replacing his anxious thoughts with the realization that the pilot “has children and doesn’t want to die either” was a step in the right direction.
“It was a way to fight that irrational monkey that’s on me.”
Relief at last
Although he can still feel “high anxiety just thinking about getting on a plane,” Macho said, he has found a solution to the problem that gives him a sense of relief.
Olson uses the same word.
“There’s relief because I know now if I had to go someplace, I could, and go there faster… It frees you up, so you can do things again and enjoy life.”
Since retiring, she and Lee spend part of winter in Arizona, and she says it’s nice to know she could extend her stay after he returns home to work.
Macho is also happy with more freedom.
“Now, if my wife and I see a cheap fare somewhere, we can say, ‘hey, let’s jump on a flight.’”
Call Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1107; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.