American Morning

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December 23rd, 2010
05:30 AM ET

Overcoming a fear of flying

By Allan Chernoff, CNN Sr. Correspondent

Laura Edmonds has a look of horror on her face as she turns to look out the airplane window. "I'm not crazy about that shake," she exclaims before putting her hand on her heart and closing her eyes. "I'm going to think about my good place," which for Edmonds is her memory of bonding with her son right after his birth.

Edmonds, a 44-year-old realtor from Connecticut, has an intense fear of flying. It's not the threat of terrorism that worries her, but rather the possibility of mechanical failure. She says she imagines the plane plunging to the ground because the engines may fall off. So every few minutes she glances out the window to make sure they're still attached.

It is a fear that has gripped her for 18 years, since her wedding day when she says she obsessed about the flight she would take the following day for her honeymoon to Italy.

"I couldn't enjoy my wedding day. I had this wonderful wedding surrounded by love and family but the only thing I could think about was the next day," says Edmonds.

Since then she has tried prescription medications and cocktails to make it through flights. But, she says, they've been no help in easing her anxiety. She has dragged her family on the train from Connecticut to Florida, insisted on long drives and tried to avoid flying at all costs. Even when friends fly Edmonds says she worries, counting the hours till they arrive at their destination. It's been three years since Edmonds has stepped on a plane.

Yet here she is now, 20,000 feet above the ground onboard a turbo-prop that's en-route from New York's LaGuardia to Baltimore-Washington International airport. She is hoping this is the flight that will overcome her fear.

"I feel the seat. I feel the seat against my arm. I feel my hands," recites Edmonds, her eyes still closed. She is attempting to redirect her mind, one of several so-called "strengthening exercises" she recently learned from the SOAR video course designed to overcome fear of flying. The idea is to focus on the moment, rather than the abstract.

Former Pan Am and United pilot Tom Bunn, President of SOAR, Inc., instructs clients in the basic mechanics of flying and teaches them to control their thoughts.

"Most of my work is how do I keep them from imagining the things that they believe are happening when they are not," says Bunn. "When they can tell the difference between imagination and reality, that they are going to be OK."

Before boarding the U.S. Airways flight, Edmonds presented a letter from Bunn to the flight attendant asking to speak with the captain. He gladly obliged, telling her he's been flying for more than two decades and assured her. "You're going to be fine," he says. "We're going to take good care of you."

During takeoff Edmonds looks to the flight attendant for reassurance. On her lap is a loose leaf binder of Captain Bunn's tips, Edmond's version of CliffsNotes for her flight.

When the flight attendant offers drinks, Edmonds places her cup of water on the tray table and studies it, tangible evidence that the plane is barely shaking.

Yet another coping strategy is breaking down the flight into pieces, like eating a hamburger bite-by-bite. "If you think about it in small pieces and getting through each of the pieces, that's a little easier than thinking of the whole hamburger because it's very overwhelming and it becomes paralyzing," says Edmonds.

"Ladies and gentlemen we are approaching Baltimore," announces the flight attendant.

Edmond is relying heavily on Bunn's coping strategies during the 90-minute flight. But she's coping.

As the wheels touch down Edmonds' face lights up.

"Yay! I did it," she exclaims to the pilot.

"Congratulations," he responds.

Back on terra firma Laura Edmonds exults. "I feel so uplifted," she says. "I feel really proud of myself. I'm not trapped. I don't feel so paralyzed."

So much so that Edmonds claims she’s ready to fly to the Caribbean for a vacation on the island of St. Barts.

"It'll take some doing. But I'm ready to go!"

Filed under: American Morning
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Brooke Owen-Thomas

    Thank you so much for doing this story. I joined SOAR about 20 years ago and have been working with Capt Tom Bunn everytime I fly and will state for fact he is a patient man. Two years ago I called him from Venice in tears about a flight the next day and with his help the evening was recaptured. Flying is a step by step process, and getting over the fear of it is step by step. After all these years and viewing the programs before I fly I get SOAR tuneups. I usually check the group chat that is available and group phone conference. If I need to I schelude a little one on one time with Capt Tom Bunn (or Lisa) I do. I have done all these things this week because I have flight to London tomorrow. I will be doing the same things that Laura Edmunds just did. Congrats Laura WTG.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  2. Capt Tom Bunn LCSW

    Some of the tips that Laura used are at

    December 23, 2010 at 10:28 am |
  3. Dan

    I am 47, retired from the US Navy, and have flown all over the world. I truly enjoy flying, it's the fastest way to travel.
    Now, my mother is like the lady in this story. She is 80 years old, and has a pen pal in Scotland she has corresponded with for 60 years. She has said she would like to go visit her, in Scotland, but has NEVER flown (is scared to get on a plane), nor does she want to cross the Atlantic by ship.
    Our joke to her over the years is it is a long swim across the Atlantic.
    Merry CHRISTmas.

    December 23, 2010 at 8:57 am |