Thursday 18 January 2018

Travel: Turbulence is uncomfortable but it can't hurt you

Mark Evans
Mark Evans

‘We’re on a heading of 210 degrees, we’re descending another 1,000 feet to find that smooth air for you ... this is a good time for your breathing and squeezing.”

A short flight, but far from ordinary.

Each week in Herald Travel we bring you to a new destination – whether it’s a beach holiday in Spain, a camping break in Belgium or a long-haul trip to a dream resort.

Today, we’re heading off from Dublin Airport to a new destination: Dublin Airport.

It’s the most unusual flight you can take – and for many onboard the Embraer 170, it’s their first in a long time – or ever. Most of us don’t give a second thought to boarding a plane. For others – as many as one in 10 of us – it’s a terrifying prospect.

So in recent weeks, 60 or so brave, and some frankly terrified, souls turned up at Dublin Airport’s Clarion Hotel to take the first step towards conquering their fears.

Run by British Airways, the Flying with Confidence course has helped over 45,000 people to take to the clouds (it reckons on 98pc success).

Arriving at 8.30am, the day includes discussions on how planes actually fly, the psychology of fear and finally the short trip up to the airport to get on a plane.

Frankly, it’s a fear that can ruin lives, with one participant having to take gruelling bus journeys from the continent to come home to Ireland, another whose family flew off to Australia without her that very day, and another who was confident of one thing: she wasn’t getting on any plane at the end of the course.

The seminar took place just days after the Germanwings tragedy, so if it’s normally hard to get the fearful flying, the course organisers had their hands full this time around.

Within 10 minutes, the coffee supply ran out, and the smoking area outside the hotel was a hive of nervous activity.

First up, the science bit: with the airline providing a huge cast of the experts, from real-life pilots to retired air traffic controllers.

The main man is Steve Allright, a BA captain with a lifetime’s experience of flying.

His questions to the crowd are revealing. “Who’s afraid of taking off?” Hands shoot up from the audience.

“Landing?” More hands.

“Flying over water?” Loads.

“Turbulence?” More hands raised than at the Nuremburg rally.

That’s normal, he says, and reveals the science of flying: “turbulence is uncomfortable, but it can’t hurt you”.

It’s a mantra we’re going to hear throughout the day, including onboard the flight.

Even as a seasoned traveller, I discovered lots about planes. They only have one wing. Yes, really: both are linked together in one hunk of metal, giving the wing its strength, so turbulence is uncomfortable, but ... oh you get the point.

Wings are so powerful they produce over 260 tonnes of lift on a Boeing 777, and you can glide for 35 miles without engines on a Jumbo.

Allright should know: he’s got a first class honours degree in aeronautical engineering. And if recent events have dented confidence (the tragedy is not mentioned directly, pending the French/German investigation), he reveals that when it comes to pilot training, on average 80,000 people apply for 200 places.

The lucky few are subjected to psychological exams, tests of communication, they have to become experts in meterology, have to fly with one shut-off engine or a cover over the flight deck window in training – and now even he still gets regular retesting.

What’s more, flying is safe – and did you know that more people died from kitchen toasters in the UK in 2013 than in all the airborne incidents worldwide that year?

Next up is Scottish psychologist Dr Simon Petrie.

He’s refreshing in that he’s no shrink barking out new age mantras – he reveals that he used to be terrified of flying too. Booze or prescription drugs, or prescription drugs washed down with booze ... he’d tried it all, with embarrassing results. He’s conquered his fear, and he calms the roof with stories and deep-breathing meditation.

The breathing should help you relax, dishy Petrie (sorry!) says. “Breathe in 1, 2, 3, 4” ... “exhale”. So good in fact that I doze off in the front row, while the poor man behind me sounds like he’s hyperventilating as he faces his nightmares.

But he too gets in the meditation groove, and an air of calm descends.

Dr Petrie reckons that the audience should be proud to have the Rolls-Royce of fears – as phobias go, flying’s the coolest one to have, he insists.

But the mood is changing in the room, after pilot and psychologist, in reassuring tones, have explained how to conquer that nagging voice in your head. The audience has bonded, trading stories of how being rooted on land has ruined family occasions and business opportunities.

Mainly women, with a handful of men too, they’re rising to the occasion, with many ready to take the afternoon’s flight in their stride.

Destiny arrives in Terminal 1. My biggest fear: getting through a security lane that hasn’t got some slow dope, laden down with liquids and laptops, in front of me.

But it’s a quiet afternoon, so all good. The crowd make it to the gate for their destination: “Dublin”.

Onboard, short of trotting out Dublin boss Willie Walsh, BA have gone all-out with the support. One of the pilots is Irish, and sitting in the cabin we’ve two sisters from Raheny in Dublin who are also pilots with the airline. Cabin crew member Vanessa de Bruin – with a wealth of experience – is here too, as is the traffic controller, with Steve Allright doing MC on the tannoy.

Even if anyone feels like ripping open the door, Steve explained earlier in the day that it’s physically impossible.

“We’re lining up on the runway, turning into the wind” ... and with that the rush of the engines and we’re up, on a clockwise tour of Ireland.

Nose winds of 40-55 knots, 20-25 degree banks – we’re told everything that the plane is doing, with Steve saying “everything normal” at the end of each bulletin.

“Four and a half thousand feet ...everything normal”, “turbulence ahead – everything normal”.

If Steve stops saying “everything normal” I’m hitting the gin and tonics myself.

But the passengers have bonded in camaraderie and it’s a funny version of the Mile High Club – the only difference being that these members have their knees tightly squeezed together and no one’s leaving their seat for the loo.

Quiet elation replaces nervous anticipation – and then the dreaded T word: turbulence.

It’s a cloudy day so the bumps begin. Steve to the rescue. “We’ve gone up 10 feet, down 10 feet” – it doesn’t seem so terrifying now. Turbulence? We laugh in its face.

The 1,000 feet bell and Howth looms out of the clouds, as a breeze buffets us as we descend over Portmarnock. With more than a bit of skill we’re kept dead straight and touch down on the tarmac. The happy clappers burst into applause, amid a sense of achievement and stories swapped.

There’s no rush off the aircraft, but a big queue for Flying with Confidence achievement parchment and a photo op on the flight deck with our pilots. And, presumably, ready to book that family holiday with confidence.



FLYING with Confidence courses take place mainly in the UK, or even in New York and Dubai. This was Dublin’s first course in 10 years – but it’s coming back on October 10 next.

Starting in the morning, it’s a fully day of the activities mentioned, including many coffee breaks and a light lunch, followed by a short flight to and from Dublin.

The course cost of €299 would get you a fair few Ryanair weekends or even a week on a package holiday.

But it’s small money if it gets you to confidently make that family or business trip in the future. For more info see www.flyingwithconfidence.com

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