An airplane lurches as it lifts off the ground. Outside the window, the horizon tilts as the plane hurtles into the wild blue yonder with a mighty thrust.
Some fliers find that moment of take-off exhilarating and liberating, as they leave the cares of their daily lives behind them — for others, their minds are gripped by fear and desperation.
It is the latter group that Captain Tom Bunn of Easton, Conn., tries to help. His partner, Lisa Hauptner of Pound Ridge, and he run SOAR, a company that specializes in helping people overcome their fear of flying and get back up into the friendly skies.
How it started
Mr. Bunn — an Air Force fighter pilot turned commercial airline pilot — first got involved in helping people defeat their fears while working with Truman Cummings in 1980. Mr. Cummings was doing a course in Newark, N.J., and Mr. Bunn joined in.
Their main focus was getting people familiar with aviation and going on a parked plane.
“We worked with people with mild problems,” Mr. Bunn said.
But that wasn’t enough for those with more serious issues.
“[The program] was not good for people with panic attacks,” he said, noting that many people are so paralyzed by their fear that they cannot get on a plane.
So, he launched his own program.
At first, he would teach people the ins and outs of flight, talking them through a pilot’s routine.
“If this happens, here’s what the pilot does,” Mr. Bunn said. “So, they begin to get it intellectually.”
He wanted to help people understand that flying planes is all in a day’s work to a pilot.
“It’s not life-threatening,” he said. “They practice all this in a simulator every year.”
But he felt that more was needed in addition to logic to really cure people of their fear.
So Mr. Bunn began to study the psychology and physiology of being afraid to fly and how people regulate their feelings.
“We all have a cortex with a huge amount of brain power,” he said. “Thinking can override a feeling to escape.”
When the fear begins
Mr. Bunn, who studied psychology in college and got a master’s in social work degree from Fordham University at the age of 50, has found that people’s fear of flying often begins in their early to mid 20s.
“There’s a growth spurt of the prefrontal cortex in your early 20s,” Mr. Bunn said.
This is when the prefrontal cortex is thought to fully form.
And according to Mr. Bunn, it is when people shift from doing what they’re told to thinking for themselves, which causes new worlds to open, not all of them good.
“You start realizing, something could get me,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are very successful who don’t trust themselves.”
That is what happened to Ms. Hauptner, who practices psychotherapy at Four Winds Hospital in Cross River, and how she crossed paths with Mr. Bunn.
She was running a business and traveling a lot at the time. So being afraid to get on an airplane was inconvenient, to say the least.
“With a panic attack, your reality is you’re dying,” she said.
It was a feeling she became all too familiar with until she found Mr. Bunn and listened to one of his audio cassettes.
Relief and a partnership
Her fear ultimately led Ms. Hauptner not only to help but also to begin a new career.
Ms. Hauptner was impressed with Mr. Bunn’s program — and coincidentally desired a career change. She began partnering with him.
She learned through him that things like trying to determine the potential danger of what is happening on the plane through the demeanor of the flight attendants are unrealistic; that the flight attendants’ emotions might not have anything to do with the safety of the aircraft.
“You’re looking at the flight attendants,” she said. “Well, guess what, maybe they had a fight with their spouse.”
So this type of barometer is not the best way to go.
“It’s not a realistic way to gauge,” she said.
Mr. Bunn found, though, that a part of the problem is a lack of coherent thinking.
“When enough stress hormones are released, you lose your ability to differentiate between imagination and reality,” he said.
One remedy is a lot like love.
While looking for ways to help people shift their perceptions, Mr. Bunn came in contact with a woman who changed things for him.
She was replacing her fearful thoughts of in-flight disasters with memories of breast-feeding her child.
“I thought it wouldn’t work,” Mr. Bunn said, “but it did for her.”
So he suggested it to other women.
“It worked,” he said. “Turns out oxytocin is produced when breast-feeding.”
Oxytocin is a hormone that is said to help women bond to others.
Mr. Bunn believes that the chemical reaction in the brain was enough to help the women reduce their stress levels and be less fearful.
But thoughts of breast-feeding would not help men, so he came up with something different for them. Mr. Bunn had men think of special moments leading to physical intimacy.
“When a lover looks at you in an intimate way, it’s the same thing,” he said. “It shuts down your fear.”
You can also think of your love for your dog, cat, hamster or parrot.
“It works with pets, too,” Mr. Bunn said.
He teaches people to release calming hormones every couple of minutes while flying, to keep their fear system lowered.
Putting a face to the pilot
Some people see pilots as gods, according to Mr. Bunn. So a part of his program is to make aviators human to the potential passengers.
“There’s something about making a connection to their face,” Ms. Hauptner said.
One therapy is going into the cockpit and seeing the pilot there doing his job.
Ms. Hauptner said that some people give a flight attendant a letter stating that they are a very fearful flier and would like to meet the pilot before the plane takes off.
“You see the cockpit,” Ms. Hauptner said, and then you think, “Oh, this is your workplace.”
A pilot will sometimes pull out photos of their kids to assuage the trepidation of a scared passenger. It shows that the pilot is both human and motivated to get home safe.
“That does it,” Mr. Bunn said.
And the passenger can then pick up an aura of accountability as well.
“When we get signals from other people that they’re safe or trustworthy, it calms us down,” Mr. Bunn said.
It’s all about shifting from the negative to the positive, he said, replacing thoughts of what is going on with the plane to other things.
The training occurs before going to the plane. Once they are on the plane, Mr. Bunn’s clients are typically prepared.
But sometimes they need a little extra help. Mr. Bunn is available during those moments.
He encourages his clients who are freaking out on a plane to call him — and it generally helps.
“One woman, she didn’t know what she would do,” Mr. Bunn said.
But she made it after talking to him and called back later to let him know.
“Two hours later, she was thrilled, and I couldn’t get off the phone,” he said.
And, if you are afraid it is important to know that you are not alone.
“Everybody thinks everybody else gets on the plane and has no problem,” Ms. Hauptner said.
Mr. Bunn has lived in Easton with wife Marie for seven years in a house built in 1790.
Ms. Hauptner and he conduct free live interactive programs on their site and over the phone on Wednesday nights. They also have a free newsletter.
“There is a lot of free advice and videos on the site,” Mr. Bunn said.
SOAR has three paid programs that run $200 to $600 and are available online, on DVD and through download. Mr. Bunn occasionally gives an in-person course.
To find out more, go to the SOAR website at fearofflying.com.