I get emails daily from fearful flyers who express some manifestation of their fear. Here’s one I received today:

What happens when the plane is cruising down the runway, or in standby for takeoff. I’m thinking ” Oh no, now I can’t get out of this” How can I change that thought? [even] watching videos of takeoffs I feel that to the point where I feel like I “freeze up” and can’t even inhale…. or breathe.”

Needless to say, this isn’t the first time a fearful flyer has expressed this to me. Hearing this particular fear expressed this way reminded me of an experience as a student pilot. When you’re learning to fly, there’s lots to learn. One particularly important aspect is memorizing the parameters of various maneuvers, especially acrobatics. In aviation we have a practice that pilots before me developed called “chair flying.”

Chair Flying Technique

Chair flying is literally positioning yourself in your chair and visualizing yourself in the cockpit going through mock rehearsal of hand movements. We practiced everything from flight control movements, to manipulating switches, to verbalizing callouts we had to memorize. There was so much to learn and we didn’t have simulators in which to practice, so we had to improvise and “make it real.”

Chair flying is a variation of “hand flying.” Hand flying is similar to chair flying in that it also involves “mock” flying. Only the main purpose of hand flying was to tell “war stories” – tales of one’s piloting exploits. It has its traditions in tales that fighter pilots used to describe their skills when engaged in air-to-air combat with enemy aircraft, sometimes referred to as “dogfighting.” Hand flying usually starts with the expression, “There I was…” and is performed with one hand representing an enemy fighter plane and the other representing the storyteller’s airplane. The inevitable conclusion is how one’s aviation exploits were second to none and second only to what God might perform were He/She to show up with a helmet and goggles.

If I haven’t lost you in the clouds by now, the point is that the practice of using one’s hands to practice flying maneuvers or narrate flying tales is long standing and actually helps to increase flying proficiency. It reminds me of research I’ve read about how the brain learns.

The Brain Learns by Doing

A study was done where people were divided into individual groups for the purpose of measuring the effectiveness of different methods of teaching them how to play the piano. One group was taught how to play using a real piano by manipulating the keys and practicing in a conventional way. Another group was provided a facsimile keyboard made of paper and taught the same keystrokes with only their imagination to practice.

As it turned out, both groups achieved the same level of accomplishment. When the brains of members of each group had their brains observed using a fMRI — functional magnetic resonance imaging machine – it revealed that blood flow was the same in each of the parts of the brains where learning takes place. It didn’t matter whether the students actually practiced or imagined practicing.

As it turns out, modern brain research might have validated our “chair flying” as a way of learning or at least reinforcing skills we needed to know to fly. If it worked to change the neuron pathways of a pilot’s brain, perhaps it can be used to change those of a fearful flyer. So now you can sit in your chair and say, “There I was…” as you reframe those fearful thoughts into positive feelings.

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