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Overcoming the fear of flying

By Allan Chernoff, CNN Senior Correspondent
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Overcoming the fear of flying
  • Laura Edmonds is one of many travelers with a fear of flying
  • She takes a flight from New York to Maryland after a course to overcome the fear
  • When the plan lands: "Yay! I did it!"
  • Air Travel

(CNN) -- 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 like many fliers.

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," said Edmonds.

Since then she has tried drugs 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 Airport to Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland. 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 a 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 is president of the company that produced the videos and that 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," said Bunn, whose company is SOAR Inc. "When they can tell the difference between imagination and reality ...they are going to be OK."

Before boarding the U.S. Airways flight, Edmonds presents a letter from Bunn to the flight attendant asking to speak with the captain. The pilot gladly obliges, telling her he's been flying for more than two decades and assuring her, "You're going to be fine. 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 Bunn's tips, Edmond's version of a study guide 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," said 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 solid ground, Laura Edmonds exults.

"I feel so uplifted. 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," she said, "but I'm ready to go!"