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Pirates, wars: Hurdles for flight phobia boy

By Schams Elwazer, CNN
updated 11:56 AM EDT, Mon August 20, 2012
  • Joe Thompson, 11, struck by sudden fear of flying on journey from United Arab Emirates to UK
  • Family moving home, Thompson due to start at new school in Britain in weeks
  • Hypnotherapy, psychiatric consultations and sedation have failed to solve problem
  • Youngster and his father now face lengthy overland and sea trip across Middle East, Europe

Al-Ain, UAE (CNN) -- A British boy and his father are about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, traveling across the Middle East and Europe by land and sea after 11-year-old Joe Thompson suddenly developed a paralyzing fear of flying.

Thompson, who had previously always loved flying, says he cannot explain what came over him on July 1 at Abu Dhabi airport - an hour by car from his home in Al-Ain -- as his family prepared to relocate to the UK from the United Arab Emirates.

"Everything just went horrible for me," says Joe, recalling that day. "I just went into body lockdown. I kept on crying. I sat down and I couldn't move. I just couldn't do it."

Joe's father has no idea what caused the incident. "He's been flying since he was three months old," Tony Thompson tells CNN. "We didn't expect it at all and really still don't know what triggered it.

"My initial reaction was 'come on, just get on the plane, it'll be fine,'" says Tony, sitting in the small apartment he's borrowing from friends who are out of town. "But then I realized that no, it was far more serious than this."

The challenge has been finding an alternative travel option by land and sea that takes them across the Middle East, while avoiding deadly conflict areas.

The flight from Abu Dhabi to London is eight hours long, crossing a distance of about 3,500 miles (5,600 km), as the crow flies.

The most direct land route would take the pair straight through some of the region's most dangerous areas, including the Iraqi capital Baghdad, into war-torn Syria and straight through the embattled city of Aleppo to the Turkish border and on to Europe.

"Obviously that's not an option," says Tony.

The maritime alternative is to sail around the Arabian Peninsula, braving the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Yemen then up through the Suez Canal past the Egyptian hot spot of Sinai where a military operation remains under way.

But the option of a safer land route has emerged. After earlier being denied entry visas by the UAE's Saudi Arabia embassy, the Saudi ambassador in London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al Saud, intervened to help.

The freshly-minted Saudi visas in their passports mean Tony and Joe can now take a bus through the Saudi and Jordanian capitals, a car to the Israeli port city of Haifa, then a boat to a European Mediterranean city.

The trip is expected to take 12 to 15 days and has suffered multiple false starts as the Thompsons try to line up the logistics of visas, border crossings and travel time timetables in a part of the world where buses and ferries don't tend to conform to strict schedules.

It's been more than six weeks since Joe was scheduled to fly home. With his new school in the UK scheduled to start on September 4, time is not on their side. Yet Joe insists that flying is still not an option.

"It may be easy for you, but for me it's the most terrifying thing in the world," says Joe, who is currently spending his days playing computer games with friends and occasionally practicing rugby with his father in the scorching 48 degree Celsius August heat.

Joe has tried flying home four times. Once, he made it as far as the flight cabin but panicked when the captain announced they were shutting the doors.

"So immediately I knew what I had to do," says Joe who thinks he may be claustrophobic. "I just got over the chairs, went around into the aisle and sprinted out [of the plane.]"

His father says they have tried various treatments including hypnotherapy and psychiatric consults. He says the medical center at the airport even gave his son a sedative injection before the flight, but Joe was still so upset that the flight crew deemed him unfit to fly.

"It is a little frustrating," says Tony who describes the whole ordeal as a roller coaster. "At first it was all a bit of an adventure but now it's become more of a burden."

Father and son both say they're looking forward to the journey and reuniting with Joe's mother and sister at home.

It is a rare opportunity for a young boy to gain first-hand knowledge of the geography and geopolitics of a region that often leads the news headlines. On this occasion though, it seems Joe has himself become the headline.

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