Hollywood Jet Gives Fearful Fliers The Courage To Soar | KUOW News and Information

Hollywood Jet Gives Fearful Fliers The Courage To Soar

May 17, 2016
Originally published on June 15, 2016 12:37 pm

The jet sitting at Air Hollywood's studio near the Burbank airport in Southern California was once the charter plane of the Los Angeles Lakers. These days, it serves a much different role — mostly as the set for movies and TV commercials.

But the group walking on board the day I recently visited wasn't there to film a scene. They were part of a two-day class for fearful fliers.

For participant Ronnie Michel, it was the first time in six years that he'd seen the inside of a plane.

"You hear the plastic shaking, the weird noises," he noted. "I can see the top of people's heads sitting in front of me. It's all familiar."

It reminded him of a previous experience — a flight he was once supposed to take from New York.

"I was about to board the plane — and I turned around and I bought a ticket for the Amtrak and took it all the way back to Los Angeles," Michel told me. "And I haven't been on a plane since."

Each person aboard that sound stage plane had at one time or another missed out — missed a vacation abroad, or a family reunion, or a job interview far from home. If it involved boarding a plane, each one had taken pains to avoid it — and wished they didn't have to. They regretted it enough to spend $500 each to enroll in a program on a sound stage — FearlessFlight at Air Hollywood.

Several of the people who'd signed up didn't show that day, which I'm told is pretty typical. One guy has signed up for every class in the last two years — but has yet to attend.

Ron Nielsen, better known as Capt. Ron, runs the show. He's a retired airline pilot who also flew in Vietnam. He's calm and lighthearted — perfect for this role. He has worked with fearful fliers for 29 years.

"I find the shame about not being able to fly often exceeds the fear itself," he told the class, now seated as "passengers" inside the grounded plane.

Nielsen did all he could to ease their fear — starting with a lot of information about aviation. After running through the mechanics of a jet engine, he moved on to everyone's favorite topic: turbulence.

Just as he muttered the word, the airplane cabin started to shake and everyone inside jumped. Though the plane seemed very real from the inside, it was actually sitting on a platform atop compressed bags of air, much like a mattress. The shaking wasn't from fancy hydraulics; Rob Shalhoub of Air Hollywood was standing next to the plane, jumping up and down.

"Oh, I'm just bouncing on the ramp," Shalhoub told me later.

Back inside, Koren Owens said all that movement was increasing her anxiety.

"My legs are a little shaky and weak," Owens said. "It doesn't feel good, no. And it's reminding me that tomorrow, I'm really going to be going through this."

Day 2 of the Air Hollywood training includes an actual Southwest Airlines flight from Burbank to Oakland.

Mikki Yuthas, a nervous 15-year-old who had driven down from Portland with her parents to take the class, was dreading Day 2, too.

"I'm thinking about how high off the ground we're going to be," Yuthas told me, "and how I'm enclosed and I can't get out."

"That's a theme that you hear time and again," Dr. Dave Baron, the interim chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, told me. He has lots of experience working with patients afraid of flying. The core of the fear is a deep sense of being out of control.

"It's way beyond a fear," Baron explained. "This is real — I mean, their heart races; they can't get their breath. It's absolute terror. And the next thing you know: 'I've got to get off the plane.' "

But most of the group that day was committed to hanging tough. The next morning, when the Fearless Flight group convened in the Hollywood Burbank Airport terminal, Owens clutched her boarding pass.

"I didn't sleep great," she admitted. "I tried to put it out of my head, but — I mean, it's not terrible. But it's not great. I'm not dying right now. But I'm nervous."

Capt. Ron told his class to just accept whatever they were feeling.

"I do have a big thing about crying," he told them. "Inevitably, I have somebody who says, 'I don't want to cry.' I say, 'Let 'er rip, man!' Honest to God, I cry all the time. It's a release. So do not bottle that up."

There was a lot of nervous banter among most members of the group. A couple others sat down right away and kept to themselves, alert to every announcement blaring over the intercom.

Moments later, the Southwest 737 pulled in and passengers headed down the gangway.

But just before she boarded, one woman in the class urgently pulled Capt. Ron aside. Everyone in the group turned to see what was wrong. She wanted to leave. Nielsen tried to talk her through what she was feeling.

"Just give me one inner-thought right now," he asked her. "Why do you want to run?"

She'd already made up her mind. She thanked the group and abruptly left the waiting lounge and the airport.

Meanwhile, inside the plane, a crowd of passengers wedged suitcases into every crevice. It was clearly going to be a full flight. We found our seats and buckled in, but the member of the Air Hollywood class seated right next to me seemed on edge.

His hands shook, and he kept looking around the cabin. Capt. Ron tried to get his attention from across the aisle, but the nervous passenger was beyond listening.

Suddenly, he, too, unbuckled his seat belt and walked off the plane.

Moments later, the door finally closed and our jet pushed back and headed for the runway. No more turning back.

As it happened, the flight was turbulent from the moment we took off. Some passengers grasped their armrests. Even for seasoned travelers, this was choppy.

But once we get above the clouds, the fearful fliers started to relax. Mikki Yuthas chatted with her dad, and Koren Owens laughed at Capt. Ron's jokes.

"Just sort of let the fear wash over and I'm remembering that I used to love to fly," another class member — Alex — told me. (For professional reasons he asked us not to use his last name.)

Alex had one of those foam travel neck pillows around his neck and felt calm enough to request an apple juice from the flight attendant.

"Hands are pretty still," he noted. "I'm not sweating. Should've done [this] sooner."

An hour later, the plane descended and we were in Oakland. As they stepped off the jetway, members of the class hugged and shared stories from the flight — finally able to release years of pent-up anxiety.

"I haven't been able to do this and I've missed opportunities," Yuthas said. "And now I can finally just get on a plane and not be like, constantly stressed and worried about it."

She was ready to hop on the flight home to Portland, she told her dad, John Bizjak and me. He put his arm around her.

"It was like her old self flying," he told me, with relief.

For everyone returning to Southern California that day, boarding the return flight was surprisingly easy. Suddenly, getting on a plane had become routine. It was just another take-off, another landing.

Nielsen, the man who piloted them through their fear, is the first to say that Air Hollywood's Fearless Flight program isn't a cure-all. Their next flight without him onboard would be another challenge, he told me.

But Baron, the USC psychiatrist, said the members of the class had taken a huge step, by learning techniques that gave them more of a sense of control in those situations "as opposed to having it be an emotional, runaway train."

For Nielsen, the next step is pretty simple.

"Sooner or later, you've got to get on the damn plane," he said. "And so people ask me, 'What's the most important thing for me to do to get over my fear?' I say, 'Book a flight.' "

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to take you now to a sound stage near Burbank, Calif. A group of people walks through a fake Jetway onto an actual 727 airplane parked in a studio. The group is not here to film a scene. They're part of a two-day class for fearful fliers in which NPR's Danny Hajek enrolled.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: It's the first time in six years that Ronnie Michel has seen the inside of a plane.

RONNIE MICHEL: You hear the plastic shaking, the weird noises. I can see the top of people's heads sitting in front of me. It's all familiar.

HAJEK: Reminds him of the flight he was supposed to take from New York.

MICHEL: I was about to board the plane, and I turned around and I bought a ticket for the Amtrak and took it all the way back to Los Angeles. And I haven't been on a plane since.

HAJEK: For years, each person here has missed out - on vacations, family reunions, job interviews. If it involves boarding a plane, they've avoided it. And each of them has put down $500 to enroll in this program called FearlessFlight at Air Hollywood. Sixteen people signed up, but there are a handful of no-shows, including one guy who, for the past two years, has signed up for every class. And he has yet to attend.

RON NIELSEN: The trouble is airplanes are just so damned full of sensory overload.

HAJEK: Ron Nielsen runs the show. He goes by Captain Ron. A retired airline pilot, he also flew in Vietnam. He's been working with fearful fliers for 29 years.

NIELSEN: I find the shame about not being able to fly often exceeds the fear itself.

HAJEK: He eases the fear by explaining everything, from the mechanics of a jet engine to everyone's favorite.

NIELSEN: Turbulence.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There you go.

HAJEK: The cabin shakes. You can't see from inside, but the plane sits on a platform above compressed bags of air, kind of like a mattress. Forget fancy hydraulics. The shaking is Rob Shalhoub of Air Hollywood jumping up and down.

ROBERT SHALHOUB: I'm just bouncing on the ramp.

HAJEK: (Laughter) You're creating the turbulence.

SHALHOUB: Yeah.

HAJEK: Back inside, Koren Owens says it's giving her anxiety. They spend all day in the simulator.

KOREN OWENS: My legs are a little shaky and weak - doesn't feel good, no. And it's reminding me that tomorrow I'm really going to be going through this.

HAJEK: That's when Captain Ron will take this class to Oakland on an actual Southwest Airlines flight. Fifteen-year-old Mikki Yuthus will be on board, too. She and her mom drove here from Portland 15 hours away, and she's pretty nervous.

MIKKI YUTHUS: I'm think about how high off the ground we're going to be. And, like, I'm enclosed, and I can't get out.

DAVE BARON: And that's a theme that you hear time and again. At the core of this is that sense of feeling out of control.

HAJEK: Dr. Dave Baron is the interim chair of the Department of psychiatry at the University of Southern California. He has lots of experience working with patients afraid of flying.

BARON: It's way beyond a fear. This is really - I mean, their heart races. They can't get their breath. It's absolute terror. And the next thing you know, I got to get off that plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE FLYING)

HAJEK: Hollywood Burbank Airport - Koren Owens clutches her boarding pass. Reality sets in.

OWENS: I didn't sleep great. I tried to put it out my head, but - I mean, it's not terrible. But it's not great. I'm not dying right now. But I'm nervous.

HAJEK: Captain Ron tells the group to just try and let it all go.

NIELSEN: I do have a big thing about crying, you know. Inevitably, I have somebody in the group - I don't want to cry. I say let it rip, man. Honest to God, I cry all the time. It's a release, so do not bottle that up.

HAJEK: They stand around the gate waiting for the plane to arrive - a lot of nervous banter, a couple people sit down and just kind of keep to themselves, alert to every announcement blaring over the intercom.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Over intercom) May I have your attention, please? If you left your laptop behind...

HAJEK: The Southwest plane pulls in and passengers pour out - busy travelers, parents pushing kids in strollers.

(CROSSTALK)

HAJEK: Suddenly, one participant pulls Captain Ron aside. Everyone in the group turns. She's saying, I can't do this. I want to go home.

NIELSEN: Just give me one inner thought right now. Why do you want to run?

HAJEK: She says a quick goodbye, and she's gone - not much time to react because boarding has already begun. Passengers pack in their suitcases. It's a full flight. We find our seats, but the guy sitting next to me seems on edge. He keeps looking around. His hands are shaking. Captain Ron tries to get his attention from across the aisle, but he's not listening. Maybe it's too crowded or the smell of jet engine exhaust or the doors on the overhead bins slamming shut. He unbuckles his seatbelt, gets up and walks off the plane.

HAJEK: Yeah, he's gone?

Moments later, we pushed back and head for the runway. Every time those engines rev, we all brace for takeoff...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Folks on the flight deck just waiting for a little bit of traffic to clear...

HAJEK: ...Until we finally come to a stop and we're first for takeoff - no turning back now. As soon as we're airborne, there's turbulence.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Folks, just climbing up through a couple of bumps here.

HAJEK: Some passengers grasp armrests. Even for seasoned travelers, this is pretty choppy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEATBELT CHIME)

HAJEK: But we get above the clouds, and something happens. For the first time, these fearful fliers start to relax. Mikki Yuthus chats with her dad, and Koren Owens laugh at Captain Ron's jokes.

ALEX: Just sort of let the fear wash over and, you know, I'm remembering that I used to love fly.

HAJEK: This is Alex who's asked us not to use his last name because only his wife knows he's taking this class. He's wearing one of those neck pillows and orders an apple juice.

ALEX: Do you see me nervous? Hands are pretty still. I'm not sweating. I mean, should have done it sooner.

HAJEK: An hour later, the plane descends, and we're back on the ground in Oakland.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Oh, I'm so proud of you, too.

HAJEK: Outside the Jetway, they're hugging, sharing stories from the flight.

YUTHUS: I haven't been able to do this, and I've, like, missed opportunities. And now I can finally just get on a plane and not be, like, constantly stressed and worried about it.

HAJEK: Mikki Yuthus is ready to hop on the plane home to Portland. Her dad, John Bizjak, puts his arm around her.

JOHN BIZJAK: It was like her old self flying.

HAJEK: Boarding the return flight is surprisingly easy. Getting on a plane for this group has suddenly become kind of routine - another takeoff, another landing, back in Burbank. And then Captain Ron holds this little awards ceremony right there in the terminal.

NIELSEN: Courage beyond your years.

OWENS: Thank you.

NIELSEN: Yeah. You are inspiring to me.

OWENS: Thank you.

HAJEK: FearlessFlight isn't a cure-all. The next time, without Captain Ron, will be a challenge. But Dr. Dave Baron from USC says this is a huge step.

BARON: You can learn techniques and gain a sense of control as opposed to having it be an emotional runaway train.

HAJEK: In the end, Captain Ron says it comes down to one thing.

NIELSEN: Sooner or later, you got to get on the the damn plane. And so people ask me - what's the most important thing for me to do to get over my fear? I say, book a flight.

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.