My crippling fear of flying stems from a traumatic event that occurred to me when I was 10 years old. Decades later I’m now a fully qualified skydiver with over 20 dives to my name, this is how I conquered my fear.
Back in 1961, flying was not as cheap or as common-place as it was today. However, by this point travelling around the world was starting to be claimed by the every-man. No longer was flight an unreachable luxury, reserved for only the richest of businessmen and musicians. Commercial airports were beginning to crop up all around the UK and young families were starting to take their first faltering steps into the world of the package holiday.
I was fortunate enough at the time to have parents that both earned a considerable amount of money. My father was a manager for a local car dealership and my mother was one of the few female car salesmen in the country. A winning team in marriage and business, they loved nothing more than lavishing us with holidays. Up until that point we’d been to Scotland, London and Cornwall – all of which felt like exotic places when compared to our industrial Sheffield.
However, when 1959’s financial year came to a close, my parents’ business had pulled in more money that ever before, and they wanted to celebrate. A package deal, one of the first of its kind, was booked to Barcelona and we were all ecstatic. Neither of my parents had ever flown before, yet they were confident in the safety of flying (despite Buddy Holly’s death in early 1959) and were glowing with pride as we pulled up to the airport with myself and my older brother.
When it came to boarding the plane, I was a nervous wreck. I had decided to be grown up and not cry, but the tension was building inside of me. The air hostesses could sense my fear, but there was little they could do as the other passengers, by this point, had whipped themselves into the closest thing British people could get to a frenzy.
The engines started with a choke and splutter. My parents, assuming I was now fine with the whole ordeal, put me on the window seat right above the wing. Once the engines were pushed to full throttle the sound was deafening and I felt like the very bones in my body were being shaken. By this point I had resigned myself to death, silent tears were falling down my face and I was visibly shaking – but no one noticed. So lost in their own heads, were my parents, that they took no notice. I’d never felt more lost and alone.
Four hours later, we had landed and were fine. But the 2 weeks we spent in Spain were overshadowed by the catatonic state that I had fallen into. Unwilling to communicate or look anyone in the eyes, I had retreated into my own head. I believed that I had died, and could not come to terms with the shock of being hurtled through the air at thousands of miles per hour.
That day scarred me for years.
If I saw a scene involving an air plane at the cinema, I would have to leave the auditorium in a cold sweat. Just the sound of a plane passing over head would send my heart racing. I had to carry medication around with me, in case a panic attack was unexpectedly triggered.
It took me five decades and years of therapy to see a plane in the sky and not fall back into a state of panic and fear.
Around 2010, my son went travelling around the world. On his gap year, he’d not been allowed to travel on planes up til this point due to my nervousness, I could no longer stop him from exploring the world. He took eight long distance flights in the space of a year. He called after each and everyone to tell me that he’d landed safely. When he came back home, he was breathless with adventures and excitement – I knew that I needed to conquer my fear.
I was 60, and I’d only left the country once. Both my children were about to leave home and I’d barely seen the world outside my home city of Sheffield.
It was my therapist who suggested the skydive. I’d been seeing him for years, but after I’d told him about my son’s experience he must have seen the determination in my eyes.
When it came to the first jump, my husband was holding me firmly by the hand. Ironically, it was the taking off in the plane that was the scariest part. The plane was small, and I was shaking before I’d even stepped up to the door.
Once the door was slammed shut, and the engine had been pushed to full throttle I was practising my relaxation techniques and focusing on the comforting embrace of my husband.
The jump was one of pure liberation.
Not only was I doing something that most 60-year old women would never dream of attempting, I was celebrating my conquering of a fear that had ruled my mind for decades.