A Research Paper By Gila Kropf, Life Coach, SWITZERLAND
About Captain Ron and “Fearlessflight”
Captain Ron writes on his website:
Fear of flying is not about flying or airplanes… The problem lies in our Limbic system, the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response in the body. Success comes through changing the quality and content of one’s thinking about flying. We accomplish that by helping you find insights into the way you process your thoughts about flying…we employ special mindfulness techniques and tools to transform “obsessive thought loops” – those vicious circles that can spiral into panic attacks.
It has been a wonderful experience for me to interview Captain Ron from “FearlessFlight”. Captain Ron’s dedication to his coaching projects is outstanding. Ron’s story is fascinating. His inspiring journey as a professional pilot who has been engaged in Safety Management Systems with a focus on human factors and the way he connected this experience with coaching is inspiring. It proves that no matter what your profession is and where you are, you can always find a way to leverage your talent and skills and go on a mission to help others. Captain Ron’s methodology is blended coaching-consulting.
Captain Ron’s blended coaching model: the first step is partnering with the clients to explore and identify beliefs, feelings, perceptions, and concerns. He does it by active listening, acknowledgment, encouraging mindfulness and direct communication, concentrating on the whole of the person. Later on, Captain Ron provides his clients with methods and tools backed by essential information about fear, its role and mechanism, and aviation safety. Since the problem is not simple, the post-coaching support ensures a successful outcome of the coaching.
The Interview With Captain Ron Nielsen of “Fearlessflight”
Captain Ron, You Are Pilot. What Brought You Into Coaching?
I was blindsided by coaching. My story goes back to 1986, I have been working as a pilot for 15 years. One of my friends from America West Airlines was the director of the Employee Assistance Program so he would refer employees with personal problems to psychologists. One of these psychologists came to my friend and asked him: “I am going to start a fear of flying program, can you find me a pilot to help?” As my friend knew me better than any other pilot, he offered me to join this program. I was excited by the opportunity and it was so heartfelt to see the people that are terrified to get on an aircraft. In August 1987, I performed my first role in this position.
So at this month during the airline accidents, I was asked to tell fearful flyers why it is safe to fly. Being a pilot, working on human factors, and at the same time with people who are terrified to fly was my mission.
What Percentage of the Population Suffers From Fear of Flying?
On the lower end, it will be 15% of the population and up to 25%, which will not be considered an exaggeration. I am not talking about people who are just nervous but people who grab the handgrip during take-off or people that avoid flying whenever possible. And when you are flying and you get turbulence and one of those sudden drops, I say everybody in the airplane at that moment is questioning why they got on the airplane that day. Nothing triggers that fear of being out of control like turbulence for example. Primary fears are during take-off, turbulence, and landing. Not landing per-se because usually when the pilot comes up and announces landing everyone is relieved. When, for example, there is an aborted landing and the airplane does not land in the first attempt, then the fear returns because the expectation to land was not met. The reason is simple – the runway was not clear.
You Have Been Coaching People Since 1987. How Many People Have You Coached So Far?
I have coached so far about 3,000 people, be it by a phone call, group coaching, or with the FearlessFlight kit. My online reach-out is much higher than at the beginning of my career as a coach. I must say that I have learned a great deal from the people I coached and I am grateful for this.
What Are the Most Popular Reasons for the Fear of Flying? Is There Any Pattern or Any Commonalities Among People Who Are Afraid of Flying?
Half of the fearful flyers have flown without any problems in their lives till they get to a point when something triggers it. Fear of flying is a place where people transfer other fears from their lives. I can confidently say that 99% of the people I have been dealing with have been traumatized. It can be during their childhood and they have no recollection about it, or due to a bad experience. Some of the common themes are marriage, leaving home to college, having their first child, any significant event in life where their brains say: “You are now responsible for yourself”. And especially when you have a child that you brought into the world, you cannot do anything to endanger that child, the parenting. When I ask people what was going on in their life when you recall this happened in their lives when they recall they had this bad experience (flying), an answer is: going through a divorce. There are other events in life and you realize that you are not in control. Fear of flying is at a fundamental level, the fear of being out of control. The clients must learn how to give up their (sense of) control and safety to somebody like me, the pilot. This fear is about giving up control and the brain does not like it, it does not like uncertainty. And if I am getting on a plane, I know nothing about airplanes and flying them and I am certainly not in control so those two triggers are built-in here. It is about fear in other areas of your life and the most rewarding thing I hear from the people I coach is not “Captain Ron I am flying now” but I am taking risks at work – I am asking for a promotion and in other areas of my life I see myself pushing the limits. Life is at the edge of your comfort zone. Every day these people push themselves out of their comfort zone and they keep on moving. It is really rewarding.
People Refer to Flying as One of the Best Experiences That Can Be. How Come Some People Enjoy It So Much and Others Dread It? Is It Because of Trust That Was Built Throughout the Years?
Trust is a point to mention here. If you take toddlers for example. Some of them go into a room with toys and will immediately start to play, others will stick to their mothers. Some of us are more sensitive, highly sensitive people. Personalities: some people need more control than others. Some of us have been traumatized. It is a paradigm: when we come out of the mom’s womb, the first thing we do is cry. So it is inherent in us to raise our level of arousal which is what we do when we have challenged not things that are necessarily threatening but in an athletic context, I cannot go into a game completely flat emotionally because I will not perform as well. You want to be vital and moving. But some people are naturally at a higher level of anxiety but when we are born three things happen: One, we hear our Mom’s soothing voice, Two, we feel her caress and touch. Three, we make eye contact and those three things some moms were not equipped to give that well and this happens in the first 3 years and certainly in the first moments that you are born and that is when we know in theory are supposed to learn to down-regulate our emotions. The sympathetic nervous system is what gets us ready to fight or compete. The parasympathetic nervous system is like the brakes, it is what calms us down. Some people have the illusion that they are safer in a car for example rather than in an airplane, but statistics show that we have about 40,000 fatalities yearly in the US on the highway.
What Does the Average Client Profile Look Like? (Age, Education, Background, Etc.)
I see a ratio of 2:1 women to men and I think there are two reasons for that:
First, research shows that women tend to be more willing to express themselves and men less. This is an important factor in seeking help. Men are maybe physiologically more capable of processing the stress in the short term but in the long term they have more heart disease so apparently, they are not so good at it and the second is that men do not attend to seek help.
Second, people have a sense of shame that is more severe than the fear itself. It is one thing for me to be afraid of flying and one thing to let you know that I am afraid of flying. As a consequence, they will not be seeking any help and this is probably the reason why people drink alcohol and take self-medication during the flight.
If We Are to ‘Flip’ Fear, Which Emotions/Feelings Would You Define as Opposing to or Healing Fear?
Trust, self-confidence, and consciousness. The first thing I tell people about fear is that you cannot say: ”Do not be afraid”. The only way out of your fear is through it. This is why medication and alcohol dope the amygdala awareness so you do not get the benefit of therapeutic exposure. You have to embrace it. So one of the things I tell the people, the technique that I use in the consultation part (after the client is aware of the problem and is ready to learn, work on solutions and grow) is to get a pen and a paper and when you are sitting in the flight and realize that anxiety before takes off, you write: “There it is again, this anxiety and this too shall pass. It will always pass”.
What Tools Do You Use in Your Coaching?
I use attentive and active listening to help my clients reframe and flip their perspectives and act instead of delay action. Mindfulness is very important and CBT techniques are also used. Reflection journals and various communication tools are used to keep coaching going on beyond the coaching meeting itself, for example, the FearlessFlight Kit. Direct communication and powerful questions are also greatly used. As humans we are born storytellers – this is how we make sense of the world. The core of our motivation comes from fear and protecting ourselves. I use storytelling with my fearful flyers: “Imagine you are walking in the African Savana. You have a friend Ruedi and Eugene and you hear rustling in the grass. Ruedi says it is probably just the wind and Eugene says I think it could be a lion. They have a difference in opinion so they split paths. Ruedi goes straight ahead and got eaten by the lion, Eugene, on the other hand, survived.” The learning from the story is that we inherited Eugene’s genes which I call the ‘the worry genes’.
The worry or fear genes originate in the amygdala, in our brains. It Is Eugene’s genes that we inherit that means that we are fundamentally born to worry. Some do it to certain extents and others to a lesser extent.
Following the initial coaching session, based on building a safe space for the clients to identify and explore their fear and start the journey to act against the fear by setting objectives, the following trust-building process starts:
- The connection between me, the fearful flyer, and the rest of the world – am I airworthy?
It starts fundamentally with connecting with other people who are afraid to fly because they get renewed validation of their fear. “It is not just me”. “I am not crazy” there are other people with the same fears. And the numbers of Fearful Flyers are huge. Only in the US, it is estimated that there are 60-70 million who fall into the category of fearful flyers. So it is important to stay connected to other people, otherwise, one disconnects and isolates herself.
- Removal/minimizing of underlying and limiting beliefs about the flight itself – Is this plane airworthy? Is it going to fly me safely?
This is the stage of getting rid of myths that many people have in aviation because one is not familiar with flying unless one is flying. Even I am amazed not only about the airplane getting up the air but also how it can stay in the air.
- Disruption of your thinking or distract your thinking – Am I going to be able to manage my emotions throughout the flight?
You cannot wait until you are 100% comfortable because this may never happen – exposure therapy is the ultimate way to help you through the fear of flying. You must learn how to face the fear and assimilate it in the amygdala. You cannot change your amygdala unless it is activated. So for people who use medication or alcohol, my goal will not be in general to wean themselves over it eventually. The difference between a fearful flyer and a non-fearful flyer is the quality and contents of the thought.
How Do You Define Fear?
Fear is a perception of a life-threatening circumstance in a situation combined with feelings of helplessness. The keywords in fear of flying are perception and awareness.
Fear is a perception of a life threatening circumstance in a situation combined with feelings of helplessness. This is what I am taking about in the Fearless Flight. The key word is perception
Our amygdala is our smoke alarm. It is designed to perceive danger, the perception of danger not necessarily real, it does not make a distinction either. It has a biological way of alerting us that there is danger and it is a rush of emotion that we associated with the feeling of dread and helplessness.
Fear of flying is an attention disorder because once your amygdala gets going, it hijacks your attention and it will not let go of whatever it locks on until you either resolve it or you die. That’s how Eugene survived and Ruedi did not.
Is There a Trend in the Number of People That Seek Help Regarding Fear of Flying?
The numbers are stable although I would say if there is a trend it is not due to fear of flying so much but because we are becoming more anxious. We have the same “hardware” that Ruedi and Eugene had, threats are far less than Ruedi and Eugene experienced but our lack of control and the sense of instability in the world trigger fear. When major events happen and certainly if they are aviation-related, it worsens the situation of people who are already afraid. I have made a survey and learned that people wait about 10 years before they address their fear of flying. I have had a client that has not flown for 45 years. But routinely I get people with a 20-year break since they have had a bad experience. Some of them are flying because of business travel. Some sadly could not fly to attend their parent’s funeral.
What Learning and Growth Tools Do Your Clients Take Out of the Sessions?
Clients will explore the situation to understand the story that they are telling themselves. What the beliefs are, the limitations, what help do they need to change that, what helps them specifically, and more. Then they have to review this story and try to change the story, envisioning themselves flying to visit the family, on a vacation, or business travel. When one rewrites the story, one rewrites her life. It is the feeling at takeoff when the pilots pull the nose of the airplane off and you feel heavy and keep going over when we realize that this is an illusion – we are leaving planet earth and whenever we are moving away from the earth we feel heavier than usual, we feel the acceleration until the airplane reaches equilibrium again. When you learn these facts you understand why you feel like going over like this and this is a slow steady process back to sanity.
Many people fly so infrequently so it is a big deal every time. So one of the plans in the process of coping with the fear of flight is not only getting on a flight but to get to the destination without ruining their trip and ruminating on the flight back. My goal is to have a sustainable long-term effect on my customers. I want it to be sustainable, with full client awareness – I want to teach them how to fish, not how to eat fish.