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.
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.
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.
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.