When it comes to thoughts of flying, people can be told all day long to chill out, relax and breathe, but that doesn’t actually create courage in boarding a 727 about to haul down a runway at 150 mph to take off into the sky. Dr. Fredric Mau, a licensed professional counselor with Watermark Hypnosis & Brief Counseling in Columbia, says that phobias such as fear of flying, aviophobia, have to be overcome on an emotional level. Hill Davis, a regional airline pilot, says that taking a ride in a private plane and learning the idiosyncrasies of plane flight is one way to allay fears. Dr. Jim Fant, a rheumatologist in Columbia, believes his peace while on a plane is grounded in his faith in Christ as he survived the USAir Flight 1016 crash in Charlotte, N.C. in 1994 and yet still flies.
Hill has not endured any all-out, anxiety-laden passenger episodes during his 10,000-plus hours in the air; however, he has heard stories. Whenever there is turbulence, he speaks to passengers in a calm, soothing voice, and if there is a maintenance issue, Hill provides necessary information — but not potentially frightening details. Passengers who are nervous sometimes ask to meet him while he is in the cockpit, and he explains to them the process, his experience and expectations of the flight. He has taken friends and family members up in private planes to show them controls and allow them to participate in the experience of flying the plane; the end result: a diminished apprehension about flying.
Most have heard the statistic that a person is more likely to perish in a car accident than in an airplane crash. Yet, says Dr. Mau, there is something so much more terrifying about the latter. “Aviophobes run the gamut from just a general fear of enclosed spaces while 30,000 feet above the earth to apprehension about over-crowding, lack of control and even terrorism,” he says. Some can squelch distress and a rapid heartbeat with deep breathing, music, work, conversations, prayers, medication or alcoholic beverages.
However, Dr. Mau says people tend to avoid what frightens them. He has met people during his last 10 years in practice who have lost a job promotion or avoided an important family event because they were too afraid to board a plane. “The more people avoid fear, the more it intensifies,” he says. “People give power to fear by avoiding it.”
Because he says that emotion, not information, drives or changes behavior, he works with patients to create an “emotional shift” so that they feel differently. He allows patients to speak to him about their fears and feelings, and then he works them through a process of visualization to help them imagine themselves and the experience differently. “Once people’s emotions about a particular phobia shift toward a positive outcome, they typically do not revert back to negative avoidance,” he explains.
His most interesting client was a pilot. “Yes, pilots can become afraid to fly,” he says. In fact, it is estimated that 35 percent of all airline crewmembers experience some sort of aviophobia, acrophobia (fear of heights), and/or claustrophobia (fear of tight spaces) sometime during their careers. Through counseling, the pilot patient of Dr. Mau’s was able to resume flying without experiencing trepidation.
Dr. Jim Fant had not flown much before July 2, 1994. He flew, when necessary, to conferences on rheumatology, but not particularly for pleasure. Flying, though, did not agitate or strain him in the least. Yet, USAir Flight 1016 indubitably changed his life forever.
He was returning to an Ohio Air Force base after moving Meg, his wife, and four children from Dayton to Columbia, his hometown. He had been away 12 years attending medical school, internship, residency and fellowship — and then fulfilling a three-year commitment to the Air Force. He had to leave his family for six weeks before joining a practice in Columbia as a rheumatologist.
He boarded a plane on a clear summer evening in Columbia. A 30-minute plane ride would take him to Charlotte, where he planned to board another plane to Ohio. As always when flying, he said the Lord’s Prayer. He sat in a window seat midway down the right side aisle of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9-31 plane that held 125 at full capacity. That day there were 52 passengers and five crew members on board. He did not become acquainted with anyone on the short flight, including the man in the seat in front of him or the man in the seat behind him.
The clear evening turned stormy as the plane approached Charlotte and, during the descent, there was turbulence; then the nose of the plane jerked abruptly upward and the engines revved. Shortly thereafter, the engines decreased in intensity and the nose of the plane angled down slightly. The plane seemed to be descending onto the runway once again. But before Jim could process what was happening, the plane slammed onto the ground and bounced — as if skipping a stone on water — until it veered off into the woods, where the wings were broken off by trees.
“It was terrifying. There was a lot of noise, but no screaming. It was a breathtaking succession of moments which unfolded rapidly but I remember thinking during this time that I was going to be crushed to death any second.”
Jim remained conscious, but he lost his eyeglasses. When the plane came to a stop, he felt intense heat and determined it was coming from in front of him. The plane’s interior was unrecognizable. He unfastened his seatbelt, but was unsure where to go to exit the plane. He saw a faint hole of light to the rear, so he stood up in his seat and climbed out an opening, only to fall into another part of the plane. He went through another hole and landed onto the ground. All the while, he experienced intense pain.
What he saw when he looked around was surreal. Smoke-covered passengers sat on a lawn; part of the plane’s rear section was in a house. Fortunately, the owners were not at home during the time of the crash. The plane had broken into four sections.
Passengers were triaged to determine who needed immediate medical attention. Jim was one of the few who suffered the least severe injuries. When taken to the emergency room, he learned he had a 30 to 40 percent compression fracture in his 12th thorax vertebra, a broken finger, a hematoma in his left ear and numerous cuts and abrasions. The passengers in front of him and behind him were crushed to death. All in all, there were 37 fatalities because of blunt force or fire and 20 injuries. The crew suffered injuries, and no one on the ground was killed.
Jim says that his family back in Columbia did not learn he was alive until a few hours later. He was in the hospital for five days and, since his recovery was at least six weeks long, the Air Force excused his remaining six weeks of service. Immediately upon learning that he had survived the deadly crash, Jim was inundated with interview requests from top media outlets, including The Associated Press and CNN.
“People kept saying, ‘You were really lucky,’ but I said the reason I survived was God’s grace. It is amazing that I was not crushed or incinerated. I did not deserve to be saved. It was purely the Lord’s grace, and He used this event to draw me close to Him.”
What he does know is that from that day forward, God became real in his life. Ephesians 2:8 was crystal clear: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Jim began attending church and Bible studies with a newly found fervor.
He shared — and continues to share — his testimony and was eventually approached about using his medical skills to help underprivileged people in Mexico. “But that meant I would have to get back on a plane,” he says. “It had been five years. I had the opportunity to go to conferences, but if they were not within a day’s driving distance I didn’t go. I wasn’t ready to get back on a plane. But I knew the Lord wanted me to go.”
Other doctors prayed for Jim. Meg, his wife, and children prayed. All felt tremendous peace. And, astoundingly, when he sat down in the plane, he realized his seating assignment was in the exact same location as his seat on Flight 1016. “So that was an amazing thing. I think God just wanted me to trust that He would get me to Mexico.”
He has flown many times since 1999, for medical conferences, mission work, and to see a daughter in Texas, but he said he still prefers to drive when possible. “My life could have abruptly ended on July 2, 1994, but it didn’t, and I’ve had the opportunity to be a father to my kids, a husband to my wife and a doctor to my patients. I’m thankful for every day. It’s hard to see how a plane crash could have any positive ramifications, but it changed me for the better.”
Jim says he personally met only one other survivor after the crash, and she seemed to have come to terms with the trauma of the event.
Hill points out that the bottom line regarding fear of flying is that passengers can rest assured that pilots train extensively for every imaginable situation. He has been flying for 15 years and says he must spend many hours in a simulator and must complete ongoing training at multiple levels.
“I tell passengers that I’m on the plane too, so I obviously don’t want anything to happen as much as they do,” he says.