Plane Scared: How ‘The Plane Whisperer’ Helps People Get Over Fear of Flying

Capt. Ron Nielson is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot-turned therapist.

ByABC News
May 1, 2014, 12:58 PM

May 1, 2014— -- intro: For millions of people, the thought of being trapped on an airplane 30,000 feet in the air triggers pure white-knuckling, chest-thumping fear. And it also invokes a deep, painful sense of shame for many.

But that’s where Capt. Ron Nielson comes in.

Nielson, a retired Air Force pilot-turned therapist, is known as “the plane whisperer” for those deathly afraid to fly. He hosts week-long classes to help walk people through their anxiety and works with them to overcome it, first in a classroom setting, then on an actual flight.

“The plane gets a bad rap. It’s got nothing to do with the airplane or aviation or anything like that,” Nielson told “Nightline.” “A lot of our fears are easily displaced onto other things.”

It’s estimated that 25 percent of all fliers have some degree of fear when they get on a plane, but the fear is moderate to severe for the people Nielson treats. Even though it’s notably safe to fly -- the chances of dying in a plane crash are one in 60,000,000 -- people in Nielson’s classes are terrified of dying on an airplane.

“[The fear] has its roots in not being in control,” the Phoenix-based Nielson said. “As human beings, vulnerability is a tough deal and that’s one of the things we learn early on in life: If I’m vulnerable, I can feel betrayed. … [There are] all kinds of outcomes that cause us to go inward, kind of shutdown and, again, aviation is a place to want to be in control.”

Sue Milgrove, a mother of three who is a real estate agent by day and a member of a rock band by night, has taken four of Nielson’s classes. Her goal is to be able to get on a plane to take her kids to Disney World in Florida but, so far, she hasn’t fully overcome her fear.

“For some reason it attacks my body and I think I’m going to die, it makes me feel like I’m having a heart attack. It betrays me,” Milgrove said. “I want to jump out of my seat, up and down the aisles screaming, ‘Never mind let me out. Let me out, please.’”

“Nightline” followed Nielson through one of his classes, which Milgrove attended, to see how he works with people to overcome their fear of flying. Here are a few of the tips Nielson told his class to get them through a flight. Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 12:35 a.m. ET.

quicklist: 1title: Information Is Key to Overcoming Feartext: Nielson believes in facing anxiety head-on so before he put his class on a flight, he had them do a walk-through aboard an airplane on the tarmac.

He first assured them that the plane would not take off. Then he explained to them that plane maintenance is highly regulated - how planes are maintained and how often they are maintained - which made some people in the class feel more relaxed.

“A big part of this is called anticipatory anxiety. ‘What I don’t know, I fear,’” Nielson said. “Generally, sights, sounds and sensations … the airplane is a reservoir of those things and I know nothing about them, they’re all unfamiliar so I need to educate myself and that helps me reduce anticipatory anxiety.”

quicklist: 2title: Distractions Are a Good Thingtext: Bring a book, music, watch a movie, anything to take your mind off the anxiety during the flight, Nielson suggested.

“Learn how to distract yourself, find something that you’re interested in,” Nielson said. “Fortunately for me they came out with audio books, and I’m reading a book a week or so. That’s what I need, that’s the kind of passion it takes to get over problems like this.”

quicklist: 3title: Skip the Alcohol and Pillstext: While it might seem like a good idea to have a drink or pop a pill to take the edge off, Nielson said he has seen those have an adverse effect, increasing anxiety.

quicklist: 4title: Try Breathing Through a Strawtext: It may sound silly, but Nielson said breathing through a drinking straw can help prevent a person suffering from anxiety from hyperventilating.

“If you can control your breathing for the first two minutes of flight, you’ve got 90 percent of the battle lifted,” Nielson said. “With the drinking straw, what it does is it artificially restricts how much air you can inhale and exhale and it slows your breathing down naturally. It also minimizes a chance that you’ll hyperventilate.”