ISTANBUL - "I don't know how my fear of flying started. I was boarding the airplane with ease four years ago, but then suddenly… something must have triggered my fear," says Hakan Macit, during a Turkish Airlines training program to overcome the fear of flying. 

As about one in three people, according to a Boeing report, 33-year-old Hakan Macit is terrified of flying. Unfortunately, as a petroleum chemical industry manager living in the Turkish capital of Ankara, he has to fly frequently. 

His unavoidable fear of flying has pushed him to find replacements when he could no more board the airplane. He ended landing in a training program organized by Turkish Airlines aviation academy in Istanbul along with eight other phobics.

"For four years, there have been rare times I took an airplane, more times when I could not board and even times when I got off the airplane," he tells AA, voluntarily but anxious, ahead of the flight simulator to be taken as part of the training. 

Psychologist in the program, Merve Ozer tells AA that although each person who suffers from flight phobia could have experienced something private that triggered the condition, it was "the fear of dying - an existential anxiety of humankind" that constituted the main cause. 

For three hours on the first day, Ozer teaches breathing exercises, muscle relaxation methods and ways to go to a secure area in the mind through positive imagination when fear creeps in once on board. 

"Our aim is to minimize their anxiety level with some methods to handle their fear, how to control this anxiety and to increase their self-reliance through these exercises," she stresses. 

According to the technical expert of the program, Mecit Bagci, one of the main reasons for developing an irrational fear of flying is "lack of information."

Berated with questions from the participants, Bagci gives information on how safe an airplane is, how its structure and systems work, why flying is safe, effects of weather conditions on air vehicles, the safety of airplane motors as well as how professionally technicians are trained.   

"The most frequently asked question is whether a turbulence can cause the airplane to crash," Bagci tells AA smiling, saying turbulence only meant only the removal of air which causes the passengers shake but has never caused an airplane to crash in aviation history. 

It was now time to board the simulator. Participants are even welcomed by a real flight stewardess, Fazilet Guremen, who spent more than 25 years on planes and still teaches the young candidates about the profession. 

Guremen informs the participants in detail of how professional a steward is trained in first aid, profiling of any suspicious passengers and even handcuffing if necessary, how the inner security of a cabin is checked and controlled before flight, the air circulation system and the briefings with the pilot about weather conditions and timing of turbulences... All this before the passengers even board the plane. 

"My fear does not only appear when we face turbulence on the airplane - it's more about the general idea of flying, something technical," Macit stresses after experiencing two flights on the simulator – the first one, a normal flight with light turbulence and the second one with very strong turbulence. 

During the heavy turbulence simulation, the psychologist Ozer leads the group into the breathing exercises and prompts the anxious passengers into saying aloud such sentences as "I feel safe," "I know that this is quite normal," or "I'm taking a pleasant flight." 

"This high turbulence simulation serves to increase your threshold. None will be stronger than this," she tells the phobics afterwards. 

She also offers the anxious passengers to eat chocolate as it leads the body to produce endorphine – a hormone that normally decreases the volume of pain in the body.

At the end of the first day, Macit notes he feels "better now." 

However, the true test is around the corner. The second day, a short flight from Istanbul to Antalya - lasting about 50 minutes – awaits them. 

Participants and trainers meet at Ataturk Airport's domestic flights departure hall and talk to each other for about one hour.

"I thought about going back home when I was at the door of the airport," a female participant tells the group. 

Another one complains about the rainy weather, which makes her feel nervous. 

However, none of the excuses prevent them from taking the routine flight along with other unsuspecting passengers, even after taking the boarding cards from the counter, going through security control and boarding the airplane at the gate.  

Inside the airplane, the group sits together. The female participants prefer to sit next or in front of the psychologist while the men flock around the technical expert – in appearance more relaxed compared to the first day. 

During the flight, they change seats whenever they want to be close to the psychologist, the technical expert or the cabin expert to ask them questions when they feel anxious - some repeat the exercises taught by the psychologist the day before. 

After an uneventful flight and landing –which is an event - the group visits the cockpit and the pilot. 

"There are several things such as wind and heat changes, which make you shake a little bit. Imagine that you are just dancing," the pilot tells the group smiling.  

After the cockpit visit, Macit says that although he felt fear in the morning and even thought about giving up, he pushed himself to board the plane and spent a comfortable flight next to the technical expert. 

"I breathed deeply most and stayed away from what I did formerly whenever I got nervous," he says.  

After a pleasant day in Antalya, it is now time to go back to Istanbul… in the evening. 

"The participants always feel more nervous for the return flight because of the darkness," psychologist Ozer tells AA - avoiding the still frightened participants so they wouldn’t hear her.

Indeed, during the flight, the participants definitely feel more nervous, only loosening up and smiling after landing in Istanbul. 

"The level of my anxiety has considerably decreased and I will continue to fly. First, I will take a short flight within two weeks and a longer one to Vienna after," Macit tells AA.   

Asked what he believed would make his fear decrease or disappear in the long term, Macit - without hesitating - says it is “information.”

"I knew how safe an airplane was but after learning about all the details from their experts, I felt relaxed," he says with an excited voice as he leaves the airport - similarly to the majority of the group. 

Turkish Airlines, or THY, launched the Istanbul-based training program 7 years ago and has helped more than 600 flight phobics from all ages to fly without fear since, according to Advertising and Promotion Supervisor of Turkish Aviation Academy, Ayse Vural. 

"Over 90% of the participants overcame their fear of flying," she adds. 

The program takes place each month with nine participants from all over Turkey.  

The experts of the academy generally keep in touch with the graduate participants and receive their photos and experiences from their flights all around the world, Vural states.  

Turkish Airlines plans to open the same academy for an international audience based in Europe, where the training program will be given in English, she adds.

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