Those clients who know me, will probably know that I'm a complete chicken when it comes to airplanes. Yes I know. Ironic for a Travel Agent. Just let it go.
Someone else who knows this little fact is our friend Louisa Jackson, who works at Gold Medal - a place we may have booked you flights, car hire or whole holiday through. At a recent presentation with British Airways, Louisa told me about a course BA run that would just perfect for me to attend as a nervous flyer.
"Great!" says I, and promptly hopes she'll forget about it.
Naturally she didn't, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this and I'm immensely grateful to her for dropping a place on the "Flight Safety Awareness" course, which I am just returning from (very crowded train back to North Devon from Paddington, with lots of opportunity to write notes!).
As is normal with my fear of flying, the anticipation of what might lay ahead for my day was far worse than the exercises we went through and I am pleased to report that I managed to maintain my dignity at all times. As far as I remember.
So what did we do?
After an introduction, which included a safety briefing for the safety course, we went straight down to BA's Boeing 737 cabin simulator. You've seen those cockpit flight simulators that pilots train in, well this is a whole cabin, complete with seats, oxygen masks and hydraulic lifts to shake you about.
Our small group was settled into our seats and we began our fake flight to the Maldives (highly impractical in a 737!). With all the windows blocked off, except the over-wing doors, I stuck myself where I had a good view of the rest of the hanger, which was filled with other cabin simulators and an assortment of every type of door cabin crew might need to practice on!
In at the deep end!
We started our very realistic bump along the 'tarmac' and prepared for take off with the usual safety demos and messages from the captain (palms now distinctively sweaty!). The speakers started blaring our engine noise as we accelerated along the runway and suddenly we notice the smoke pumping out from one of the seat up front. Muttered comments continue for a few seconds before an 'EMERGENCY. BRACE!' command comes from the captain. The cabin crew are shouting 'BRACE! BRACE!' intermixed with 'PUT YOUR HEAD BACK DOWN!' (Wasn't me. I was frozen with my head practically between my knees!).
Loud engine noise. Alarms sounding. Crew barking commands. Yes, I was a bit twitchy, but my view of the outside world kept my imagination in check. We file out of our stricken 'aircraft' and line up alongside the simulator, all rather wide-eyed.
What a way to start. Once the air clears inside the cabin, we troop back in and settle in for a debrief and reality check of our reactions. After about five minutes I regain the ability to speak in words of more than one syllable.
What followed was an in depth discussion with our instructors (ex-cabin crew and a First Officer) that made us look at our actions and reactions and how the cabin crew had essentially shepherded us through the situation with their instructions. What we were to learn today were things to make us more efficient in emergency situations as well as more information about the airline's safety procedures and a real reinforcement of the skills and priorities of the pilots and crew.
What's behind door number 1?
Next we did some manual exercise by practising removing the over-wing doors and opening the main doors (in case something nasty has happened to the cabin crew!). That door over the wing is a lot heavier than you would expect! Even after watching the others struggling, I was still shocked how heavy it was. Apparently adrenalin plays a big part in removing it in the heat of the moment.
Don't be sick, don't be sick!
A short break for coffee and biscuits and then the fun began. Evacuation slides! Actually probably not the best thing to practice after filling up with coffee, but after a short briefing we were dressed in fairly unflattering boiler suits and began flying down the inflated slides - demonstrating the proper, safe method of course.
Was desperately impressed by a video we were then shown of a practice evacuation of an A380 - 800 seated passengers and every one of them was out in 78 seconds! Amazing and quite comforting. Sort of.
Smoke gets in your eyes
Next followed an in-depth talk about ditching in water, with supporting material from the US Airways plane that went into the Hudson in New York (which somehow was quite supportive), then onto de-pressurisation, which although a terrifying thing to happen is actually one of the safer 'incidents'.
Finally we move onto a special room outside of the simulator building which, after a proper briefing, started filling with smoke.
I should qualify at this point that all the smoke they used was theatrical, so I was quite used to that. This 'smoke room' was to demonstrate, very effectively, the way hot smoke sits above the good air. The room was specially heated to make the simulation more accurate, and soon we were sweating as the thick, white smoke slowly crept down closer and closer to our heads. Just about the time I started feeling claustrophobic and creeped out, the lights were extinguished and we followed the floor lights out through the exits (suitable hunched over).
What a day!
So at the end of it all, can I say it cured me of my fear of flying? Well, no, not really. But, then it wasn't really designed for that.
Joining me I the class of Thursday 19th June, were some who had been sent by their companies to improve their safety skills for frequent business flying, a couple who were there out of curiosity, one who was there because their friends had bought her the experience as a gift, one lady who admitted to being a total geek and was fascinated to see the procedures and machinery up close - and me.
So my advice is that if you're looking for something to help with your fear of flying there are better options, but if you're fascinated by flying and want some deeper insight then go for it. You'll love the experience (and feel a bit privileged to have walked the halls where pilots and crew frequent in their service to BA).