Survival Training Can Help Ground Fear of Flying

Your vision is blurred, you’re disoriented, there's a sharp, shooting pain in your sinuses as they flood in places you never knew existed, and you can't get the one thing that you need the most: air.

This is what it feels like to be submerged under water, say if you were ever in a plane crash.  Everyone knows that they're rare, but if it happens and you're trapped underwater, would you know how to survive? I had no clue, but I was about to find out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of my visit to Survival Systems USA-- a company that teaches underwater survival  techniques. I sought them out to help me get over a long-standing, uncontrollable fear of being submerged underwater. I panic whenever I step foot in an airplane and cringe when I drive over a bridge --anticipating the worst possible outcomes: My flight plummeting deep into the seas or my car swerving over the bridge and plunging into the water.

Part of Survival Systems's training program teaches students how to get out of a sinking aircraft. They recreate the scene by strapping you into their Modular Egress Training Stimulator-- a mock version of an aircraft's main fuselage. Then they dunk the stimulator into a deep pool until it becomes fully submerged. In some practice runs they can choose to spin the stimulator upside down or add hurricane winds and rain.

I was nervous just at the thought of simply getting strapped in the simulator, let alone being dunked underwater. And I wanted no part in adding the extra waves to simulate a storm.

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Tim Bunn a licensed therapist and president of SOAR--a company that offers courses and counseling to help people overcome their fear of flying -- says the fear of flying is fueled by people imagining their flight crashing over and over again.

“The repetition is a problem. When imagination is repeated, it is memorized. Once imagination of disaster is memorized, it takes over and masquerades as reality,” Bunn told

Instead of breaking that cycle through image therapy by -- for example -- visualizing a safe landing, I wanted a more empowering antidote: If I was going to go down, I had to know how to survive.

Survival Systems USA --considered among industry insiders and military personnel as the world's best training facility --was going to teach me more than just how to prepare and survive a water immersion in an airplane or vehicle. They were going to teach me how to face my fears.

When I arrived at the Survival Systems facility I was greeted by the Christopher Judah, the company’s executive director. He talked me through the company’s long history of designing course curriculums for the Marine Corps and Army. Their motto was “you do it right or you do it again." They can’t guarantee that you’re going to survive a crash, but they're dedicated to teaching you the skills that may one day save your life.

Ready to tackle my fear head on, I put on a bright-orange jump suit and took a seat in the training simulator. I buckled up and was instructed on what steps to take once the the mock fuselage took flight under water. Instantly my nerves started to kick in. I wrapped my arms around my legs and curled into the smallest ball possible and braced for impact. At the first sight of water coming up from the floor I took and held in my last breath.

Then the scary part came. Water rushed in over my head and instantly flooded the fuselage. Then the stimulator slowly flipped upside down. I was disoriented and slightly panicked with only a single thought in my mind: 'I don’t like this, I just want it to stop, I need to get out.'

As instructed, I sat up in my seat and felt for the emergency lever to my right side. I pulled the lever to unlock the window and with some force I pushed the window out. I frantically unsnapped my seat belt and swam out the window opening as fast as I possibly could. As soon as I reached the surface I gasped for air and swam to the side to catch my breath.

Only three more “dunks” to go. As they say practice makes perfect.

“We allow them to learn in a safe environment-in an immersive environment-so we can show them it is survivable if you take certain actions,” Judah told

After my fourth stimulator dunk I felt a lot more confident and was able to complete each step in the correct and non-frantic way.

“Once you accomplish something you did not think you could accomplish there is no limit to what you can do," Judah said. "That’s the enhance part of our purpose, we enhance and preserve lives, that is what we do here, our training enhances your lives by facing these fears.”

The training may not have completely cured my fear of flying or of being submerged, but in the end, I know I walked away with a set of skills that, when needed, could keep me alive.