High-profile crashes can fuel fear of flying

French emergency rescue services work at the site of the Germanwings jet that crashed on March 24 near Seyne-les-Alpes, France. Therapists that treat people with a fear of flying say they stress keeping tragedies like the Alps crash in perspective.

Sheri Sutherland has long worried about flying. Her fears got worse when she heard about the deaths of 150 people — possibly at the hands of their pilot — after an airliner crash in the French Alps.

“This is like a whole new concern now,” she said.

She recently considered renting a car to drive home from Orlando rather than use the airways.

“The more I fly, the more I hate it. I just have a fear of flying. I just always think the plane is going to crash,” she said.

Sutherland, who has homes in Lake Wylie and Mount Pleasant, said she knows the minuscule odds of being in a plane crash, but that does little to calm her nerves. Last year, airlines flew 3.7 billion passengers worldwide; 641 died in crashes.

“The fatality and the finality of it. That’s my greatest fear,” she said.

When she flies, she takes an aisle seat. On her recent trip home from Orlando to Charlotte, she had a drink to calm her nerves before take off. Her husband hid the news of the French Alps crash from her as long as he could.

About 2.5 percent of the population is afflicted with a flying phobia at some time in their life, said Alyssa Rheingold, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“But there are some studies that found that approximately 10 to 35 percent of the population report being anxious while flying,” she said in an email.

Fear of flying can involve many psychological factors, from being afraid of heights to a more innate anxiety. It is important to keep the tragedy in perspective, Rheingold said.

“These types of events are so rare,” she said.

She treats people for fear of flying typically when it affects their ability to do their job.

Charleston hypnotherapist Hillary Evans said that a flying phobia may be about fear of not being in control. The deaths in the French Alps heighten the concerns of those already struggling with anxiety about flying, she said.

“That really does, I think, rock people’s world. It comes to a question of trust,” the certified hypnotherapist said.

Hypnosis is an effective treatment for fear of flying, she said.

Mount Pleasant psychiatrist Caroline Smythe said that she has treated people over the years who are afraid to fly.

“I imagine such an event does result in an uptick of flying phobia,” Smythe said .

Her approach to the problem has changed over the years. “While I will initiate treatments to help relieve symptoms, I then dive into more of a detective-work approach to find what physiological imbalances might be contributing to the person’s decreased resilience around such fears.

“It is remarkable what can happen to fears and phobias when such things as food sensitivities, immune suppression and adrenal issues are addressed,” she said in an email.

Investigators say the co-pilot of a Germanwings airliner locked the pilot out of the cockpit and deliberately crashed the jet in the French Alps, killing everyone aboard on March 24.

Previous cases included a Japan Airlines flight in 1982, a SilkAir disaster in 1997 and an EgyptAir crash in 1999. Aviation experts believe all those tragedies were pilot suicides. More recently, a preliminary investigation into a November 2013 flight from Mozambique suggests the pilot locked the co-pilot out of the cockpit and then deliberately crashed the jet.

Then there is Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; its disappearance a year ago remains one of aviation’s greatest mysteries. A leading theory is that one of the pilots intentionally crashed the jet in a remote stretch of ocean.

Mental health screening of pilots varies by airline and country. In the U.S., the largest aviation market in the world, pilots are required to pass a physical exam annually or every six months, depending on their age. They are required to disclose all existing physical and psychological conditions and medications, or face fines of up to $250,000.

Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, said psychological tests are not part of his pilots’ yearly medical exams.

“No system in the world can rule out such an isolated event,” Spohr said.

Andreas Lubitz, the 27-year-old co-pilot of the Germanwings flight that crashed, underwent his last regular security check on Jan. 27. Nothing unusual was noted.

A French prosecutor said there is no indication the crash was terrorism, and investigators are instead focusing on Lubitz’s personal and professional life.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.