They say the only way to conquer fear is to face it head on — an old adage that is firmly etched deep, deep in the soul of south Belfast singer-song-writer Eilis Phillips.
Six years ago, the 27-year-old was left with a crippling fear of flying after her Belfast to London flight was aggressively struck by lightning while airborne. The plane jolted. Passengers screamed in fear. Many believed flames had engulfed the cabin.
Although Eilis plays down the incident, the mishap tens of thousands of feet above the Irish Sea haunted her vividly and threatened the career of a travelling musician who thrived on the rough and tumble of playing gigs throughout Britain, Ireland and further afield.
“I know now that this is fairly commonplace but at the time it was a bit of shock,” she says.
“I just remember that the weather had been particularly bad, it was a bumpy journey.
“Next thing I saw a brief flash out of the window and the plane jolted.
“No one knew what was going on and a lot of people around me were very upset by it. I think everyone thought there had been a fire.”
Back on the ground, a shaken Eilis had initially tried to put the ordeal behind her.
It wasn’t until her next flight some time later that the incident came rushing back and replayed itself in her mind.
The consequences were devastating.
“That next time I flew on a plane, I had a panic attack,” she remembers.
“I sobbed the whole way, the poor lady next to me and my dad were both holding my hands and trying to calm me down. It was incredibly embarrassing! I felt like an idiot.”
By now, aviophobia — a fear of flying — had taken over Eilis’ life and left her dreading the thought of boarding an aeroplane. Places she had enjoyed visiting as a child suddenly became no-go areas, travel plans suffered and a once unrestrained, poetic songstress now felt trapped inside a fear that many put down as simply ‘irrational’. Irrational, perhaps, but deep, according to Eilis.
“I had this irrational fear all the time that I was going to die,” she says.
“That either the plane would crash or I would have a heart attack on the way.
“During take-offs, I always experienced panic attacks and felt like I was hyperventilating. I used to lie awake for nights before I had to fly anywhere, even short flights, and I had terrible nightmares about flying.”
Eilis was faced with what’s known in modern psychology as the ‘fight or flight response’.
She either stood her ground and faced up to her fear or she ran away from it every time.
The ever-valorous singer, of course, chose the former and her life began to turn around.
“As a child I had always loved flying; I was born in Hong Kong and we used to fly back and forth to the UK all the time,” she says.
“It was always my favourite part of the holiday. I just couldn’t bear the misery of the fear any more and I knew “I had to do something about it. I always thought immersion therapy — where you are exposed to the thing you fear most — sounded like a good idea so I decided to confront it head on.”
What she did next was perhaps unprecedented and is enough to make your average nervous flyer’s palms sweat profusely.
“I booked a trip to America on my own and my father bought me a flying lesson at the Ulster Flying Club.”
And was this not, er, crazy? Daunting even?
“Absolutely, but I was determined to beat it.
“I didn’t want it to get the better of me,” she affirms.
“Without a doubt, the lessons quickly acted as a remedy. I wasn’t able to take a lesson before I left for the States but the research I did into the theory and science behind how and why planes fly really helped.
“The first couple of long-haul flights were pretty difficult.
“But when I got home and started taking the lessons everything clicked into place — the fear just sort of vanished as my confidence grew.”
With the skies above south Belfast clear on the day we meet, she remarks: “A good day for flying”, as she contemplates another lesson that afternoon.
“I’ve had five lessons so far, so I’m still finding my feet,” she says, informing me that she now playfully refers to herself as ‘Captain Phillips’.
“Initially I only wanted to take one or two just to help me with the fear, but the instructors were wonderful and I found
I really felt at home flying for myself.
“Now I may have a long way to go before I complete my licence but I’m confident that I'll continue with the lessons.
“Where before I only wanted to cure the fear, now it’s not even an issue.”
Eilis is every inch the ardent trainee. Between gigs, she can be found studying her pilot’s manual or studying astro physics.
Her Facebook page is littered with references to her new-found hobby: “After a busy day menacing the Ards air traffic, I'm now off to La Boca open mic to menace them instead. Mwaha”, reads one recent status, while in another she “is hoping that, (unlike in my flight simulator) there will be no Llamas on the runway when I attempt to take off today”.
For Eilis, however, the journey goes on as she completes the onerous journey from panic-stricken flyer to pilot.
And the message to those in the grip of a fear of flying?
“Definitely seek help if you think it is holding you back from doing what you want or need to do,” she says simply.
“I work as a full-time musician and my job demands that I be flexible when it comes to travel.
“If I couldn’t fly, my career options would be drastically limited, not to mention the emotional trauma.
“I would totally recommend a flight at the Ulster Flying Club if you are curious about flying.
“They offer gift vouchers, one-off flights so you don’t have to want to be a pilot to take them. Everyone at the club is incredibly friendly and supportive and willing to answer any questions or concerns you might have.
“If you are not ready to fly yet, I would suggest reading up on the subject first as going in at the deep end doesn’t suit everybody!
“At the end of the day, people need to be reassured that it is a phobia like any other and that it can be totally be overcome.”
Now back in the relative safety of the recording studio, Eilis is on a completely different kind of adventure as she sets about writing new material for her forthcoming album.
Her stories of rock ’n’ roll astronauts, Shakespearean phantoms, forbidden cities and living constellations have captivated the hearts of audiences from London to New Orleans.
The now-avid traveller, singer, bass player, amateur astro physicist and trainee pilot has been strongly influenced by the folk traditions of rural Britain as well as by the great songsmiths of America.
Her new album is set for release soon, entitled ‘Oh Captain'. Very apt, one thinks.
Anyone interested in flying lessons can contact the Ulster Flying Club, Newtownards on 02891 813327.
For more information on Eilis Phillips, and details on her music and future gigs, visit www.myspace.com/eilisphillips.