x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fear-of-flying UAE schoolboy takes off in Etihad flight simulator

Etihad Airways invites the Al Ain schoolboy to a flight simulator session as part of efforts to help him overcome a chronic fear of flying that left him stranded in the UAE.

Joe Thompson, 11, at the controls of an Etihad Airways Airbus A320 flight simulator. The Al Ain schoolboy is stranded in the UAE after developing a chronic fear of flying. He was due to return to the UK over the summer.
Joe Thompson, 11, at the controls of an Etihad Airways Airbus A320 flight simulator. The Al Ain schoolboy is stranded in the UAE after developing a chronic fear of flying. He was due to return to the UK over the summer.

DUBAI // Schoolboy Joe Thompson has had a session on an Etihad Airways flight simulator as part of efforts to help him overcome a chronic fear of flying that has left him stranded in the UAE.

Joe, 11, suffered anxiety attacks on the way to the Etihad training centre at Abu Dhabi International Airport, and once there he asked staff to leave the door of the simulator open to prevent him becoming claustrophobic. But he relaxed significantly after taking the controls – so much so that he completed two landings, and is keen to return for further sessions.

The sports-mad youngster, who until now has been keen to become a professional rugby player, joked afterwards that he might become a pilot. “He said it would be funny to end up as a pilot when he couldn’t even get on a plane,” said his father, Tony.

Etihad invited Joe to use the simulator after staff read about his predicament in The National. He developed an acute aversion to flying earlier this year and has since been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder that prevents him travelling back to the UK by any means.

After living in Al Ain for several years, the family had planned to return to their home in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, in July. Joe’s mother Pauline, and sister Chloé, 16, have already moved back to the UK.

“Joe liked the simulator,” said Mr Thompson. “He was struggling going down there, he had all the usual anxiety pains, he was doubled up with stomach pains when he was outside the training centre and I thought we weren’t going to get him in.

“But then he met the Etihad guys, who were really good and explained to him how things operated, and he settled down once he looked inside the simulator.

“The idea was to explain to him how a plane works, how it’s controlled and how all the safety systems operate. We found it really helpful and we’ve taken all these things on board. He was anxious before but he managed to master that, and he adapted pretty quickly to the controls.”

The centre’s simulators are in constant use by trainee pilots, so a gap in the schedule will have to be found to enable Joe to return. Each simulator contains an exact replica of an aircraft flight deck, including all the controls.

Electric jacks move the unit in response to the controls, lifting the nose during take-off and replicating an aircraft’s behaviour during manoeuvres such as a banking turn.

“He’s really interested in it, so much so that he asked me yesterday, ‘Can we go back again?’ I want to do anything I can to help build up his confidence.”

Joe becomes so distressed when he tries to board a plane that crew members have repeatedly refused to let him travel. Hopes that the Thompsons would be able to make their way home overland were dashed when the anxiety disorder was diagnosed two weeks ago. The pair are staying at a friend’s home in Al Ain, and Mr Thompson – a crisis management expert – is looking for work.

“I’m in job application mode,” he said. “I applied for about 30 jobs last week.”

Tomorrow, Joe will begin a new term at Al Ain English Speaking School, which he attended previously. He had been due to start at a new school in the UK on the same day.

“I just want to get him into school,” Mr Thompson said. “He’s been meeting some of his mates, and his first rugby match is on September 28. I want to return to some degree of normality.”

csimpson@thenational.ae