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Flying High: Daniel Island Aviators

The Daniel Island News

July 24, 2008

After the 9/11 attacks, James Platzer was blindsided by his own personal terror.

He was afraid to fly.

This was not the garden-variety air anxiety experienced by around 30 to 40 percent of American travelers. It was a flop-sweat-inducing, heart-thumping phobia and it kept him grounded for six years.

“I had a pretty serious phobia,” the Daniel Island businessman said. “It was like a switch went off after 9/11 and I just couldn’t fly commercially. My wife Heather and I drove everywhere, including across the country. I literally could not get on a plane.”

Platzer subsequently sought help to tame his fear over the next few years. The condition is clinically called aerophobia and reportedly affects about 6 percent of American adults.

“I tried psychotherapy, desensitization tapes and various therapies to try to get over this,” he recalled. “But nothing helped. Finally, I said to myself, I want to get over this and get on with my life. That’s when somebody said, ‘Why don’t you take a flying lesson?’”

The friend’s counterintuitive suggestion and Platzer’s firm resolve were the keys that finally freed him from his personal bondage. In November 2006 Platzer drove to Coastal Aviation flight school at Mt. Pleasant Regional Airport and paid to be taken for a brief flight.

Coastal Aviation President Bill Pearson remembers when Platzer showed up at the airport.

“We occasionally see folks like James who have a fear of flying, but not to the extent he had,” Pearson said. “Most people just say they’re afraid to fly. But James said he’d gotten thrown out of an airport or ran fleeing from an airport, some sort of terrible experience. That first day he was shaking when he walked into our office and he was shaking after the flight.”

Platzer’s initial flight might qualify as the shortest lesson in modern history.

James Platzer has conquered his fear of flying and got his pilot’s license last year. A vice president and branch manager for A.G. Edwards—Wachovia Securities on Daniel Island, he bought his Cessna plane last fall. He and wife Heidi, who works at Daniel Island Real Estate, have lived on Daniel Island since 1999. Photo: Tom Ratzloff

“They flew me up and then landed,” he said. “It was a minute lesson. It wasn’t really a lesson. I just sat there. We went up and we went down. But that was the first time I’d been off the ground in six years and I felt so proud of myself as I drove home.”

Over the next few weeks Platzer’s flights with instructor Andy Smith were gradually extended.

“One day we were doing these little desensitization things and he said, ‘Put your hands on the controls,’” Platzer recalled. “So I put my hands on the controls and steered the airplane. It’s an unbelievable feeling of power to be able to fly an airplane and I was hooked. I was ready to get on with my life and after Andy put that yoke in my hands and I turned the plane, I didn’t give it a thought.”

The lessons continued and then came a landmark day in Platzer’s life: Feb. 6, 2007. He flew solo for the first time and was initiated into a very exclusive club. Other pilots cut the back of his shirt off and documented the occasion in black and red magic marker. The memento currently hangs on a Coastal Aviation wall next to other pilot’s “first solo” shirts.

A long-held initiation ritual is cutting the back off of the shirt of a student pilot who flies solo for the first time. James Platzer’s shirt is hanging on the wall at Coastal Aviation’s headquarters as a memento. Photo: Tom Ratzloff

“It’s a long tradition to cut the shirt tail off someone after their first solo and write or draw things on it,” said Pearson, who still vividly remembers his own 1969 first solo flight. “Sometimes people throw buckets of water on them but I figure it’s better to cut off their shirts than to drown them. I warn our female students about it ahead of time and some of them will even bring an extra shirt to cut up.”

Platzer’s flight training continued and he received his pilot’s certificate in June 2007. Three months ago he bought a Cessna that has state-of-the-art avionics that monitor air traffic, weather, global positioning and other readings.

“There’s just so much information at your fingertips. It even has XM Radio so when Heather and I fly to our condo in Asheville, we can listen to music,” said Platzer. “My plane goes about 120 knots and it’s without stop signs or roads. It’s point to point and we can make it from here to Asheville in about an hour and 45 minutes.”

He is currently working on getting his instrument rating, which would expand his flying opportunities in all kinds of weather.

“I fly twice a week, usually on Sunday mornings and sometimes after work if it’s a cooler summer evening,” Platzer said. “I’ll go over the ocean by the Isle of Palms or over the Francis Marion forest. It’s beautiful and a nice way to decompress. I fly commercially all the time now and I’m outrageously fascinated by flight. Since I bought my airplane I fly everywhere.”

When contemplating his six-year journey, Platzer just shakes his head.

“Everyone says it is the craziest thing ever,” he laughed. “No one gets over a fear of flying by being able to pilot an airplane, but I did. People say they use me in motivation speeches to illustrate that you can get control of your life.”

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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