The Sunday Magazine

Michael Enright piloted a Boeing 777 and landed it in Lake Ontario

Michael tries to overcome his fear of flying by getting into the pilot's seat.
Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition, moments after "landing." (Sinisa Jolic CBC)

Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition, had just switched off autopilot and was bringing a Boeing 777, a 317-seat commercial aircraft, in for landing at Toronto's Pearson Airport.

Then his phone rang.

"Daniel, can I call ya? I'm in the middle of landing an airplane."

Michael had just broken the "sterile cockpit rule" which dictates that below 10,000 feet, pilots are not supposed to discuss anything except the flight, if they talk at all.

It's to ensure they stay focused on the task at hand.

Luckily, Michael landed the 777 safely.

Earlier in the day, however, he nearly clipped the CN Tower, before bringing the plane down in the middle of Lake Ontario.

Click "listen" above to hear the interview. 

No one was hurt.

No one was in any danger.

Michael was piloting a simulator — a realistic, immersive, digital recreation of a Boeing 777, run by uFly Simulator, in Mississauga, Ontario.

The whole experience was intended to help Michael cope with his fear of flying.

Fear of flying: Michael Enright in the pilot seat

3 years ago
Fear of flying: Michael Enright in the pilot seat 1:59

As a kid, Michael loved planes. He took his first flight, at age 12, to Thunder Bay, Ontario.

"I loved it, everything about it. The very idea of being thousands of feet in the air was almost overwhelming. I loved the real-food meals served on real dinner plates. My parents and I wore our Sunday best clothes. My mother could smoke her cigarettes," he said.

But, in 1968, while covering the campaign of presidential candidate George Wallace, he was suddenly struck by a gut-wrenching fear of flying.

I tried hypnotism, drugs, meditation, Irish whiskey and more drugs.- Michael Enright

By that stage, Michael had already flown hundreds of thousands of kilometres as a reporter.

But Wallace, running as a third-party candidate for the far-right American Independence Party, could only afford to fly in a Lockheed Electra — a model of plane that was discontinued after several high-profile crashes.

Aware of the Electra's reputation, Michael started feeling antsy.

His anxiety was compounded by the fact that a few years earlier his own cousin was killed in a plane crash.

Over the course of the campaign, Michael's fear spiked.  

"I tried hypnotism, drugs, meditation, Irish whiskey and more drugs," he said.

But nothing worked.

"I still have major problems. I do not read on planes. I do not watch the movies. I do not eat. I listen to music and do crossword puzzles," he said.

Michael's co-pilot in the simulator was aviation instructor Aaron Murphy.

Besides helping get the digital 777 off the ground, Murphy also took the opportunity to coach Michael on his fear and to educate him about the safety protocols involved in commercial flight.

Murphy says pilots go through numerous checklists for each flight.  

"And then there's probably a hundred checklists beyond that for abnormals and emergencies," he said.  

Murphy also addressed Michael's worst trigger of in-flight anxiety: turbulence.

Barring the extremely unlikely possibility a pilot inadvertently flies into a tornado, Murphy said, turbulence is pretty harmless.

"Number one, it is virtually impossible to break an airplane in turbulence," he said. "It's stressed to levels beyond anything you will ever encounter."

Michael said the simulator experience has made him more confident than ever in the expertise of commercial pilots and the rigour of their safety protocols.

But he's still not sure whether the simulator took the edge off his fear when it comes to stepping onto a real aircraft.  

"I suppose I'll find out the next time I fly," he said.

Click "listen" above to hear the interview.