A British schoolboy stranded in Abu Dhabi for almost 16 months through his fear of flying has finally arrived home - after being hypnotised into boarding a plane.
Joe Thompson, 12, moved to the Gulf state with family in 2009, but has been unable to return home since June 2012 after suddenly developing an acute fear of flying.
When he tried to fly home last summer he was paralysed with fear - and tearfully refused to board a plane on four attempts.
His family has since spent £40,000 extending their stay overseas while they tried to overcome Joe's phobia.
They even attempted to leave the country by boat and car but were blocked by visa complications.
But Joe finally touched down in Britain on Monday after receiving hypnosis hours before the seven-and-a-half-hour flight from expert Russell Hemmings.
Joe had three months of treatment from the internationally-renowned hynotherapist - who offered his services to the family for free - before braving the long-haul flight and finally reaching the UK.
He was greeted at Heathrow Airport by his mother Pauline, 50, who was forced to return to Britain last year to resume her job.
Moments after stepping off the plane, a jubilant Joe, who celebrates his 13th birthday next week, said: 'I’m so happy to be home. I can’t believe how cold it is here.
'My mum and dad have been great and I’m so grateful to Russell for taking the time to help me. I just can’t wait to get home and get back to my life.'
The family moved to Abu Dhabi in 2009 when Mr Thompson - a former aide to John Prescott - was appointed quality manager at a private hospital there.
Joe had flown long haul all his life but only showed the first signs of anxiety on a flight back to Abu Dhabi after visiting Britain in March last year.
Later that month he had a panic attack shortly after boarding a flight to Sri Lanka for a rugby tournament and had to leave the plane before take-off.
Mr Thompson, a rugby coach, added: 'We got on the plane but Joe became so traumatised, the crew said he had to get off.
'It was terrible. I had 40 other children with me who were all taking part in the tournament. I couldn’t leave them so I had to let Joe get off.
'I called my wife and she came and picked him up.'
The family was due to move back to Britain in June 2012 but Joe was unable to fly back.
He was so terrified as he approached the departure gate he would slump to the floor sobbing with stomach cramps.
|FEAR OF FLYING |
Fear of flying affects millions of people worldwide.
It can be referred to as 'aerophobia' or 'aviophobia', or it can be a combination of other phobias such as acrophobia (fear of heights), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) or agoraphobia (anxiety disorder caused by 'dangerous or uncomfortable' environments).
It can be caused by a number of factors - from fear of crashing, to fear of terrorism, flying over water, or even vomiting.
A misunderstanding of the science behind flight and how planes stay in the air also causes fear of flying.
Experts warn against alcohol or medication to tackle fear of flying, as they encourage a dependance which dosnt tackle the problem.
Those with a fear of flying are encouraged to absorb the statistics of how safe planes really are, to face your fears head on, and distract yourself during the flight itself.
For those who are still terrified, Virgin run a 'Flying Without Fear' course to help you cope.
Mr Thompson, 62, said: 'There was no event that prompted it. It just happened out of the blue. And the fear is quite acute.
'He was fine until he got to check-in and then he fell apart.
'He got stomach pains, he collapsed and sat on the floor sobbing. It was awful. He never talked about the plane crashing. He just said each time ‘it’s the height’.'
His mum Pauline was forced to return to their home town of Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, with daughter Chloe, 18, to take a job with a solicitor's firm in Bristol.
Now stranded 4,500 miles from home, Mr Thompson began plotting an escape by car through Saudi Arabia to Jeddah, where they could board a cargo ship to Europe.
The journey was planned for July last year but after weeks of bureaucratic wrangling they were denied entry visas by the Saudi authorities.
Since then Joe has been treated by a number of specialists and psychiatrists in Abu Dhabi but they were all baffled and unable to make a breakthrough.
Earlier this year hypnotist Mr Hemmings, a British ex-pat living in Dubai, contacted them and offered to help Joe for free.
He has been treating Joe at home and at his clinic up to twice a week since July.
And Joe finally plucked up the courage to board a Quantas flight from Dubai to Heathrow at 1am on Monday - despite having a 'meltdown' at the airport.
Accompanied by Mr Hemmings and his father, he held his nerve and touched down at 5.30am UK time after a seven-and-a-half hour flight.
Mr Thompson said: 'There were some dicey moments before he boarded the flight because he started getting very distressed.
'With Russell’s help he managed to get him onto the plane but soon after take-off he got very upset again but Russell did his magic and all was good.
'Words cannot describe how happy we all are. It’s wonderful to be home again as a family.'
The family has spent around £40,000 on doctor's fees, cancelled flights and a rented villa in the Gulf state, while Mr Thompson has only been able to pick up sporadic work.
Mr Hemmings, who normally charges up to £600-an-hour for his services, said: 'I used a combination of hypnosis and cognitive behavioural therapy.
'Joe started having a meltdown at the airport, but we worked through the issue.
'On board I was able to bring him down, calm him using hypnosis techniques. The results were amazing.
'I had actually prepared for this flight days and weeks ago during our therapy sessions, using the power of hypnotic suggestion, meaning Joe already had the tools for success deeply planted into his subconscious mind, he just wasn't necessarily aware of it.'