My Fear of Flying

The Second Essential Scary Truth

I have an irrational fear, just like those who are phobic of spiders, centipedes and heights.  I am afraid of flying.  This irrational fear, born of something: loss of control, fear of dying, whatever, was at one point very real, or so I thought.  I had panic attacks, got nauseous and actually thought, once, I had found a hijacker with a fake leg.  When I alerted the stewardess, she told me he was a Mexican day laborer going to a New York hospital for reconstructive surgery.   Although he got in a wheelchair once we landed at Newark, I’m still not sure.

I have avoided getting on an airplane since 2004, sticking to trains or cars.  The closer my feet are to the ground, the happier I am.  Even though there are multitudes of places that I ruled out of ever seeing because of my ‘phobia,’ I had no problem with it and no one ever pushed me to change my life or run my fears.  Even my mother refused to push me when I was visiting her in Scottsdale, AZ.  She mentioned flying, I demurred and mother booked a sleeper car on the cross-country train.

So in early April, when I won a bet with a friend over the results of the Detroit Tigers/Seattle Mariners 3 game set (the Tigers won). I thought our wager was loser buys the ticket to New York but she had other ideas and booked me on a flight to come see her in Seattle for Memorial Day.  I found myself in a quandary: either come up with an interesting, possibly even realistic excuse and ruin a wonderful, blossoming friendship or find a way to get on the plane. 

In the past, I had simply manipulated the people who purchased the tickets, my parents, into getting what I wanted, like any good petulant practicing ‘phobic’ would.  The first time I tried to do this was the summer of 1987.  Taking up an offer from my cousin Sara, I flew out to LA for a quick visit.  

The flight I booked on United was a mere two days after the Northwest Air disaster in Detroit in August 1987.  According to eyewitness reports, the downed flight had bounced on takeoff before slamming into the ground, barely missing I-94.  My flight hit a pothole and jostled a bit during takeoff at Denver’s Stapleton Airport and some joker screamed out “Oh my G-d, we’re going to die!”  Of course, the takeoff was textbook and the flight totally uneventful.  Once in the air, I looked around to see who had opened their mouth.  What a schmuck, I thought.  Right then, the guy behind me whacked the back of my head.  “Kid,” he said. “Shut the fuck up.”

This was enough to convince me I should take a train home.  My younger cousin Josh, the only other person to know of my diabolical plan to train it back to Detroit, went with me to Phoenix to visit my aunt where I promptly missed my flight and called Mother and the Old Man to tell them what I needed to do.  I figured Dad would be sympathetic as he had a near miss on a small plane near Tucson back in the early 1960’s and wouldn’t want to see his oldest son, college bound in just two weeks, put through any unnecessary stress. However, the parental units were so unimpressed mother got me a flight that went from Phoenix to Albuquerque to El Paso to Amarillo to St. Louis to Chicago Midway to Detroit.  This was the only time Aron and Judy tried to get me to ‘man up’ and fly.  After my episode in white knuckle flying, if I would just intimate terror for any reason, I received a call with a train ticket or an itinerary of our car trip.

From time to time, I‘d grow an extra large case of chutzpah and would demand Mother put me on an airplane. Blaming the take off of that ill- fated Northwest flight as my major issue with air travel, I reasoned I had to find a way to get myself through the 3 minutes of getting up to altitude. While in Hebrew school, we were told a story about King David and how he tried to avoid death by mumbling the proper name of the almighty in Hebrew over and over again.  It worked well for the King for several years until the Angel of Death tripped him on the stairs one night.  King David stopped mumbling and he died before he hit the ground.  The moral we are supposed to take from that story is you go when it is your time to go and there is nothing that can be done to save you.  Of course, the conclusion I drew from the parable is if I keep mumbling the name of G-d, the plane with stay aloft.

This illusion came crashing down in December of 1989 when I found myself drinking with a pilot at a commuter bar in JFK.  He and I had three beers each and he followed those with three shots of whiskey; all done in the name of the Christmas season.  As I deplaned the rather routine Holiday flight, I discovered the pilot was my drinking buddy from two hours before.  “Don’t you say a fucking word,” he warned. 

That was enough for me to swear off airplanes once and for all.  I did have a couple of flights booked for me but used whatever excuses I could think of to switch my travel venue to keeping on the earth: bad dreams, a car would be more cost efficient etc.  I ran up hundreds of dollars in extra fees due to ambivalence, although I prefer to call it a ‘phobia.’

As my May 22 date with flight came closer, several friends reminded me flying was statistically the safest form of transportation.  I shot back that you can’t reason with an irrational fear and they all le the matter drop.

May 20, I changed the status on my Facebook page to a question that read: how many of you hate to fly?  The first response was from Greg Norton, restaurateur (along with his wife, he owns The Norton’s a wonderful joint in Red Wing, MN.), former bass player with Husker Du and one of my all time heroes.  “I love to fly.  I do it almost every night in my dreams,” he said.

Frankly, when I dream of flying, the images are of spectacular crashes and the bulkhead flying towards my nose, ultimately taking me out.  Although, I mercifully wake up before my inevitable death.

In truth, I wasn’t looking for comfort or commiseration or a cure from all those I asked but someone to tell me it was ok to be phobic.  My fear of flying, born in whatever reality, had simply become a form of reverse egotism.  All the flights I had my parents change or had missed were just attention getters, a way to feed my narcissism, arrogance and paranoia that the world was out to get me and only me.  What I had to do to get over my ‘fear of flying’ was ‘man up’ and realize we die when we’re supposed to die, no sooner or later.

I got on the plane to Seattle at 6am Saturday, scared, nervous and reviving my King David superstition.  I was going to lick this thing once and for all, determined to achieve my traveling adulthood and promptly fell sound asleep, waking up as we passed Mt. Rainier, 20 minutes outside of Seattle/Tacoma International Airport.  I have never been at ease enough with the process of flight to fall asleep, a horribly anti-climactic but quite welcome effect.

Yesterday, as I prepared to take the red eye Delta flight #740 home, my lovely Seattle guide decided to take me to a dive bar with great burgers, Cheetos (!) and Manny’s Pale Ale before dropping me at the airport.  She wanted to get me drunk or at least buzzed before I got on the flight and kept my pint glass full.  “I don’t want you to worry about flying, just get on and go right to sleep,” she told me.

We chatted about flying, my faux phobia and how smooth the trip out was. “I can’t believe I’ve been this much of an ass for all these years.  Don’t you think it’s horribly arrogant of me to think I would board an airplane with the belief the great magnet would have it in for me and only me,” I asked.

She put her thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart.  “Just a little.”


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