Fear of Flying

by Jean Richardson on March 30, 2017

I was not raised in a family that flew.  My first flight was from Seattle to Frankfurt as a teen-aged exchange student.  I still remember looking out of the window over the north Atlantic and seeing the icebergs below in the ocean.  I thought of the Titanic.  I had read A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the Titanic in the north Atlantic.  I was so tense during that entire trip that my whole body felt like one large cramp.  I had a terrible migraine and was vaguely nauseous.  But, I was going to Germany, which is what I had worked for years to be able to do.  And everyone around me seemed to be taking the experience of flying for granted . . .

When I got back home I said I wasn’t going back to Europe until they installed a bus line across the Atlantic.  This turned out not to be the case.  There is still no bus line, and I have been back to Europe several times.

I had to learn to fly for work.  Earlier in my career, not only was there no worldwide web, but the professional development opportunities in town were paltry.  I began to fly several times a year for training.  One night before a flight to Dallas, my husband and I went to the local Rose Festival and rode the Octopus again and again so that I could steel myself for the flight next day.  It helped.  Though, all the way to Dallas I only read one and a half pages of the novel I’d brought with me—again and again and again.

These days, I often sit by the window and am perfectly comfortable looking out during takeoff, but not so much during landing.  I’m less panicked if I can’t sit over the wing, though I don’t like to sit in the tail.  Ironically, on a trip back from Berlin two summers ago, I ended up in the last row.  The advantage to that is that you’re close to the duty free shop, I learned.  What a lovely collection of perfumes they had on board that flight!

A friend of mine who flies a lot for pleasure said to me a couple of years ago that, yes, your life is in danger and your safety is out of your hands once you get on the plane, but you just have to let go and accept it, let it happen.  It’s true.  Thinking of a plane as a flying coffin doesn’t help much. Envisioning all the contagion being pumped through the HVAC system doesn’t help much either.

For many years, I found that every time I fly more than three hours, I get a sinus infection.  It’s a misery, and I dread it.  In the last two or three years, I’ve learned some techniques to minimize the severity and likelihood.  Last year, I even flew a few times with no negative outcomes at all.  Same thing about that trip to Berlin, it occurs to me.

I’m thinking about all these things as I’m going to be on a plane at 6 a.m. tomorrow.  Fortunately, it’s a short flight, and I won’t be gone from home long.  And, best of all, friends have agreed to keep my dog so he won’t have to be boarded, so a great worry is relieved there. And the hotel I’m going to has a saltwater pool, which makes the entire trip worth it!

I’m flying for training again.  No way to get this training within driving distance.  Believe me, I’ve looked.  And, I want that knowledge, so off I go.

The night before I fly, I don’t sleep.  This is not a plan.  Sleep just doesn’t come.  I plan to give the back porch a thorough cleaning, so there’s a silver lining to all this.

When I made that first trip to Germany many years ago, I had lived most of my life in semi-rural to very rural environments.  When you’re on horseback on a hot summer’s day with no one else for miles around or maybe only one friend along for the ride, contagion and crashing are not your biggest concerns.  And, the earth asserts its personality.  Your fate can seem to be more in your own hands.  Likely, living that way, you have skills on board for finding water, making fire, finding food, defending yourself against predators—and we did.

Thirty years ago, I moved to what has become a rather large city.  It’s grown up around me, and many different kinds of people live here now.  Urbanites.  And, we have become an urban-identified people here in the US in the last several years, speaking statistically.

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Sully Sullenberger keynote a conference.  You may remember him.  He landed that plane on the Hudson.  Last year I went to see the movie.  It was really great, but they didn’t highlight something there that Sully did seem to intentionally drive home in his speech.  The only reason that everyone survived that emergency landing was that the crew followed their training exactly and every single person did their part to get themselves and each other out of the plane as quickly as possible.  They cooperated.  More than that, they collaborated around the common interest of everyone getting out alive.

Should the plane I’m on tomorrow morning need to make an emergency water landing somewhere along the way, I certainly hope there are a lot of quick collaborators on that plane!

A city, once it gets to a certain size, is kind of like an airplane.  We become very dependent on the same air and water supply.  No wells here!  If a disaster occurs, we’re not likely to be able to get out.  We need shelter in place capabilities and excellent cooperation skills.

This all says something about leadership at all levels.  The film, Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, provided a dramatic re-enactment of the landing and evacuation of the plane.  People were panicked, reaching out to loved ones on their cell phones, fearful of their physical ability to withstand the shock of landing and ability to exit, and the cabin crew were chanting “Brace! Brace! Heads down. Stay down,” even though they were also terrified.

In his keynote speech, Sully emphasized again and again that the only reason everyone survived was that everyone, including every passenger, followed the known emergency procedures and helped everyone else.  I think life is a lot like that.  But, we’re still trying to figure out what that actually means.  Especially here in America.

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