Friday, April 3, 2009

Fear of Flying


I never used to feel it, fear of flying. I took my first "unaccompanied minor" trip on an airplane at the age of five, and I all but shut the exit door of the plane myself, so eager was I to get the voyage underway. The daughter of a Pan Am (then former Pan Am) executive, I prided myself on being a seasoned traveler before I was twenty years old. Flying always gave me a great sense of independence, and I immersed myself in airport/airline culture; I fit right in at the busiest transportation hubs. When I was little, I loved earning my wings. You know, those plastic pins that now belong to a bygone era of air travel. I wish I'd kept my collection; the first time my son flew, I was crestfallen to learn that they no longer had the wings on board for junior fliers. Later, I collected playing cards, memorized airport codes. I flew standby, but flew for free when there were empty seats on the plane. I flew across oceans, and I never thought much about mechanics, about gravity or the laws of aerodynamics. I did not routinely imagine the plane I was sitting in going down over water, over land, crashing into a field, or being flown into a tall building. This was all before getting married, before 9/11, before becoming a parent. Now, it's different. I find myself having to give little pep talks to my psyche as the flight attendant reviews the emergency safety procedures. (I should be reassured: I have most of the content memorized through the force of repetition over the years; I know to place the oxygen mask over my own nose and mouth first, tugging on the cord to release the flow of air and breathing normally, before assisting my child.) My anxiety symptoms are not as bad as they could be. I don't need medication to mellow me out or help me sleep. (I can't sleep on planes, but it's got more to do with being squashed in economy class than it does with any worries about what might happen in the air.) I don't need anyone to hold my hand as the plane takes off. (Here I think of Erica Jong's book, the 117 psychoanalysts on a Pan Am flight to Vienna; or a song by Sinead O'Connor.) There is no one disaster scenario that replays itself in my mind. My first memory of being truly terrified on board a plane? It was January 2006. I was coming back from France, a couple of days before my husband returned. Our son was not yet three years old, and he was with me. I was returning to the States for a friend's baby shower, and while away I also had learned of the death of one of my aunts. Death, birth, my own child next to me—I guess I have a ready excuse for being in a particularly sensitive mood, mulling over human fragility, unavoidable mortality. And then, thousands of feet in the air, sitting in a modern flying machine, there was the very strange grinding, whomping, bumping noise that started cycling on and off, and that sounded like it was coming from directly under my chair; I mean, from somewhere deep below, in the bowels of the plane, or else to my side—I was sitting at the wing, where the engines were. Many people were alarmed, not just me. The pilot started making announcements; they were updating us as they opened communications with ground control regarding in-flight maintenance. Someone from the cockpit came back to the section of the plane where I was sitting—where I was trying hard to shut out the noise, to wipe my face clean of any expression that might show fear to my son. "It's OK," I told him in as soothing a voice as I could muster. But I didn't really believe it myself. I hoped it, but belief in that moment was almost impossible. I'd like to say I was incredibly calm and did not reveal my inner panic to anyone. Still, someone must've noticed I was on edge. The next time someone from the cockpit came back to investigate, he stopped to talk to me specifically. I don't remember what he said. I just remember the tone of voice, which made me wonder, did he think he was talking to someone in a full-blown anxiety attack? I wasn't breathing irregularly, shouting, crying—nothing I thought was outwardly visible. But I did feel like one of "those passengers" all of a sudden, one of the overly nervous ones. I wanted to say, "Wait a minute, I'm not afraid of flying. I never have been. Flying is statistically safer than driving a car, I know that." Truth was, though, right then, I was afraid, and I was also ashamed of it. I felt substantially changed from the person I used to be, and I was also resentful about it. The fear felt like a violation of my very self, and I didn't really know whom or what to blame for the shift. It wasn't just 9/11, though blaming terrorists would be easy, and it probably has played a part. I did see the smoking towers from my old apartment balcony, after all. It probably had more to do with becoming so responsible for another person's life, once I became parent to a little boy. It turned out that the noises on that flight had something to do with . . . I don't remember what, but it was innocuous despite the significant sound; it didn't have anything to do with flying capabilities or landing gear or anything of that sort. We were safe, landed fine—though I was never so happy to disembark in all my life. I've flown several times since then, the most recent being this afternoon, actually. Back to the New York metro area (Newark International) from Toronto, Canada. The flight was delayed three-plus hours due to weather conditions in Newark, but other than that it was fine. A little turbulence, but that was all. Bad weather, turbulence . . . the scenarios wanted to unfold again. A weird smell wafted around the last row of the 20-row aircraft, the row where we (again, my son and I) sat immediately in front of the tiny rear galley. "Smells like something's burning," my son said. "No," I said. "Nothing's burning." I knew this was true, but I looked out the window and for a moment imagined seeing an engine on fire. (I also thought of something weird I hadn't remembered in decades: that black and white The Twilight Zone episode where a man keeps looking out an airplane window, hallucinating some kind of "Nanook of the North" creature walking on the wing, then pulling it apart I think.) I shoved these images out of my head. Eventually, my son fell asleep. I, too, was exhausted, and in this state, I relaxed into the flight. The next time I looked out the window, I watched the clouds and reminded myself how amazing life is, tried to recapture that sense of wonder without fear. Just the excitement of being up so high, zooming through space, close enough to touch the clouds, pierce them, rise above them (above fear, above the worries of your own everyday life). Flying should feel like anything is possible—anything except your own demise.


1 comment:

  1. Oh, and a strand of thought I forgot to mention--testimony for my former, fearless self: How odd is it that someone who nine years ago willingly jumped out of an airplane (tandem skydiving) is having trouble keeping it all cool and collected while riding inside the plane? A good friend of mine just sent some pictures of her skydive this past Friday, and it all came back: the sense of accomplishment, of I-can-do-anything; the ironic embracing of life by deliberately engaging in behavior that risks it. Hmm... will have to think more about all this.

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