The only people who know my secret are the ones who are closest to me. After all, I don’t travel with just anyone. You are a member of my family or a close friend to have witnessed me at my worst. And me at my worst is me on a plane.
I have absolutely no idea how many miles I have flown in total. I would hazard to guess that the number lies somewhere near one million or perhaps even more. I have been flying frequently since I was a child, and in the last few years I have made more flights than I can count, or even remember. I do it because I have to, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.
Many people don’t like air travel. The cramped quarters and the time one must invest to get from one place to another can be frustrating. I understand that. For me, however, it’s a little more than frustrating. It’s terrifying. Paralyzingly terrifying. I have absolutely no faith in the machine or the mechanics and physics of flight.
The panic usually creeps in as the plane begins its taxi to the runway for takeoff. That tell-tale tingle in my chest and aluminum taste in my mouth signal the onset of fear. As the plane picks up speed down the runway my hand seeks to clutch at the person next to me, and I hope that it’s someone I know. Otherwise, it’s awkward, but propriety is the furthest thing from my mind in that moment.
Once we’re airborne my terror may abate a bit, unless something else happens. That could include turbulence, a quick bank, or a decrease in engine power. Any of these things cause the panic to ramp up again, and as I continue to furtively grab my seatmate I watch the other passengers and I watch the flight attendants if I can see them, hoping that I don’t see panic around me, but I am secretly convinced that I will. I can’t be the only one who is certain that death is imminent. Can I?
Levelling off at altitude brings a modicum of comfort, especially if the weather is nice up there. I may even bring myself to look out the window. However, I am still on edge as I listen to the engines for the sound of catastrophic failure, and devour the flight map and the path, trying desperately to ascertain when and where the inevitable terrifying turbulence will take place. I may read or watch a movie, but I never, ever sleep. Constant vigilance is mandatory.
When the pilot finally announces that we are on approach, I am at once relieved and even more anxious. Questions begin to flood my mind. Is a sharp turn required to land? How strong are the winds on the ground? Is it raining and, if so, will the plane skid upon touchdown? When were the tires last changed? As I hear the landing gear engage with a thudding clunk, the frantic search for a hand to clasp begins again, my breath comes in short, sharp whistles, and my face alternates from pressed against the window to buried in my companion’s shoulder. I really can’t bear to look, but I can’t help myself.
The plane’s movement as it hovers over the runway feels huge to me, as if the pilot is having immense difficulty keeping it balanced. At this moment I always recall the view of a landing plane from a vantage point on the ground. I never see this kind of flailing movement that I currently feel, and I am convinced that my plane is wrong, horribly wrong.
The tiny tires under this gargantuan plane hit the runway and I have a few more seconds of sheer terror to attempt to deal with. The flaps do their flappy thing, the brakes are mashed down, and I, with tensely held breath, grab the armrests of my seat and sail along on what feels like an avalanche, swift and deadly. The sounds of wind and squealing tires and shuddering fuselage is apocalyptic in its volume. I close my eyes against the world, as I might during a horror movie, and wait for the end.
And the end always happens, and it is the complete and utter antithesis of what I had been convinced of all along, that we would all die a horrible, fiery death. The taxi to the gate is often a few moments of giddy bliss on my part. Deep sighs of relief escape my chest and I can now concentrate of the reward for those hours of angst-ridden delirium, the destination. The trip down the aisle, backpack casually slung across my shoulder, toward the jetway makes me feel like a Chilean miner at the moment of my rescue. The light is blinding, enveloping, soft and sweet.
I do, however, politely avoid the eyes of the cabin crew as they tell me goodbye. I don’t want them to know my secret. That I am “that one”. The one who is terrified of flying.
Hurtling through the air at 500 MPH, 30,000 feet above the earth inside nothing more than an aluminum tube. What is there to be scared of?
Jeannine Thigpen says
I know how you feel. The slightest turbulance or shaky bank terrifies me! I must admit that I do enjoy speeding down the runway for lift off. Probably because I am a maniacal, speed-freak, ass hat behind the wheel of a car, as you may well remember. I do like the feel of lifting in the air and watching everything on the ground become tiny and watching the terrain change as I fly over. Landings are always scary.
You sound just like me….many years ago. Back then I was worried about you and Mike, that you might not like growing up without a mother. One day I was sitting at the end of the runway in Phoenix, with the sweaty palms, and asked myself if I weren’t just excited….decided I was, and it hasn’t bothered me since.
Very well written, perfectly descriptive. I always knew it was a big sacrifice for you to fly here when I had the surgery….thank you.
Remember, if death does come, it’s sure to be quick.
You are not alone. I have a similar fear of the machines. To the point that I stopped flying for nearly 10 years, moving to Europe on a ship and taking trains the length and breadth of the continent. I did start flying again recently, completing a trip back to the US to get married and a few cross country flights as well. Then last Christmas a big trip through Hong Kong to New Zealand. That was actually “ok”. I seem to deal with the really big planes with their seat back entertainment much better. We have done a number of intra-Europe flights as well. These scare me more somehow.
I do take drugs, even though my wife tells me that she doesn’t think they help. Meh, the one time I tried without them was the worst flight ever with the pilot having to come around again after an aborted landing. I was definitely drugged halfway through that flight.
And what you say about feeling every bump and thinking about all of the things that can go wrong. Yeah Ive been there too. Lately I have started taking a laptop with movies on it. Kids cartoons that are funny and not the least scary. With my drugs I tend to be emotional anyway. The only problem is the no-electronics rule on take off. I have to get calm enough once we are in the air to get into the movie. This can be a while on certain flights.
I really prefer not to fly, but my wonderful wife has supported me in doing so and I have seen some amazing things for it. It is a common fear and you are not alone.