A Little Help from my Friends

I’m getting ready to leave on a multi-city trip to Europe this week. Two of our three children are studying abroad this semester and I view this trip as our prize for paying those hefty tuition bills (my husband, conversely, views this trip as an additional expense, on top of those hefty tuition bills).

I am really looking forward to spending two weeks with our wonderful, delightful children. The problem is getting there.

I used to be terribly afraid to fly. It had been a problem I struggled with for years, and even led me to my doctor for medication—Valium, just a couple of little pills that became my “flying friends.”

More recently, however, with so much book-related travel, I found my fears gradually—and incredibly—subsiding. I came to see flying as just another method of transportation rather than a potential (and likely) death sentence. Over time, I was able to unclench my fists from the armrests, immerse myself in a novel so that I barely noticed when we touched down, even make small talk with my seatmate—without reaching over to claw his or her arm when the going got rough. I even managed to write a scene for my next book, while on a flight between Florida and Pennsylvania. Small things, to be sure. People do them all the time on airplanes, but for me it was a big deal. Best of all, I began to fly without the need for help from my flying friends.

The first time I flew un-medicated, I didn’t realize it until we were nearly there. I had simply forgotten to take it. Soon turbulence, bad weather, delayed flights, became just regular petty annoyances. On my last flight home from the West Coast I actually left the Valium at home.

Big mistake.

It was a crowded flight and I had a seat in the back of the plane. An official-looking older man with a big briefcase came and sat down next to me. Neatly dressed, clean shaven, the creases in his pants sharp enough to slice steak. I decided he was either an ex-military man or—even better—an off-duty pilot.

Turns out, I was pretty close. He was a retired commercial pilot.

Maybe it is karma, but that is at least the fourth time in my life I have sat next to an off-duty pilot. The prior three were from my old F-O-F days, some of my best flights were in the company of off-duty retired pilots. They were usually calming and once I’d confessed my fear of flying (usually within seconds of them doffing their captain’s hat), often even went out of their way to explain to me what was happening and to tell me how safe I was. Best yet, I could study them for signs of stress during take-offs, landings and unexpected in-flight turbulence—and they never show the least signs of stress.

This time, however, was different. This man proceeded to tell me that, since his retirement, he went into business developing safety measures for airplanes—but most of the airlines were not buying.

“It’s just a few thousand per plane, but so far they’ve been too cheap to cough it up,” he told me sipping his Jack and Coke somewhere over Arizona.

“That’s terrible,” I said, my grip tightening just a touch on the armrest.

“This gadget will help the pilots land safely by improving visibility in the event of a fire in the cockpit.”

“Well, why wouldn’t airlines want to do that?”

“Most of the time the passengers are dead, anyway. You think there is oxygen flowing through those puppies when there is a fire in the cockpit?” He gestured to the space overhead where the flight attendants assured us that the oxygen masks were kept. “No way. They just don’t think it’s worth it to install just to maximize the chances the crew might survive.” He stared morosely into the dregs of his drink.

“Okay,” I told him, reaching for the call button. “I should tell you that I’m a recovering fearful flyer. Can we please change the subject?”

He looked at me as if he couldn’t possibly understand what on earth that had to do with what we’d been talking about or why that should derail an otherwise cathartic conversation.

The flight attendant appeared and I ordered myself a gin and tonic—hold the tonic.

“It’s quick, you know. You shouldn’t be afraid,” he said a few minutes later as he watched me guzzle the gin that had barely touched the plastic glass into which I’d hurriedly poured it.

“Really,” I told him, “I don’t mean to be rude but I can’t talk about this now.”

“Okay, it’s just that…” His voice trailed off.

I knew I should just let it drop. End the conversation. Plug in my ipod and tune him out. But I couldn’t help myself. He might have been ready to impart some vital nugget of information that could help me survive the cockpit fire that surely was just beginning to kindle.

“Just what?”

“I was a pilot for years. My wife hated it. I always thought that I’d die in a plane crash.” He sighed as he drained his glass. “Do you have any idea the stress air traffic controllers are under? After a while a lot of them can’t take it anymore. Keel over right on the job. And then where does that leave us? Care to guess how many near misses there are each year?

And suddenly it was as if he’d reached over and pulled the lever on the emergency exit door. I swear I heard the whoosh—the sound of my triumph over years of fearful flying being sucked out the cabin door.

I have a pet theory, a left over-remnant from my days as a psychologist: If you took a poll of 10, 000 fearful flyers, I bet you would find an over-representation of writers among them. Why? Because a fear of flying is really about relinquishing control. Writers, more than normal people, have a hard time with that. And why shouldn’t we? We are used to being masters of our own carefully and lovingly constructed universes. We control who lives and dies, not some higher power—and certainly not some airline corporation bureaucrat too cheap to install extra fire extinguishers in the cockpit of the plane you happen to be strapped into.

Miraculously, we touched down a couple of hours later. Upon arriving home, I rummaged in my makeup drawer and found my old friends. Europe here we come!