Aviation is in my blood…so why am I so scaaaaared? The answer may lie deep in the mists of time, back to when I was a wee Wee Banshee…
My father was an aviation fanatic. If the Wright brothers and my dad were alive today, the Wright brothers would need a restraining order to keep him from pestering them. My father was just wee when aviation was in its infancy; he was hooked from the very first air show he watched on the shores of Lake Erie. He went on to become a consultant for the U.S. Air Force, an editor of Aviation magazine, and a licensed pilot.
His piloting skills, my mother would argue, were dodgy at best. My father had two speeds: off and full throttle. Mother’s opinion held no sway and as a mere babe, I was strapped into the co-pilot’s seat of my father’s four-seater Mooney. Mooneys, by the way, are billed on their website as the fastest single-engine aircraft. Figures. Like I said, full throttle or nothing for him. All I knew about the Mooney was that it was deafeningly loud.
In those days, Dad flew out of what is now Dulles International Airport – there was nothing international about it in then – it was a bizarre looking, near-deserted airport out in the middle of a field in Virginia. Still, we had to dodge the odd jetliner. You have a really good idea of how small you are when it’s you in a single prop plane up against the flanks of a Boeing.
Dad’s favourite thing to do on a summer’s night was to go night flying. Night flying, being that it was summer in Washington DC, inevitably turned into thunderstorm dodging. At the ripe old age of three, I knew this was not a brilliant idea. Although we survived, these nocturnal adventures shaped the beginnings of my true fear of flying later on. Call it pre traumatic stress disorder. From a very young age, I questioned those who handed my dad a pilot’s license; who’s to say they were any smarter about the ones they gave to commercial pilots?
When I was a teenager, Dad’s eyesight began to fail; my mother wondered about the life insurance policy every time he took off. Mom accused my father of paying off the doctors who performed the pilot physicals. Regardless, Dad relied on me more and more for navigation (read: finding the runway and dodging other airplanes mid-air) as time went on. He stubbornly maintained that he still could do all the hard stuff. He said, “I’ve never had an accident; not even a near- miss.”
Within the space of a year, he nearly nose-dived into the Atlantic off Kitty Hawk, NC when his plane stalled on approach to the Wright Brothers Memorial Airport (oh the irony of that). Next, he crash landed into a corn field having severely misjudged the runway. If not for that last mishap, an aviation mechanic would never have noticed the cracked engine block of the Cessna 180. Ever frugal, my father opted for a home grown welding job by a local car mechanic. I think it was around this time I stopped taking flying lessons from my dad.
Older and increasingly fearful, I wondered if all airplane pilots were rash and cheap with poor vision. I mistrusted pilots who wore glasses (white hair was also a non-starter). I developed what one doctor described as “hysterical air sickness” – a charming combination of projectile vomiting and hysterical sobbing. Friends and spouses booked seats in other aisles (or on other airplanes). Strangers de-planed with claw marks on their arms and legs; it’s a wonder I wasn’t sued.
As an adult I landed a lovely job that required me to…you guessed it…travel for my job. The company booked the cheapest flights, the cheapest hotels, and the cheapest rental cars for us, their beloved employees. We used all of the popular “cut-rate, discount airlines,” until one by one they either crashed themselves out of business or went broke. I knew instinctively that “cheap” and “cruising altitude of 33,000 feet” did not mesh.
I readily admit there is nothing like the feeling of successful flight. I hope never to experience the feeling of unsuccessful flight; it must really suck. I love the soaring feeling; I love the roar of the engines at the beginning of a takeoff – the power building under my feet and then, that slightly unreal feeling of having nothing but air underneath me. I pray, offering all kinds of deals to God if He would just allow me to see my children again. I dig my nails into whatever or whoever I can. I don’t look out the window for fear of seeing something essential fall off the plane.
I know how it all works and yet I still don’t know how it all works. I am terrified, thrilled, awestruck, sick…Eighteen days to Barcelona…maybe I should buy some hockey pads for my husband…