Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Things That Scare Me (part 2)

Once upon a time, when I was in high school, this kid a grade above me crashed his airplane into a hill and died.  He'd been training for his pilot's license and was practicing solo landings.  It was mechanical, not pilot, error.  The city newspapers reported how lucky it was that the crash had occurred on a hill and not in the nearby neighborhood, where people on the ground could have been injured as well.  My journalism teacher broke down crying in the middle of class upon reading this, and said that the stupid reporters had gotten it wrong; it wasn't luck.  The kid had been the type of kid who would have stayed calm and thought of others, and purposefully steered away from the houses.

Like all stories involving a dead kid in high school, people showed far more grief at his death than they'd showed him love in life.  He was a jovial, overweight kid who really wanted a girlfriend, so he got made fun of a lot.  His pick-up line was inviting girls (me included) to go flying with him.  To my knowledge, we all declined, a little creeped out.  He was also a kind kid; I transferred into the high school my sophomore year, and I remember him talking to me in the hallway, welcoming me on my first day, before anyone else did.  His dad read out exerts from his diary at the funeral.  They were funny, short, clueless entries about how much the kid loved flying, how much he loved his friends, and how much he loved our school.

A few weeks following the kid's death, I was on a tiny jet-prop on my way to Canada, when it hit major turbulence.  It felt like we were going down-down-down even though I guess we were just being tossed around-round-round.  The flight attendants did not reach out to take the mic to reassure us, even though I don't think I was the only one crying (thanks, Air Canada!)  Between sobs, I remember thinking how sad it was that, after this crash, all my classmates would be permanently scarred about flying, and none of them would ever travel again, and I prayed that they wouldn't be too afraid.  

Anyway, long story short (well, maybe not too short), I was afraid to fly for years after that eventful spring.  I still would fly, of course.  I worked one summer on my cousins' farm in Normandy; I spent a year of high school in a boarding school in Italy.  Flying was torturous, though.  Before entering an airplane, I'd touch the outside for luck.  Then, on my way to my seat, I'd explain to a flight attendant how scared I was, and ask to talk to the pilots.  Then I'd get escorted to the cockpit.  (Um, yes... this is all pre-9/11.)  Upon returning to my seat, I'd tell my poor, poor seatmates how scared I was, and chatter on with them throughout takeoff.  (I'd like to apologize to all those strangers now.)

Fast-forward a few years, until one day, on a flight from London to Phillie (I was flying home to Pittsburgh from high school in Rome), I again asked to see the pilots midflight.  There was a delay while the steward checked with the cockpit, and then I was escorted up.  So far, that made it a pretty normal flight for me.  The semi-circular view out of the cockpit of a Boeing 777 (which this was) is dizzying and spectacular.  I chatted with the pilots, who, like all the pilots I ever talked to, humored me with a sort of mystified patience, assured me that they were not suicidal, and rolled their eyes at my questions.  Eventually, we got to talking about take-offs, which led naturally to talk about landings.  I asked if I could watch them land the plane.  The pilots were silent, hesitating.  They exchanged glances.  One spoke up and told me to never ask something like that on a flight led by a US-carrier, as they had stricter security guidelines and I might get arrested out of suspicion.  (This particular flight was British Airways).

Then the pilots said, "Okay."

With 25 minutes left to go in the flight, when we were well into our decent and the seatbelt lights were on, a stewardess led me up to the cockpit.  The jumpseat was pulled down for me and the co-pilot helped me strap in with all five seatbelts.  (I couldn't make this up.)  They gave me headphones, big black ones, with which to hear ground control.  Ground control talked about the local airshow going on and which number runway to land on.  A 777 is a big, big airplane, and I got to watch it land from the third-best seat in the house.

After landing, because I was coming from the cockpit, I was the first out of the airplane and first through the Phillie customs line (a gift in itself).  I sped through the gates and caught an earlier flight to Pittsburgh.  When we'd reached an altitude of 10,000 feet, I called my parents from the airplane telephone, to ask them to pick me up sooner than later at baggage claim.  I hung up the phone, I caught my breath, and I mused.

At that point, I decided that I was simply not allowed to be afraid of flying anymore.  I had been afraid, and that was okay; but that time was over.  So few people in the world get to see the view I just had seen.  It was ridiculous, ludicrous, and unfair of me to continue humoring my neuroses.  I knew the statistics.  Flying is very safe.  You're more likely to get killed by a donkey than blah blah blah.  I was simply no longer allowed to be afraid.  I owed it to all the people who would never be lucky enough to experience what I had just experienced, to barrel through the clouds from a front-row seat in a sixty-ton machine, to watch metal float on air and come to rest on earth.  I owed it to that kid from my high school who died, because he had really loved flying, and it was no sort of legacy for him if his death made someone fear what he had loved.

This isn't to say I stopped being afraid immediately.  But I stopped telling my seatmates how scared I was.  And I forced myself to stop dwelling on my fear.  Instead I did Will Shortz crossword puzzles or read magazines.  I stopped asking to see the pilots (which was lucky, because 14 months later 9/11 happened, and I would have had to stop anyway).  I know you can't overcome all fears just by telling yourself to, but that's what I did, and eventually it worked.  I love flying now.  I ask for window seats.  I love the little houses and the little cars and the clouds.  And if I start feeling my heartbeats speed up, I shut my eyes and picture those two lovely pilots, who welcomed a strange girl into their cockpit just to prove how safe and fun flying is, and I remember that spectacular view.  And then I'm fine.    

In conclusion:
  • I will always love British Airways. 
  • I am no longer afraid of flying
  • Before I enter planes, I still tap the outside for luck.  (There's nothing wrong with a little luck.)

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