I sometimes wonder if the Wright brothers knew the magnitude of their contribution to our world as they stood ankle deep in those chilly sand dunes in December 1903. Did they know their newly crafted controls would allow flight to be experienced in nearly every corner of the globe? Did they see the ever-expanding family of aircraft through the next century? From warplanes to rescue crafts, jets to puddle-jumpers, did they really understand the wave of invention and exploration they had unleashed? Would they truly understand that their simple few seconds in the air would revolutionize how millions travel every day? Perhaps my greatest question though is, could they peer through the years far enough to see me strapped into a rickety metal seat by a ragged belt, sweating profusely, eyes bulged, attempting, with white knuckles, to hold an airliner up in the sky by the sheer force of my own will. I doubt it.
As you may have guessed, I am not a big fan of flying. My wife will attest to this fact. That is, if you can get her to stop rolling her eyes and cursing me under her breath whenever the subject is mentioned. In fact, flying helped me realize when the honeymoon was truly over for us and the hard work of marriage had begun.
I had agreed to accompany my wife on our honeymoon (I felt it was the least I could do) to a nice spot in the Bahamas. Of course, this would require that we fly from Pittsburgh to Charlotte and then from Charlotte to Nassau. At the time, I attributed my going along with this decision to the fact that I was “in love.” Looking back, I now attribute the decision to the fact that I am an idiot.
My wife, for her part, was very supportive during both flights down to the island, one lasting 50 minutes, the other just slightly longer. She loves to fly and has travelled extensively throughout Europe and Russia. She would see my discomfort, pat my hand, look lovingly into my eyes and ask if there was anything she could do to help. Would I like to read her magazine for a while? Use her headphones? Did I want a drink?
“Just relax and close your eyes” she would whisper lovingly. Then she would gently grasp my hand and assure me that everything would be fine.
We did indeed survive the two flights to Nassau. As I “de-planed,” I resolved to enjoy the time with my new bride on the beach and not think about the return trip home. We spent the next several days enjoying the sights and sounds of this wonderful little slice of the Caribbean.
As the end of the week approached, I would awake each morning to the familiar pangs of anxiety about the flight home. It was nothing major, just your typical sense of impending doom. As we drove to the airport on the last day, I tried to concentrate on the new part of my life that was now stretching out in front of me, not the vast expanse of ocean that would soon be stretching out beneath our plane. My wife seemed to be in good spirits and ready to help me through this little annoyance at the start of our life together.
The flights back home, it should be noted, were not going to be the same as the ones that brought us to the Bahamas. Instead of two moderately long flights, this trip would start with a two hour and twenty minute marathon of sheer terror to Philadelphia. Then a quick twenty five minute flight back to Pittsburgh. Some people have told me that it is safer, and therefore better, to have one long flight instead of several shorter ones. A nod to the myriad of problems that could occur with every landing and takeoff no doubt. I don’t share their view, however, and would much rather have a few shorter flights. Shorter flights, it seems to me, always have something going on to pass the time; first we take off, then we ascend, then the drinks come out, then the nuts come out, then the nuts are strapped back into their seats and the pretzels are served. Before you know it, the captain is coming on talking about the weather forecast in your destination city, which is now just a couple minutes away. I definitely prefer short flights. Actually, if I’m totally honest, I prefer no flights. Can we just get the plane to cruise along the ground at that same high speed it achieves just before take off until we arrive at our desired destination? Sound okay? No? Oh well…
The first thirty minutes of the flight to Philly were fine. I simply engaged in some tried and true time-passing techniques I had picked up over the years. I tried to break up the monotony of thinking about the left wing and engine falling off the plane by worrying about the right wing and engine. The variation seemed to help. I was able to refrain from shrieks of terror and rarely did my anxious displays rise above the level of gentle sobbing.
The final part of the journey into Philadelphia seemed to take just short of forever and was accompanied by some turbulence as we made our way up the east coast. With every bump and bounce I felt as if the plane was going to drop nose first out of the sky dragging my screaming form with it. Most of these feelings I kept to myself, but on occasion I would ask my wife if she felt the plane lurch or wiggle. My wife claims those “occasions” numbered in the hundreds, but I think her number is inflated. Seething rage has a way of playing tricks on the mind.
During the last portion of the flight I felt the plane drop in altitude abruptly in what I perceived to be the same manner as a carnival ride gone haywire. I turned to my wife and quietly remarked “Good gosh almighty!! Did you feel that?! That can’t be normal!”
My new bride, the woman who had held my hand so gently just days earlier, who had just shared a wonderful honeymoon with me in the Bahamas, who would be the mother to my children and lifelong companion said: “I wish you’d just shut up and not breath another word until we get there! If you don’t, I swear…” It got a little blurry after that, but I think she went on to pose some serious questions about my lineage, the legitimacy of my parents marriage, and my intellect, or lack thereof. I couldn’t really make out most of it. It’s hard to hear when someone is trying to stuff you headfirst into the overhead compartment.
The flight to Pittsburgh was somewhat less eventful, but no less terrifying. After sitting on the runway for an hour to let a storm pass over the Pittsburgh airport we began our ascent. The captain gave his usual mumbled briefing about our flight. He said we’d be in the air for about 25 minutes and that we’d be cruising at around 30,000 feet to our destination. My keen senses trained on each movement of our plane, I noticed that we’d been ascending for quite a long time. The reason for this was made known when the pilot returned to the microphone to announce that we were currently cruising at around 50,000 feet and were doing so to fly over the storm now making its way from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. For good measure, he mentioned that if the passengers on the left side of the plane looked out their windows they could see the rare sight of a massive storm front from above. I reacted to this announcement with the scientific curiosity that would’ve been displayed by any college-educated 24 year old in that situation: I yelled out “For the love of God and all that’s holy don’t everyone look at once! You’ll tip the plane!”
As three flight attendants, two passengers and my new wife wrestled me back into my seat, I tried to explain my reasoning. If the pilot can’t be trusted to tell the truth about the cruising altitude of our flight, what other secrets or misdirections was he planning. I was grateful for the assistance back to my seat given me by the crew and passengers, but I felt the repeated blows to the head and upper body were a bit much for that situation. The troubling part is that I’m 80% sure the damage was done by my wife.
She isn’t the only victim of my fear of flying. My brother, Matthew, has been forced to endure air travel with me. He soldiered through these experiences with the same caring demeanor and positive attitude displayed by my “better half.” Once, on a bumpy flight to Toronto, he told me that if I touched his leg again when grasping the arm rest or asked if he felt the plane move just once more, he was going to kill me. He smiled as he made this threat. The kind of smile that makes you think he may be joking. On the other hand, it was also the smile of a person who has not only arrived at how he’s going to kill you, but has also determined where to dispose of the body.
Matthew also played a part in another flight-related incident. At one point in my struggle with air travel, I took a prescription anti-anxiety medication prior to flights to help with the abject fear of the trip. The medication did take the edge off, so to speak, but the underlying issue was still there. It made it manageable, but it also made me so “relaxed” that I was essentially useless for a few hours after touching down. I would be alert and could tolerate the flight, but when that fearful stimulus was out of the picture, the medicine seemed to take a strong hold on other parts of my person, namely basic motor functions and rational thought.
Matthew had flown with me to Las Vegas for a pharmacy convention (sounds fun, right?) because my wife was pregnant at the time and elected not to accompany me. It was a five hour flight to Vegas and I’d taken a dose of medication prior to departure. To ride out the grueling trip across the country I decided to take another dose during the flight. By the time our plane touched down, I was very, very relaxed. We landed, picked up our luggage and were waiting in line for a taxi outside the airport. I just remember thinking how good I felt at that point. Just really, really good. Everything was good. Good. Our taxi took us to our hotel where we waited in line to check in. My company had set up the reservations and paid for the room, we just needed to confirm our information and get the keys. As the line thinned out, I finally stepped ahead of Matthew and up to the counter and began the check in process. After confirming my identity the receptionist at the front desk asked some more detailed questions about our room.
“Smoking or non?”, she asked.
“Would you like a view facing the strip?”
“Sure,” I replied. Who wouldn’t want to see that, right?
“Will you be using the mini bar?”
At that point, I was as chemically altered as I cared to be.
“Would you like twin beds or king size?”
As I stood there, with my brother standing slightly behind me, but still close enough to be recognized as the other member of my party, my mind tossed the question around for a moment. I thought, “What could be better than a king size bed facing the strip?” Seemed like the way to go.
“Wha..?” said Matthew.
The receptionist responded with an inquisitive, furrowed brow and a shake of the head. I just stood there with, what I have to assume, was the biggest, dopiest grin anyone’s ever had on their face ever.
Matthew didn’t say much the rest of the week, but I have to assume that two grown men spooning in a king sized bed was not his idea of a wonderful trip, even if we were in Las Vegas. Enough time has finally passed so that he and I can share a good laugh about the whole ordeal. I’m not sure if it’s a related issue or not, but he still won’t sit beside me at Thanksgiving dinner.
My last encounter with flying happened about six years ago when I decided at the gate not to board a flight to Las Vegas for another pharmacy convention. My wife had come along this time and did everything she could to get me to get on the plane. I was having none of it and decided to remain earthbound. I haven’t flown since. I would share more details, but my lawyer advises me it’s best not to discuss an ongoing case. He feels it could hurt my defense in my wife’s filing to have me committed. Yes, whatever the Wright Brothers hath wrought, I just know it’s all wrong for me.