Taking the first step to ending a fear of flying

Posted Dec. 13, 2009, at 9:35 p.m.

Last Tuesday, 12 years after my first and only flight on an airplane, I was surprised to wake up feeling excited and adventurous, not afraid, about my ride in a KC-135 with the 101st Air Refueling Wing with the Maine Air National Guard in Bangor. Of course, I had to wake up earlier than normal for the morning brief, so maybe I was still half-asleep when my friend Sandy picked me up (Dustin volunteered to take the kids to school so that I could “focus” — on being scared?) and asked, “How do you feel? Are you nervous?”

“Not really. I feel great,” I said.

My tone began to change, however, when we pulled onto the base and the runway looked like it was breathing snow. A white dusting, almost like a fog, rolled along the ground. I thought about the way my car behaves when I brake suddenly in the snow and tried to compare that to a tanker of not quite 200,000 pounds.

Suddenly, I needed to use the bathroom.

Several KC-135s parked near the runway rose from the mist of white like giant elephants standing in a line. I worried that the aircraft might fly like an elephant, too.

“All the snow will burn off by the time you fly,” Sandy said.

I swallowed hard and went into the operations building where 15 other people were already seated in the auditorium waiting for the preflight brief.

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It’s important to note here that this event was not arranged specifically for me or the other passengers, a mix of city officials and spouses or employers of members of the 101st. The military does not spend taxpayer money frivolously, and nothing happens that doesn’t support the overall mission. On Tuesday, that mission was a training exercise refueling a KC-10 in midair.

Occasionally, however, when there is a mission appropriate to the task, the 101st invites spouses and civilian employees aboard as a way of showing them some of what the members of the Air National Guard do. They also invite the media to help the public better understand what the 101st does. “[Our mission] is sometimes invisible and we need you to understand what we do,” Col. Doug Farnham, the day’s co-pilot, said during the brief.

That understanding is critical because the 101st is largely made up of traditional guardsmen and women who rely on civilian employers to work around service members’ drill weekends and deployments. On Sept. 11, 2001, for example, 98 percent of the wing was recalled to the base within three hours. That amounts to hundreds of temporarily abandoned civilian jobs. Yet, as Col. Farnham noted, employers continue to be overwhelmingly supportive of the increased tempo of military responsibilities since that time. Public outreach, such as Tuesday’s flight, certainly helps.

Dustin had arrived from taking the kids to school before the brief began. He sat in the seat next to mine and squeezed my hand. This moment had been a long time coming. After 12 years of encouraging me to fly again, Dustin finally was getting his wish. I knew that his excitement about sharing his life’s passion with me was similar to the joy I feel when he experiences glimpses of my world at book signings and speaking events. Having me in the plane with him would be like me knowing Dustin is in the audience when I am onstage speaking.

The final brief was about safety. We were instructed on where to escape from the aircraft in case of an emergency and how to use the personal oxygen device, something similar to putting a Jiffy Pop bag over your head, if the cabin lost pressurization. My stomach was in knots. Dustin got up to find the bathroom while I struggled to contain my nervous laughter throughout the rest of the brief. While Dustin was beside me, I felt calm. When he left, I was nervous again. So I was relieved when I saw him return. It was almost time to board the airplane.

Dustin took a seat one away from mine this time and motioned for me to lean over to him. He whispered in my ear: “I just threw up in the bathroom.” And then, because he knew what I was going to ask: “I’m not kidding.”

I knew he wasn’t. All three of our children had just recovered from the stomach flu. Dustin’s face looked as pale and sweaty as theirs did over the weekend.

“I can’t go on the flight with you,” Dustin said. “But I’ll be watching from the ground. I promise.”

I felt frozen with fear. I was tempted to back out.

“You can do this, Sarah,” Dustin said.

Soon after, Lt. Col. Kelley, my new best friend (you’ll learn why next week), asked us to make our way to the bus that would take us to the KC-135.

Dustin hugged me tight and whispered in my ear that he was proud.

For a moment, I wished that it was me who had thrown up in the bathroom.

Next week: Takeoff

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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