Mission to face fear completed

Posted Dec. 20, 2009, at 6:17 p.m.

On Dec. 8, I overcame my biggest fear by flying in an airplane for the first time in 12 years. I was invited by the 101st refueling wing of the Maine Air National Guard, which likes to periodically take members of the media on board the KC-135 tanker to help the public better understand its mission.

Shortly before I boarded the plane, Dustin threw up in the restroom. It was our first indication that he had caught the same stomach flu our kids suffered the weekend before, the one I had secretly hoped to catch, because there’s no better excuse for not flying than vomiting.

I left Dustin pale and clammy at the 101st’s operations building and boarded the KC-135 with Lt. Col. Deborah Kelley, a petite blonde with a sassy bob hairdo and friendly eyes. I’ve been around plenty of people in uniform, but I’ve never seen anyone make camouflage and boots look so chic.

Also on the flight was Chief Petty Officer Eden Olguin, the NOSC Bangor command chief, who works with Dustin. I once saw him at a command picnic eagerly jump at what he thought might be a chance to go fist to paw with a bear. He eats crickets for snacks. He pulls the stingers off bees to suck their poison. If we had to parachute out of the airplane, my plan was to jump on Chief Olguin’s back. Then I found out the KC-135 doesn’t have parachutes.

Lt. Col. Kelley was surprised that the idea of parachutes had been a comfort to me, considering my fear of flying. I looked at the gray tanker, which rose up from the snow alongside the runway like an elephant, and decided she was right. Parachuting would not be my best option. I might rather wrestle a bear.

Here in Bangor, the KC-135 is a common sight passing over the Penobscot River, or coming in for landings, when its body seems to skate across the tops of the trees near Fourteenth Street School. The inside of the KC-135 is equally impressive. If commercial airliners are the loft-converted-into-entertainment-rooms of large jets, the KC-135 is the unfinished basement. Our seats were red netting hung from the sides. The floors and walls were bare of any concealing plastic or luxuries. (There are no lap trays on the KC-135.) Overhead, the wiring is exposed.

You’d think that a large military jet with such transparency would scare someone like me. Yet the opposite was true. I have never seen wires so carefully bundled and labeled. Every inch of the airplane was immaculate. In this way, the inner workings were visible to the point of being reassuring.

Plus, I was sitting alongside many of the people who have worked on the aircraft for decades. The pride and confidence they have in their work were similar to a surgeon effortlessly, but knowingly, making his way around the operating room.

I sat directly behind the pilot and co-pilot on takeoff. Incidentally, since 1997, the only other time I’ve flown, I’ve had a recurring dream about being in the same spot, and just as the nose of the airplane begins to lift, I tell the pilot I’ve changed my mind and want to get out.

I thought of that dream as the KC-135 barreled down the runway. Surprisingly, however, I was not afraid. I saw the cool confidence of the pilots’ hands and put my faith in their ability. When the nose lifted and we began to climb, I felt incredibly relaxed. The gravity and acceleration pushing my lap into the seat on takeoff re-minded me of the same relaxing heaviness of lying in the hot sun. The aircraft slipped smoothly into the clouds.

Later I had the opportunity to lie on my belly in the boom pod at the back of the airplane and watch a KC-10 approach, like a kitten coming to its mother’s belly, for midair refueling. By the time the two airplanes made contact by way of the boom, they were so close that when I waved to the other pilots, they saw me and waved back.

By the end of the three-hour flight, I was steady enough to sit and finish the daily crossword puzzle. I even yawned a few times. Lt. Col. Kelley cheerily offered me goldfish crackers from her bag. I felt like a seasoned traveler.

Indeed, the only mishap of the morning came when I had finished using the restroom. Unbeknownst to me, until I was already seated again, I had dragged a strip of toilet paper down the aisle of the plane. It wasn’t stuck to my shoe. Worse, it was lying conspicuously on the floor. Do I get up and claim the toilet paper by putting it in the trash? I wondered. Do I leave it there and risk looking like a bad guest?

Just then, over the roar of the jet’s engines, Kelley whispered, as best she could through the protective plugs in my ears, “Don’t worry; I’ve got it.” She stood, and in one deft, discrete motion, rid the floor of my errant toilet paper, proving once again that the military takes care of its own like family.

Would the people on a commercial flight do the same for me? I honestly don’t know. But I’m not yet ready to find out.

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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