June 22, 2018
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Overcoming fear of flying (maybe)

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

I hadn’t flown in a commercial airplane for 17 years. Yes, even though both my husband, Dustin, and my dad are Navy pilots. After 9/11, I honestly thought I’d never would fly again.

In 2010, I flew in the Air National Guard’s KC-135 because Dustin volunteered me to do it. I think he hoped it would end my fear of flying. It didn’t. I never felt like the KC-135 left the ground, probably because it doesn’t have passenger windows. Even when I watched a mid-air refueling, the whole thing seemed surreal.

But a commercial airplane with lots of windows and piloted by someone I don’t know? No way.

Then, two weeks ago, Dustin asked me to fly with him to Washington, D.C., for our anniversary. I said yes even though backing out last minute remained a viable option. For me, at least.

The day of our flight, I followed Dustin like a lost sheep through airport security. Which is to say, Dustin helped me place all my belongings in the proper plastic bins bumping along a conveyor belt. None of it seemed real. I still fancied running out the terminal.

Then it was time to board the plane. “We’re just going to walk down this hallway and find our seats,” Dustin said. It all looked so easy. Inviting, even. Sure, I thought, I’ll walk down this hallway — and then maybe I’ll run back out.

But Dustin held my hand and talked to me about aerodynamics. More than once he said, “All those times I went to work in Pensacola, I was flying a single engine airplane. You never worried about me, right?”

I couldn’t answer. My face was cold with fright. Also, every fearful flyer knows that the process of realizing airplanes are safe and the process of getting our feet inside one are managed by two different parts of the brain: the mature, 36-year-old part, and the one that defaults to the fetal position. Before I could change my mind, however, we were rumbling down the runway.

“You did it,” Dustin said once the wheels were off the ground, as if the whole thing was over. It was just beginning! For one hour, I panicked over every noise (“The engines sound different”) and Dustin reassured me (“They’re pulling back on the power to make our descent”). When we landed in D.C., he said, “There, now you’re not afraid anymore.”

What? It doesn’t work that way, Dustin. In five days, I had to fly back home — alone. I put this out of my mind while I enjoyed time with Dustin. On the last day, I started looking at Plan Bs: Take the train. Hitch a ride with friends. Take a bus.

Dustin was confused. “Why not just fly?” he asked. “You’re already done it. You’re cured. What’s there to be afraid of anymore?”

Dustin, Dustin, Dustin. [shaking head]

Dustin is an engineer, a numbers person. He understands things like risk and probability. Indeed, after I was pregnant with our first son and said, “I think we’re on a roll of having all boys,” Dustin is the one who famously said, “One son does not make ‘a roll.’ Besides, our chances of having a boy are 50/50 every time. The probability doesn’t change.” He flipped a penny multiple times to prove the point.

So, I applied the same logic to my fear: The general population’s risk of dying in a plane crash is about 1 in 2 million. That must reset with each flight, right? Or — cue the ominous music — are my chances getting better (worse?) with every flight? Is one safe flight “a roll”? Or do my chances remain the same every time?

This is how a words-person who is afraid of flying thinks about risk.

Sitting beside me in the airport terminal, Dustin looked stunned as he contemplated my logic.

“You’re going to get on the plane,” he said dryly, “and you’re going to be fine.”

Easy for him to say. He’d be watching my plane take off from the comfort of the ground.

We said goodbye outside the line for security. Streams of mascara made tracks down my face. My stomach was in knots, and I was breathing too fast. Dustin waved until he couldn’t see me anymore, and I realized he fully believed I’d get on the plane.

I followed other passengers onto a bus that was waiting to take us to the CRJ-200. I was still crying, and everyone saw. We exited the bus and there was no pleasant “hallway” to distract me from what I was about to get into.

I turned to the man beside me, my hand at my throat, and said, “I can’t do this; I’m going back.”

To be continued….

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