June 25, 2018
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Flight team set to make me unafraid

By Sarah Smiley

When people know that my dad was a career Navy F-14 pilot and that my husband is a Navy helicopter pilot, they are surprised to learn that I’m afraid — no, terrified — of flying. In fact, I’ve flown only once in my life, and that was in 1997. Dustin convinced me to go with him to Maui, Hawaii, where my two older brothers were living.

On a chilly December morning in Baltimore, Md., I sat in the airport lobby and watched the sun rise. Dustin had agreed to stay awake through the entire 14-hour journey so that I could ask him questions and perhaps, if I got scared, grip his hand hard enough to leave an imprint of my fingernails. However, after we had boarded the plane, and before it had taxied down the runway, Dustin, who has the annoying ability to nap anywhere and at any time, was fast asleep, his head resting on my shoulder.

Luckily, the flight was smooth and I felt like a seasoned traveler by the time we landed in Honolulu and took a smaller airplane to Maui. My brother drove us in his Jeep to the house he shared with my other brother, and I watched the sun, which had chased us all the way from Maryland, set on the horizon.

The whole experience was so pleasant, I almost forgot to be afraid when we boarded a plane a week later to return home. Then, somewhere over the United States, we hit turbulence, and the fear that rose from my stomach and turned my ears ice cold caused me to lose all inhibition. I sobbed like a baby and cried for my mom. Other passengers whispered to their children, asking that they turn around in their seats and stop staring at me, the spectacle in the back row. Dustin didn’t sleep much.

Years later, when Dustin was deployed on the USS Enterprise and was scheduled for a port visit in France, he begged me to fly overseas and meet him there. I couldn’t. If the turbulence en route to Baltimore had made me afraid, Sept. 11, 2001, sealed the deal. I had made up my mind never to fly again.

“Just take a sleeping pill and you’ll never know you’re flying,” Dustin said. “I promise I’ll find you in the airport and wake you up.”

That didn’t sound like a good idea to me. So while the other military wives flew to France to spend a week with their spouses, I stayed behind and offered to water plants, collect mail and feed animals in their absence. (Check out Chapter 12 of my book “Going Overboard,” and you’ll see how well that went.)

Now it has been more than a decade since I last flew. Strangely, I love to watch airplanes, and I love being inside airports. But the thought of boarding an airplane is enough to drain the blood from my face. I can’t explain my fear, and I don’t expect you to understand it. (Trust me, my dad and Dustin have already told me all the reasons I shouldn’t be afraid.) I also can’t say whether my fear is based on being in an enclosed environment or being out of control, but I’m pretty sure it has at least something to do with being in a gigantic machine suspended in the air. In any case, my fear has caused me to miss out on family events, weddings, and even my grandfather’s funeral.

Richard Lovelace, a 17th century English poet, wrote, “Stone walls do not a prison make/ nor iron bars a cage.” Ten years ago, I taught that poem to a fifth-grade class, and the meaning of the words suddenly struck me. Had I built my own wall-less, cageless prison with fear? The stanza became my mantra, even if reciting the words never actually propelled me into fearless action.

Then, in August, Dustin called me from work and asked, “How would you like to take a flight on a KC-135 with the 101st [an air refueling squadron with the Air National Guard based in Bangor]? They’ve just called and want to know if they can take you up for a ride.”

Stone walls do not a prison make/ nor iron bars a cage. Stone walls do not a prison make … .

Before I could stop myself, I said out loud, “Sure, I’ll do it.”

Just as my fear of flying is complicated, so is my decision to overcome it. When Dustin asked me about flying in the KC-135, my heart pounded in my ears, reminding me of being a kid, standing on the edge of the high dive and daring myself to jump. I had the same feeling when my brother took me up 110 feet to bungee jump — but he pushed me off the platform before I could back out.

On Tuesday, when I join the 101st as a passenger, I finally jump for myself.

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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