I hate flying. I’d rather be anywhere else on earth than on a plane (Being in Penn Station on one of the hottest days of the year about 20 years ago comes in a close second.) From the second a ticket is booked, whether it’s five months before, one month or two weeks, my sense of security is thrown off balance.
I recently flew to Los Angeles, a trip I’ve done at least 15 times, to visit my father who has lived there for 30 or so years. I’ve been flying since I was an infant, visiting grandparents who lived in Florida every Christmas break until I was 13 or so. I’ve been to the UK three times and flew quite a bit for a couple of jobs, taking me to some really great American cities. Friends say I need to do it MORE, to get used to it. I think they’ve gone slightly mad.
Now here’s the thing: you never know when a good flight is going to turn bad. You never know, as you’re coasting along quite beautifully when you’ll hit an air pocket, fly through a thunderstorm, suck a poor unsuspecting bird into the engine, be struck by lightning, have some crazy passenger storm the cockpit demanding to be taken to New Zealand (the longest possible flight there is).
The week before I most recently flew, the news played a tape of a conversation between a pilot and an air traffic controller after the plane had lost its hydraulic system. Their voices were calm (ish) like they always are. Then, when the controller asked how many “souls” were on the plane, SOULS, not people, I knew that a crash and mass casualties were expected. The captain of the Titanic was asked the EXACT SAME QUESTION and we all know what happened there. Somehow the plane landed and everyone was fine, their souls intact.
Flying is lovely when the seatbelt sign is off. I look out the window, at the grids and circles on the green and brown ground, but, when we start to experience even the slightest bumpiness, I wait in fear to see if that seatbelt sign is going to flash on and the inevitable scripted announcement from the pilot that says, “Well folks, it seems as if we’ve hit just a little patch of turbulence. Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts and we’ll try to get through this as quickly as we can. Thank you.”
At that point I just stare out the window thinking I’ll see something on a clear day that indicates how bad it will be. Those flights are the ones that confuse me the most—there are no clouds, no discernible winds, nothing that can explain why we’re suddenly being bumped around. If one more person tells me that it’s just like a bump in the road or recites the statistics that the chances of crashing in a plane are infinitesimal compared to how many people are killed in car crashes, I will throttle them.
I envy (Re. hate) people who LOVE to fly. My friend Phillip (who also loves going to the dentist) laughs his way through turbulence. I can see him squealing “whee!” when being slightly tossed around. I think flight attendants are freaks. I study their faces when they too are asked to sit down during a rough patch and marvel at how they can just flip through a magazine as if their lives aren’t about to end. Who ARE these people??
I’ve developed quite a brilliant and foolproof strategy in recent years so pay close attention: The second I step through the gate and onto that jet way thing where you begin to smell fuel and that one-of-a-kind footstep sound, I begin to panic slightly. I check out the part of the plane I can see and curse it for holding me hostage for 6 hours. At that point I’ve already taken at least one ativan but it really does very little. As I take that dreaded step over the threshold and onto the “aircraft” I pop my head into the cockpit and ask if it’s going to be a smooth flight. Most of the time they are nice and automatically pin me as a nervous flyer. On this most recent trip they asked me what seat I was in and I knew I had scored big (keep reading).
They never say that it’s going to be the most turbulent flight in their history of flying, but they might say, “It’s going to be a bit bumpy over the Rockies but other than that, we should be fine.” We SHOULD be fine! I ask the flying time, willing it to be an hour shorter than I know it will be and when the pilot on the way home told me it was going to be 5 hours and 4 minutes, I said, “But it’s going to be shorter than that, right?” He responded by saying, “No, it’s going to be 5 hours and 4 minutes.” Fuck. You.
So, after I’ve talked to the pilot, I then ask the first flight attendant I see the same questions. They smile and say that they haven’t heard otherwise from the pilot. Throughout the flight, I will periodically check in with them to make sure they haven’t lied to me. When I work my way back to use the bathroom and see people drooling in sleep I wonder why they have chosen to sit in the bumpiest part of the plane. But they don’t care. They’re SLEEPING!
So, as the drink cart made its way down the aisle on this most recent flight I started to jones for that first sip of wine. A guy two rows in front of me started asking the flight attendant a bunch of questions about God knows what and I felt like jumping out of my seat to begin pilfering the cart. The other attendant pushing the cart looked at my aisle number and said “The pilot told us to give her whatever she wants.” SEE, that’s how it works! Thank you lovely pilots. Two bottles of wine and one more ativan had me smiling and doing crossword puzzles.
Obviously, a trip in one direction requires a trip in the other. I throw away the used boarding pass and rue the fact that there is still one more trip to get through. I’m so grateful on the first day that I made it through the first flight that I generally don’t start panicking until the day before the next. For some reason the trip home was harder, coming off the heels of a rather emotional trip. My heart started beating the second I woke up and I took the ativan sooner than usual. I had a glass of wine at lunch before we boarded and the aforementioned pilot didn’t take the bait. I watched our entire flight on the screen in the seatback, as a computer image of our plane crept its way across the country. In case you were wondering, Nebraska is a big fucking state. I watched as the mileage countdown changed, challenging myself not to look for as long as possible. My husband, a meteorologist and someone who considers flying the same as sitting on the couch, felt badly for me, but we made it home, safe and sound.
So, even if you’re not terrified of flying, I’m sure you can act afraid for a few minutes, put on your best award-winning performance in order to score some free booze. What you can’t do is tell them that it was me who told you how to do this, as I may single-handedly be responsible for another airline declaring bankruptcy.