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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Facing The Fear

Here’s something you might not know about me.

Once upon a time, I was very, very afraid of flying. To the point of not being able to barely function during a flight, and even often resorting to taking some sort of (legal) relaxant beforehand.

My first ever flight was in 1991, just before my 21st birthday. I was flying to England with my friend, Jacqui, in preparation for a Contiki tour through Europe (one of those 6-countries-in-14-days type ones), followed by a driving holiday around the UK. I was a little nervous about the flight – the fear of the unknown and all that – but I LOVED it. I still remember that first take-off. The excitement I felt as the plane sped along the runway, and then the feeling of being pushed back in to my seat as we climbed towards the clouds. I think I may have even squealed in delight - so excited and relaxed was I.

However, the following year I flew to Sydney (I was living in Perth at the time), and the flight there was fine, but it was the return journey from my week-long stay where my fear of flying began.

Because of the head winds usually experienced flying from Sydney to Perth, it can sometimes get a bit bumpy. And bumpy it most certainly was. During some turbulence, I started to feel very uneasy. I was traveling by myself this time, so I had no one to talk to about it, or hold hands nervously with, and so I turned to the flight attendant for reassurance. “It’s a bit bumpy, isn’t it?” I asked, smiling nervously. “Is that normal?”

“Yes,” she replied. “It’s kind of like when a car goes over a bump in the road. Same thing.”

“Of course,” I agreed, quite satisfied by her response, but still needing further reassurance. “But it still worries me. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Leaning down, she moved her head closer to mine, and said, “I know. I’ve been doing these flights for years, and it still makes me nervous. I don’t like it much either.”

Ah – wrong answer, lady.

Let me say on behalf of all passengers out there, that flight attendants should never admit to any anxiety of their own to their nervous passengers. (Nor should captains suddenly come on the intercom mid-flight and announce abruptly, "Could all flight attendants be seated and secure their seatbelts," WITHOUT AN EXPLANATION!) Not surprisingly, it won’t make your passengers feel any better.

And so, after that, I became a bit of a basket case when it came to flying.

There was the flight to Bali with three girlfriends back in early 1993. We were flying with a particular airline that didn’t have the best track record safety-wise. Some pals of my husband (then my very new boyfriend at the time) kept telling me the night before the airline wasn’t the safest in the world. Hubby’s friend, S, said, “You know they printed t-shirts, don’t you, that say, ‘I flew [Airline] and survived’?” No, I didn’t. But, gee – thanks for letting me know.

On the return flight from Bali I was worse than on the way there. We were upgraded to Business Class for that flight, and I couldn’t – not even for a second – enjoy that. I was sitting next to my friend, Teresa. I had her pray with me. I was so jumpy and freaking out, that she later told me she seriously considered slapping my face to calm me down.

A couple of years later, Hubby and I would move to Sydney from Perth. This, of course, meant even more flights back and forth. Back then, we used to get a couple of free Business Class flights each year back to Perth to visit family (part of Hubby’s package). In those days, interstate flights had First Class seats, and we would often find ourselves upgraded. Hubby loved it. As the fancy food and wine came around, he would sit with a huge smile on his face and indulge in all of it. (Reminds me of that Seinfeld episode when Elaine got stuck in economy, and Jerry traveled in business and when asked if he’d like something, he replied, “We’ll have more of everything!”) Hubby enjoyed every second of his flight. Me on the other hand? Not so much. I would refuse the food, lift my feet off the floor (I couldn’t stand the vibration of the airplane's engines on my feet) and pop earplugs in, or at the very least, wear the headphones and ‘watch’ a movie (rather unsuccessfully – I was too worried about what was going on around me) to drown out the engine noise.
I couldn’t stand the constant changing of sounds of the engines either, and every time the engines made a slightly different noise, I would hold my breath, convinced the plane was about to start diving towards the ground. I would search all the other passenger’s faces. Were they freaking out? Then I’d check the flight attendants. Were they exchanging concerned looks? To be honest, the answer was always ‘no’.

In 1996, I prepared to fly back to Perth on my own on Easter Saturday (Hubby had to go back earlier to have his wisdom teeth removed, and I had work commitments). I was as nervous as hell. I was telling an ex-Ansett airlines flight attendant about my fear of flying the week before my trip, and it was she who suggested I ask to view the cockpit. “Some say it really helps with their fear to see how things work. They’re always happy to help.” (Of course, this was back in the good old days pre-911).

So, during that flight, I nervously explained to a flight attendant my fear of flying and asked if it was possible to visit the cockpit? He was gorgeous – he smiled brightly and assured me it could be done.

Sure enough, about 45 minutes before the flight was due to land, he collected me and took me to the cockpit. I walked in shyly and the Captain and Co-pilot greeted me warmly. It was bright and sunny and very quiet in there and, of course, they were both so relaxed and calm. (As you would hope!) I sat down in a spare seat behind them, and immediately noticed all the different lights and buttons everywhere. “Wow,” I commented, “there are so many lights and switches and the like in here.” “Yeah,” the captain replied, and then with a straight face added, “and we used to know what they all did once upon a time.” We all laughed, and that was it. I was relaxed.

They explained about turbulence and how normal it was, and then to my astonishment, they asked if I would like to land in the cockpit with them?

You might be surprised to hear, having read above about my fear, that I didn’t hesitate to say, “Yes, please.”

It was great. They gave me my own headset so I could hear everything that was exchanged with air traffic control and we made an exceptionally smooth landing. When the plane pulled up to the terminal, the Captain encouraged me to stick my hand out the front window of the plane and wave to Hubby and my parents who were standing behind the large glass windows in the terminal. I tell you – everyone – in the terminal started waving back – except my folks and Hubby! (They couldn’t see my face and Hubby assumed I was an overly excited flight attendant.)

After that, I wouldn’t say I became the most relaxed flyer around, but I became far less concerned with flying. Having kids, I had to become the person to assure my children that flying was safe and fun and easy, and I found that I became even calmer during the process.

However, when I recently flew home from Melbourne with my friend Jen, we experienced probably one of the bumpiest plane rides I have ever been on. I was gripping the armrest so hard, my knuckles were white, and I was pushing with my other hand against the seat in front of me – so much so that the passenger turned around to see what was going on.

Jen was great. She patted my arm and squeezed my hand and reassured me, and of course, we made it down safely. However, it’s left me wondering how I’ll go on my next plane journey? I really thought I had pretty much conquered my fear of flying, but now I’m not so sure.

Funnily enough, Hubby used to tell me that my fear of flying was irrational. “Think of all the planes that fly every day,” he would say. Now it’s he who isn’t comfortable with flying. Having taken so many flights over the years with work, like many of his colleagues and friends who do similar jobs, he now can't help but think, “It’s only a matter of time.” Great.

Fear is a basic survival response – whether it seem justifiable or not. I think most people have a fear of something, whether it be flying, going to the dentist, heights, spiders or even committed relationships.

Do you have a fear? If so, what is it, and how do you deal with it?


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