I hate to say that I’m glad “I’m not the only one,” because it means that others have suffered from anxiety and phobias, too. But reactions to last week’s column about my failed attempt at flying in an airplane have made me feel somewhat normal. (OK, maybe not “normal,” but not alone either.)
Turns out there are a lot of fearful flyers out there. There are even people like me, people who think they can’t get on a plane at all. Although, honestly, very few people self-reported leaving the airplane just before taxing down the runway, as I did over Labor Day weekend.
Some readers wanted more information — to make themselves feel better or to laugh at me, I don’t know. I’ll try to answer those questions below.
What did security think?
The security personnel at Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C., were definitely startled, and perhaps on high alert, when I ran off the plane, but all of them were incredibly understanding as well. On the tarmac, when Dustin yelled over other planes’ engines for me to get back on the plane, a baggage handler thought he was screaming at me. The man pulled me aside and asked, “Do you feel safe going with this man?”
“My husband?” I said. “Yes. I just don’t feel safe in that airplane!”
Now the man had a clearer picture. I wasn’t a hysterical wife; I was just hysterical in general.
“I see this at least once a week,” he told me. “Really, it’s going to be OK. When you go back to the terminal, there will be people waiting there to help you.”
For a moment I wondered: Will they be people in white coats?
But, as it turned out, the man felt so sorry for us, he followed us back to the terminal himself to help us retrieve our luggage. We were too late. Both suitcases were already on their way back to Bangor. I hope they weren’t scared.
How can you be afraid of flying if your husband is a pilot?
I don’t have a good answer for this. Remember, my dad was an F-14 pilot, too. I’ve been around aviation my whole life. In fact, I love airplanes. I love to watch them land and take off. For one of our first dates, the one where I fell in love with Dustin, he took me to Gravelly Point, just across the water from Reagan International Airport, to watch jets screech seemingly just out of reach and land in front of us. But I never wanted to get in those airplanes.
Maybe I’ve heard too much about flying. I’ve witnessed friends dying in training accidents while Dustin was in flight school. I’ve heard all the stories.
But then, a phobia is never really rational, is it? So even if everyone I knew was a pilot, it wouldn’t have any effect.
How mad was Dustin?
To quote Dustin, me running off the airplane was the “worst thing” I’ve ever done to him. If that’s the worst thing I’ve ever done to him, then I think I’m doing pretty well, don’t you think? Still, he didn’t talk to me for at least an hour in the rental car.
But Sarah, you would have been safer in the airplane than you were in the car.
But the car doesn’t fly suspended in mid-air.
Have you tried any programs?
I like to follow pilot Patrick Smith’s columns, and I’ve read his book “Cockpit Confidential.” Seven years ago, when I backed out of a family wedding due to my fear, I even talked to Smith on the phone. By that point, unless it was Smith piloting the plane, I was still afraid.
I also frequent Capt. Tom Bunn’s Fear of Flying website and online forum. These sites are helpful for making me feel less weird, less alone, but, again, unless Capt. Bunn is my pilot, it’s like starting at square one when I get to the airport.
Is it turbulence, claustrophobia or a fear of crashing that scares you?
All of the above.
No, I take that back. Capt. Bunn and Smith have convinced me that turbulence can never hurt an airplane. Not really. And to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced turbulence.
So, actually, my fear is mostly of the fear itself.
Trust me, you do not want to sit next to me on an airplane. I cry and hyperventilate. I rock in my seat and startle at every sound. It’s miserable. And probably my biggest fear of all is not being able to do anything about it. I just have to sit there and feel the fear until the pilot lands the plane.
Actually, no; this is just what I tell myself.
I’m really afraid of crashing. Is anyone not?
Will you ever fly again?
With enough medication, I hope so.
Sarah Smiley is a columnist and author of “Dinner With the Smileys,” a memoir of a year of dinners and motherhood.