I used to be very frightened of air travel. While my stomach would begin to churn and my palms sweat when the doors of the plane closed, that is when Dad would begin to relax. It would really annoy me when I would see his eyes close and hear his rhythmic breathing as he dozed off before the wheels of the plane even left the runway. That was the moment my prayers would go into high gear and I would squeeze his hand in fear as he slept.
Every sound would make me jump and every minute change in altitude would make me imagine that it was the beginning of the end. When you were all young, I tried to fake bravery because I did not want to instill my fears in any of you.
Jamie was the only one of the three of you who was, and still is, a nervous flyer. Those anxieties temporarily abated after she sat next to that pilot who explained the principles of aerodynamics and warned her of every impending bump. She left the flight saying, “I want to be a flight attendant.” Unfortunately, I think her airplane jitters have returned. She will fly, but is not comfortable.
For me, the more flights I took, the calmer I became. I learned what noises meant wheels up and what meant wheels down. I realized that, like bumps in the road, a little up and down motion is normal on any flight.
On one flight several years ago, I was relaxing with a book when the lights above me stopped working, and I fiddled with the switch until the flight attendant announced that “there was no need to worry, but we lost one of our engines.” The plane got eerily quiet, and then suddenly everyone became best friends with their seatmates. I guess the unspoken thought was that no one wanted to go down alone. But the pilot landed the plane with no problems, so I headed to the bar for a glass of wine, and then boarded the final leg of my flight home. I guess I had become a more relaxed traveler. I was impressed with myself.
Then I met a man in Arizona who I have added to my list of “most memorable people I have met.” He had worked as a travel reporter for the New York Times and when we got to his house, he showed Dad a model of an airplane. It was a smaller version of a plane similar to one Jamie walked onto one time, looked around, and announced, “I’m quitting this flight.”
He told us his extraordinary airplane story.
While on assignment in Brazil, his plane was involved in a midair collision with another plane while flying at an altitude of 37,000 feet. The plane lost a wing and part of the tail, and before it miraculously landed thirty minutes later at a military base in the jungle, he and some of his fellow passengers jotted notes to their loved ones. I don’t think I would have the presence of mind to do that. I would be too busy crying and praying. Now I realize my little incident over Georgia was minor. He was the impressive traveler at that dinner party.
This is a true story and it definitely helps make me feel better about air travel. I never thought anyone could survive a midair collision. If you doubt me, just Google “Joe Sharkey.”