Fear of Flying

I am not exactly sure when I became an anxious flyer.  I once found a letter that I had written to my parents when I was 13.  My sister and I had flown to Chicago to join my grandparents on our annual trip to Gull Lake in Minnesota.  My mom was pregnant, so my parents sent us on this grand adventure by ourselves.  I was clearly thrilled, but I made comments about the “bumpy” flight & worried when I didn’t see the landing field as we descended into O’Hare.  Could this have been the beginning? 

By all rights, I should not be a nervous flyer as my parents were both frequent flyers way before the term became popular.  My mother was a “stewardess” for United Airlines, and my father has his degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue.  My Dad used to regale us with tales of his professor making a yardstick “fly” across the lecture hall to demonstrate Bernoulli’s principal of lift.   My Dad LOVED airplanes.  Before he & Mom were married, Dad went to work for the N.A.C.A (National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics) at Langley Field.  In a letter to my Mom, he wrote, “People here don’t seem to pay any attention to them [airplanes]-but not this cookie-I have to stop and look at each one of them.”     In my parent’s later years, they traveled extensively flying off to far off places like Australia and New Zealand.  Such trips would give me pause because of the lengthy flights to get there.  Clearly, I had all the “right stuff” to become a fearless flyer, but somehow I did not inherit my parents’ bravado. 

A few years ago, my fears were compounded on a flight back from Atlanta.  Normally this is a quick easy flight, but it was on a stormy and windy day.  After a nerve wracking ride, we finally approached the landing field at Nashville.  At the last moment the pilot aborted the landing whisking us up in the air at a stomach lurching speed.  He calmly announced “Well that didn’t feel right, so we’re gonna try it again.”  Obviously the next landing “felt right,” but I was left with a fear that has followed me to this day. 

Anxiety begins to creep in whenever I book a trip. I always look for nonstop flights so that I only have one take-off and landing to endure.  Days before I fly, I compulsively check the weather watching for anything that might cause turbulence or wind.  John knows that if he is flying with me, he is my chief hand holder and voice of reason should we hit any turbulence. 

In order to conquer my anxiety, I have developed little rituals before I board the plane.  I wear a necklace, a gift from my intrepid, flying mother.  I, also, bless the plane before entering.  My former pastor once said that lay people can bless things just as well as priests.  Since then I have become a blessing machine, but planes always get an extra dose.  Once I board a plane, I try to spot the pilot.  Perhaps I am looking for Captain “Sully,” because the grayer the pilot’s hair the less anxious I feel. If I am alone or even with John I prefer a window seat so that I can keep an eye on the weather.  Despite all my rituals and mental preparation, I am often filled with angst and tension as I board the plane.  I never truly relax until those wheels hit the ground.  In other words, I rarely, “sit back and enjoy the flight.” 

On my most recent trip though…I think I may have found a way to temper my fears.  I was on my usual nonstop flight to Charleston to spend some time with my Dad.  I followed my rituals, but this time I decided to deposit myself between two older gentlemen one of whom resembled…yes you guessed it, Captain Sully.  When things became just a bit bumpy on our ascent, I closed my magazine and pretended to be asleep.  I decided to silently chant my go-to Catholic prayer, the Hail Mary.  I wondered if it was a poor choice, because the closing line is, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”  However, the sing song repetition seemed to comfort me in my eyes-closed-middle-seat confinement.  As the plane rocked and climbed, I felt soothed and not especially fearful.  I seemed to relax into the motion and felt comforted by the rocking.  I sensed I was experiencing the flight from within and without…a sort of looking in and out at once.  The calmness that ensued held my terror at bay.  The flight eventually smoothed out as we reached the proper altitude.  On the return flight, the pilot had the flight attendants clean up early as he wanted everyone “buckled in.”  This of course was my signal for panic.  Wedged in a middle seat again, but without my gray haired talisman, I closed my eyes and chanted my prayers.  Once again, I found myself perched on this odd vantage point: looking out and in; noticing but not judging; experiencing the motion of the plane but no longer fighting it.   I was in the moment and not “borrowing trouble” as my Mom would often say. 

I have thought a lot about this new methodology since my return home.  I wonder if at last my bumbling, untrained efforts at meditation are paying off.  Could this simultaneous looking in and looking out be what so many wisdom teachers call “nondual thinking?”  Could nondual thinking help me through the times of transition and uncertainty that lay ahead?   

In a few short weeks, I will be retiring and flying without my thirty six year career.  I will no longer be employed, a librarian, or an educator.  I know I can let the days ahead fill me with fears of shortfall…less money, less companionship, and less purpose OR I can balance my fear with the hope of possibility and discovery.  Perhaps I have uncovered my own version of Bernoulli’s theorem.   A way of seeing and being that lifts me above the clouds of worry and concern and like the planes my father so admired…I, too, will soar.