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Overcoming fear of flying (maybe)

I hadn't flown in a commercial airplane for 17 years. Yes, even though both my husband, Dustin, and my dad are Navy pilots. After 9/11, I honestly thought I'd never would fly again.

In 2010, I flew in the Air National Guard's KC-135 because Dustin volunteered me to do it. I think he hoped it would end my fear of flying. It didn't. I never felt like the KC-135 left the ground, probably because it doesn't have passenger windows.

Even when I watched a mid-air refueling, the whole thing seemed surreal. But a commercial airplane with lots of windows and piloted by someone I don't know? No way.

Then, two weeks ago, Dustin asked me to fly with him to Washington, D.C., for our anniversary. I said "yes" even though backing out last minute remained a viable option. For me, at least. The day of our flight, I followed Dustin like a lost sheep through airport security. Which is to say, Dustin helped me place all my belongings in the proper plastic bins bumping along a conveyor belt. None of it seemed real.

I still fancied running out the terminal. Then it was time to board the plane. "We're just going to walk down this hallway and find our seats," Dustin said. It all looked so easy. Inviting, even. Sure, I thought, I'll walk down this hallway—and then maybe I'll run back out. But Dustin held my hand and talked to me about aerodynamics.

More than once he said, "All those times I went to work in Pensacola, I was flying a single engine airplane. You never worried about me, right?"I couldn't answer.

My face was cold with fright. Also, every fearful flyer knows that the process of realizing airplanes are safe and the process of getting our feet inside one are managed by two different parts of the brain: the mature, 36-year-old part, and the one that defaults to the fetal position. Before I could change my mind, however, we were rumbling down the runway.

"You did it," Dustin said once the wheels were off the ground, as if the whole thing was over. It was just beginning! For one hour, I panicked over every noise ("The engines sound different") and Dustin reassured me ("They're pulling back on the power to make our descent").

When we landed in D.C., he said, "There, now you're not afraid anymore."What? It doesn't work that way, Dustin. In five days, I had to fly back home—alone. I put this out of my mind while I enjoyed time with Dustin.

On the last day, I started looking at Plan Bs: Take the train. Hitch a ride with friends. Take a bus. Dustin was confused. "Why not just fly?" he asked. "You're already done it. You're cured. What's there to be afraid of anymore?"Dustin, Dustin, Dustin. (shaking head)Dustin is an engineer, a numbers person.

He understands things like risk and probability. Indeed, after I was pregnant with our first son and said, "I think we're on a roll of having all boys," Dustin is the one who famously said: "One son does not make 'a roll.' Besides, our chances of having a boy are 50/50 every time. The probability doesn't change."

He flipped a penny multiple times to prove the point. So, I applied the same logic to my fear: The general population's risk of dying in a plane crash is about 1 in 2 million. That must reset with each flight, right?

Or—cue the ominous music—are my chances getting better (worse?) with every flight? Is one safe flight "a roll"? Or do my chances remain the same every time? This is how a words-person who is afraid of flying thinks about risk.

Sitting beside me in the airport terminal, Dustin looked stunned as he contemplated my logic. "You're going to get on the plane," he said dryly, "and you're going to be fine."Easy for him to say. He'd be watching my plane take off from the comfort of the ground.

We said goodbye outside the line for security. Streams of mascara made tracks down my face. My stomach was in knots, and I was breathing too fast. Dustin waved until he couldn't see me anymore, and I realized he fully believed I'd get on the plane.

I followed other passengers onto a bus that was waiting to take us to the CRJ-200. I was still crying, and everyone saw. We exited the bus and there was no pleasant "hallway" to distract me from what I was about to get into.

I turned to the man beside me, my hand at my throat, and said, "I can't do this; I'm going back."I hadn't flown commercially in 17 years until I flew to Washington, D.C., with Dustin last month. Being in an airplane wasn't as bad as thought.

Aside from digging my nails into Dustin's forearm and panicking over every creak or thump, I kind of enjoyed myself. (I can't say the same for Dustin.) Also, watching the nation's Capitol come into view through the airplane window was nothing short of spectacular.

But I wasn't disappointed when we touched down at Reagan International Airport. I was in no hurry to fly again. Except, eventually I had to fly back to Maine — alone.A week later, Dustin walked me to the airport's security check-point and went over my instructions: "Put your shoes in the plastic bins. Your computer, too. Show your ticket to the attendant and get on the bus when they tell you to."

I felt like a child with her name and bus number safety-pinned to her shirt. I was crying and scared. Everyone in the airport knew it.

A kind man befriended me on the bus that took us to the CRJ-200 waiting on the tarmac. My hands were shaking as I talked to him. My heart beat in my throat.

In Maine, when I got on the airplane with Dustin, I walked through a hallway first, allowing me the illusion that I was still in a building, not a metal tube. Now I had to board from the tarmac, where I could see my worst fear up close and personal.

My bus friend — we'll call him "John" — walked beside me off the bus. Just before we got to the stairs of the airplane, I panicked. I turned to John, my hand at my throat, and said, "I can't do this; I'm going back."

John got behind me and said, "Up you go, onto the stairs." He was blocking me from turning around, and for the next 30 minutes, I despised him for that.

John asked the flight attendant if I could sit beside him. Again, I felt like a child. All of this probably seems silly to someone who isn't afraid to fly.

But if you think about facing your greatest fear — standing on the ledge of a tall building, being in the middle of the ocean, riding a roller coaster, speaking in front of an audience — maybe you can understand the complete terror I felt as I pulled my seatbelt tighter and silently cursed at John for making me board.

I cried (yes, more crying) for the first 30 minutes of the 90-minutes flight. John spoke evenly and calmly. He asked me about my family, but I didn't want to think about them yet. I was focused on surviving, like I had any control.

John asked me about my work, and I answered in quick, nervous one-word replies. I was stiff with fear. But John kept talking. The flight attendant asked me if I wanted a drink, but she didn't mean water. "Yes, please," I said eagerly, hoping for something — anything — to make me relax. John interrupted. "Alcohol might make you more emotional," he said. Now he looked scared, too.

He was already dealing with a white-knuckle flyer; he didn't need me telling him all my troubles — in that I-love-you-man sort of way — too.I opted for water.An hour later, I started to relax when I heard the landing gear come down.

By then, I knew I was going to be okay. I finally sat back in the seat and felt like myself. I fluffed up my hair and wiped at the mascara sliding down my cheeks. I was aware of my surroundings again.

"So, I wrote a book," I told John, as if the past hour hadn't happened, and I started to tell him about it. "Wait a minute," he said, "I read about you! You're the dinner girl."

Then, for the first time, I felt embarrassed. Before, I was a nameless, ridiculous person crying on an airplane. Now I was the "dinner girl."

After we landed, John helped me find my baggage and made sure I got to the taxi stand. When he said goodbye, he told me his last name for the first time. It rang a bell, so I googled it.

Turns out, John is a pretty important person in our nation's government. I'm glad I didn't know this before. For 90 minutes, we were just two people on a plane — one scared, one not. I looked up from my phone just as John's taxi was pulling away.

And the next thoughts I had came quickly in this order: Thank goodness for people like John. I'm so embarrassed.

I wish we could have had him to Dinner with the Smileys.

 

 

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