I’m about to reveal a secret; one that I usually don’t proclaim publicly, but that always surfaces due to the nature of it’s frequency. I’m deathly afraid of airplanes. Terrified, even. Or I was, rather.
The ironic thing is that I fly more than anyone I know. I fly at least four times a month, mostly more. Between my work, my long distance relationship, and my family, I’m in an airplane a lot. This would mean my phobia pretty much nestles itself into my daily routine, as the anxiety usually kicks in two weeks before a flight, leaving only sporadic days where I’m happy to know I’ll be blissfully and indefinitely on the ground — only for the cycle to begin again.
Flying was always a death sentence for me, in my irrational mind. Statistics? Bullocks. I didn’t care if there was a one-in-a-gazillion chance, the fear illogically assumed, this is that one flight. All rationale flew (no pun intended) out the window when I boarded an airplane, as did my shame. There were times the pilot was called out of the cockpit to console me, as flight attendants were wiping tears from my screaming face. I’ve made hundreds of (perhaps unwilling) friendships on airplanes, since when one sits next to me, he or she becomes my unsuspecting caregiver for the day.
Since my number one passion is travel, I’ve been hellbent on kicking this exhausting phobic behavior. I’ve been hypnotized nearly ten times, visited therapists, acupuncturists, and monks, and signed up for countless classes that promised to cure me. Hundreds, if not more, dollars were spent. And yet, every time I stepped foot in that tiny airborne tube, I was certain that it would become my coffin.
I pondered and analyzed my own fear immensely. Was I doomed to have this fear forever? I couldn’t bear it any longer, it was certainly getting in the way of my life. The psychoanalyst in me realized there was something lurking deeper: control. I’m not a controlling person, by any means, but for some reason, in this machine barreling towards the atmosphere at 500 miles per hour, I felt completely out of control.
Maybe if I learned to fly the plane, if I felt in control of the process, I’d feel better? I wondered this for a few years. But flying a plane seemed nearly as irrational as the phobia; it seemed, frankly, impossible. As they say, “when pigs can fly.” And they can’t, so I won’t.
Yet after a horrendous bumpy flight in which I nearly ripped the armrest off its post, (and terrified my helpless travel companions), I decided it was worth a shot. A quick google search later I found a flight academy in Ronkonkoma, Long Island; without much thought, I booked an introductory flight at Heritage Flight Academy. I had nothing to lose.
I arrived a little early, nervous as the dickens; this tiny two-seater prop plane was like my worst nightmare incarnate. Yet I was over an hour outside the city and couldn’t turn back now. My instructor, Matt, was a young man who seemed pretty nonchalant about the whole flying thing. After a quick overview of the flight pattern we’d be flying, we were walking outside to board the plane.
“You do this all the time, right?” I think I asked Matt twenty-five times. He’s logged over 600 training hours, flew a commercial jet for a few years, and takes people up nearly five times a day. As I said before, statistics-schmistics; my apprehension only worsened.
After an extensive overview of the safety checklist, we spent a good fifteen minutes inspecting all aspects of the plane — much to my delight. Everything seemed to be working fine, on the ground, yet I wasn’t quite certain this tiny thing could make it off land.
After some air-traffic control communicating and a bit of delay, we headed towards the runway and began take-off. We lifted off the ground and it felt like a sailboat in the air; the plane bobbed around through waves of wind.
I screamed profanities at my poor instructor, yet his smile and ease made me relax a bit. The view was spectacular and Matt looked as if he were driving a car, completely in-sync with the machine and instinctively guiding the plane up to 2,500 feet. We headed towards the water, practice air space for our plane to roam free.
As we got over the water Matt asked me if I wanted to fly. I had told him prior to the flight that I wouldn’t be touching anything, knowing my spasms might switch a major button or accidentally nose dive us into the land below. Yet in that moment, after much assurance from Matt that there was practically nothing I could do to bring this plane down, I grabbed the wheel and began my first turn. Pulling the nose up every so slightly (as told), I made circles above the water. Matt threw his hands up, to reiterate that I was, indeed, flying this airplane.
He explained that the plane was inherently balanced. It will always finds its equilibrium. If one is turning the wheel, and lets go, the plane finds its center once more; if one raises the nose, and releases, the plane levels off immediately. It’s engineered as such. A machine that once seemed so frighteningly silly to me, is actually a brilliant and wonderful (and safe!) invention.
After guiding the plane in circles around the water, our forty-five minutes came to a close in what felt like a minute. I turned the plane towards the runway, in which Matt took over to land back at the airport.
I exited the plane buzzing with excitement and adrenaline. But more than anything, I was happy — peaceful, even. I felt this overwhelming trust for aviation, for that little propellor plane, and for the pilots trained to navigate these things — something that I could never say before. Airplanes are intelligent, intuitive, and meant to be in the air; what a breakthrough for someone who thought them to be her final resting place. It was a priceless experience, $129 well spent — if I could only get a refund from all those therapy sessions.
I can’t wait to continue onward with flight training, since now I’m working towards my pilot’s license. In other words, pigs still can’t fly– but I apparently can.