I was just settling into my front-row bulkhead seat on a Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet flying from Salt Lake City to Sacramento when she arrived: In one hand was a small carry-on. The other clutched a paperback with the words “fear of flying” as a part of the title. She smiled thinly as she took her window seat next to me.
“Flying has always terrified me,” she confessed quietly, leaning in slightly, as if needing to explain the book in her hand.
I nodded and smiled warmly at her. “Flying is safer than driving,” I told her. “In fact, your chances of being involved in a plane crash are approximately one in 10 or 11 million or something close to that. Your chances of being killed in an automobile accident are one in 5,000. Assuming you drove to the airport today, the most dangerous part of your flight is now over.”
Her grip on the book tightened, nearly folding it in half. She told me she’d read something like that, but it didn’t really help. The strange noises, bangs and thumps on an airplane, not to mention any turbulence, made her want to throw up, she said.
With a small smile, I noted it was a good thing for me there was an air sickness bag in the pocket in front of her (she didn’t seem to appreciate my sense of humor). I told her I flew a lot and, if she needed, she could grab my arm anytime, and I would explain whatever was going on during the flight.
That seemed to help since she loosened her grip on the book, said, “thank you,” and leaned back in her seat. That calm lasted all of five minutes – until the door was pulled shut with a thud and we pushed back from the gate. One hand tightened on the book again and the other became a vise on my forearm.
“Oh god oh god oh god…” She turned to look at me with wide eyes as the plane’s wheels bumped over the first few cracks on the runway. I told her that was nothing to worry about. “There’s not a lot of shock absorption on a plane’s wheels so we feel every bump and bit of unevenness in the runway. … All perfectly normal.”
The engines revved and then the plane surged forward, hurtling toward takeoff with the deafening roar that small jets have.
As we clawed skyward, she let go of my arm and began paging through her book. I assumed she was looking for a passage to help her fear. And then the landing gear retracted with a whine followed by a few creaks and a distinctive thunk. She nearly tore the book in half and latched onto my forearm again.
“It’s ok, that whining sound was just the landing gear being pulled back up into the plane. The thunk is a good thing as that indicates the landing gear is stowed properly.”
I looked up and the flight attendant was smiling at me from her jump seat across the aisle. I nodded and smiled back. I was sure she had seen dozens of terrified passengers before and I imagined she was appreciative of a fellow passenger working to provide comfort.
The plane began to bank over the Great Salt Lake as it continued to climb.
Then …BOOM!!!… The unmistakable sound of an explosion or other impact came from the cockpit. Immediately the plane began to shake and, within seconds, we were executing a very tight turn and initiating a steep descent heading back toward Salt Lake City … and, I hoped, for the airport.
She looked at me with very wide eyes. “You have an explanation for that, right?” I looked at the flight attendant. The attendant looked back at me. We both shook our heads in disbelief and shrugged. Strangely, I felt completely calm. The plane prior to that “BOOM” was filled with conversation and laughter. Now … total silence.
I turned to my seatmate: “I have no idea what that was, but it looks like we are heading back to the airport.” She slumped quietly in her seat. Since her worst fears were now apparently coming true, she was not panicking at all but rather just seemed resigned.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot came on as we remained on a steep approach to the airport. “I apologize for the fright. We have managed to do something I have only read about in my 25 years of flying commercial airlines and flying for the military. We hit a flock of geese. We are fine, although the plane is damaged. We are cleared for an immediate emergency landing back at Salt Lake City, and we should have you safely on the ground in just a few minutes.”
She just stared ahead and said nothing.
As the plane touched down, I noticed her grip on the fear of flying book was loose, and that she was looking out the window. We taxied to the gate.
The pilot and copilot, who was flecked with blood on his right arm and shoulder, stood outside the cockpit door and thanked each of us as we deplaned.
“Once you are inside, the gate agent will tell you when your next flight out is. They are trying to find another plane for you quickly. We do apologize for this delay.”
I peeked into the cockpit. The window to the right of the copilot was completely gone. The inside of the cockpit on the right was streaked with blood and bird remains – not a good day to be a goose over Salt Lake City.
“You going to be ok flying again?” I asked.
She smiled. “I’m getting my bag and driving to Sacramento. Thanks for all you did, but I think I’m done flying. I know my fear of flying is irrational, and it’s more dangerous to drive and all, but if something happens, at least I’m already on the ground.”
I nodded. “Hard to drive across the ocean, though, if you want to travel.”
“There are boats,” she said.
“It takes a lot longer to get anywhere if you don’t fly.”
“True, but you see more along the way.” Hard to argue with that logic.
As my next flight home lifted skyward, I looked down toward the salt flats and on the shimmering lights of cars snaking along I-80 below. I wondered if she were feeling happier on the road — where the odds of dying were indeed far greater but perhaps were somehow far more acceptable.
For me, sitting in airplanes large and small is a part of the travel experience, for better or worse. In my many decades of flying all over the world, I’ve experienced emergency landings due to hydraulic failures, engine failure (one, not all), cockpit invasions by geese, severe turbulence, engine oil leaks, ice storms, abrupt landing and takeoff aborts and more than one skidding landing. And despite the heart palpitations, adrenaline boost and sweaty palms I do still experience on occasion, I know that planes are designed to fly and stay airborne even when one thinks it impossible. I trust that knowledge and I trust the skill of the pilots. And that is why I have no fear of flying.