My parents (really, my mother) were always relatively liberal regarding what movies and television shows they let me and my sister watch as children.
Granted, that was thirty years ago and before the rise of MTV and reality shows, so things are a lot racier now than my Southern Baptist upbringing would have permitted.
As a young child, my mom let met watch La Bamba. The movie starred Lou Diamond Phillips (a 1980s heartthrob) and was about Ritchie Valens, the Mexican singer who died in a plane crash after hitting it big with his popular song, La Bamba. Buddy Holly and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in the same crash. The movie took place in the late 1950s timeframe and came out in 1987, when I would have been five years old.
It was pretty much my first introduction to an airplane.
No bueno. (Pun intended.)
Then there was Sweet Dreams, which was also released in the 1980s and was about the life of country music singer Patsy Cline starring Jessica Lange and Ed Harris. It also ended with a fatal plane crash. My younger sister and I were allowed to watch that and it further reinforced my fear of flying.
Now, as an “adult”, I want to board airplanes with a parachute.
Last year, I had to get on teeny-tiny propeller plane from Charlotte, North Carolina, to the small town of Greenville for some depositions. The moment I saw the plane, I was ready to go back to Tampa, even if it meant I’d have to walk.
Here’s the rundown.
I get on the plane and immediately start scoping out people who look like they might want to take it down. Like some of the dudes who attempt to follow my Instagram page whose primary photos are of them holding machine guns while riding a camel in the middle of a desert. (This has happened four times. They get blocked.)
Then, there is the crippling emotional struggle of takeoff. My non-mathematical, unscientific mind cannot comprehend how a large pile of metal and humans can get off the ground.
White knuckles and breathing into a paper bag.
Repeating the rosary and messing up the words.
I can’t talk to anyone and have to sit near the window so I can focus on something outside.
Something that is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.
Then I start thinking about how the plane will crash into the ground, wondering whether I’ll feel any pain, whether I remembered to pay my life insurance premium and please God, I hope I reminded my family that if anything horrible ever happened to me, I don’t want them to put anything tacky on my tombstone like praying hands, a teddy bear, or a photograph taken when I was having a bad hair day.
These are the weird things I think about.
The second worst part of the flight is turbulence. Again, once I feel it, I am certain the plane will rip apart and I’m thinking of Aaliyah, JFK Junior, Carolyn Bessette, and John Denver.
Deep breathing. Deep breathing. “It’s like wheels on a bumpy road.”
I know this isn’t healthy or normal.
My husband also doesn’t like to fly. When we sit next to each other, we just perpetuate each others’ anxiety.
Everyone’s favorite story involves the time my husband and I were flying back to the mainland following our honeymoon in Hawaii.
It was the summer of 2009 and our terror of flying was reinforced by a series of highly-publicized plane crashes that occurred in the short six months preceding the wedding. These included U.S. Airways Flight 1549 that took off from New York City and landed in the Hudson River in January (Great, bird strikes… one more thing to worry about!) There was also Colgan Air Flight 3407 that crashed near Buffalo that February. Then, three weeks before our wedding, Air France Flight 447 went missing over the Atlantic when it was en route from Rio de Janiero to Paris.
Truth be told, we were not excited about flying to or from Hawaii. (I know, I know… cue the world’s smallest violin.)
The thing about the Lihue airport on the small Hawaiian island of Kauai is that the runway leads directly to the Pacific Ocean.
One small shred of pilot error and everyone goes swimming.
Lihue Airport, Kauai
It was around 8:30 p.m. and the plane was just getting ready to depart for a 6-hour red-eye flight that would land in Phoenix where we would make our connection to Tampa. The plane was completely full and the other passengers were getting into “relaxation mode” by cuddling with their blankets and setting up their iPads to watch movies before takeoff.
My husband and I were sitting directly over the left wing.
(I read somewhere that seats over the wings were the safest spots a plane.)
Just as the plane was getting ready to take off and the stewardesses were getting buckled into their seats, I began to smell something terrible.
Like gas. Something burning. Something chemical-y. Something that was not right.
I looked at my husband.
His nostrils were flaring. He smelled it, too.
Do you smell that? I asked, panicking.
Yes, do you? He wanted me to reassure him the odor was normal. Like maybe the guy in the seat next to me literally walked through a camp fire before boarding the plane and taking his seat.
Of course I smell it! Do something! Now! Say something! Or else we are going to die!
My husband unbuckled his seat and stood up as the plane started barrelling down the runway in preparation for take-off.
The stewardesses began freaking out.
SIT DOWN RIGHT NOW! One yelled.
All of the passengers started staring at my husband, clearly annoyed and some a little nervous.
DO YOU SMELL THAT? SOMETHING IS BURNING! he yelled at the stewardess.
YES! she yelled back. IT’S JET FUEL. IT’S NORMAL. YOU CAN SMELL IT BECAUSE YOU’RE SITTING OVER THE WING! SIT DOWN NOW.
The many passengers who witnessed this ordeal were unamused.
Like a dog with a tail between his legs, my husband obediently sat back down in his seat.
I was glad that he faced the shame and humiliation and not me. I was also glad he risked his ego to potentially save our lives.
When we landed in Tampa unscathed, we got quite a few laughs.
I still hate flying, by the way.