In the beginning, I flew through the air with the greatest of ease, almost always on Pacific Southwest Airlines, noted for its mini-skirted and later hot-panted stewardesses. Then, returning to Los Angeles from San Francisco one time, the pilot abruptly decided in mid-descent that he didn’t think it was such a good idea to land after all, and his indecisiveness put the fear of God into me. For the next couple of decades, well before the era of transparent plastic bags and 100 milliliter limits, I’d always sneak a flask of Scotch on board, and wear wet paper towels deep in my ears to make the terrifying noises slightly less audible. I felt sure I was about to die every time the plane shook a little bit, and couldn’t carry on a conversation because at any moment I might have to concentrate on silently invoking God’s mercy, with my eyes clamped very tightly shut, and my palms sopping. I wasn’t fun to fly with; I was the anti-fun.
I was well aware that it was very much safer to travel by air than by automobile, of course. I was comparably aware that it’s very difficult to swallow your tongue, but that hasn’t stopped me, at odd moments in my adulthood, from fretting about the fact that I am so oblivious, from one moment to the next, to the exact position of my tongue. During takeoff, I’d wonder if there were a lot of morbidly obese people aboard, or a lot of skinny people with overstuffed suitcases; what if I was the only person on board not flying to a convention of anvil salespersons? I’d feel pretty sure that the plane hadn’t been attentively serviced in an attempt to save a few bucks.
In mid-flight, the Fasten Seatbelts sign becoming illuminated was more terrifying than the 10 most terrifying horror films I’d ever seen, or ever would see. I could picture the captain and first officer up in the cockpit, soaked in flop sweat, demanding of each other through clenched teeth, “What on earth should we do?” or barking, “I can’t control her, Jim! If you survive, will you tell Peggy I loved her?” If the flight attendants continued to serve beverages and bags of mini-pretzels, I’d think, “Well, that’s fine for now, but if the plane suddenly lurches, and they scald someone with hot coffee, I’d better be ready to go quickly into full panic mode.” If everything seemed fine, it was just illusory, calm before the storm. My life wasn’t worth a dime.
But now I’ve beaten it. My having done so involves mastery of none of the techniques you can hear described, to the accompaniment of soothing music, on Virgin Atlantic’s Calm Down audio channel (concentrate on the tension leaving your fingertips, and now your wrist, and now your forearm…). Rather it’s all about accepting that flight attendants never do lose their balance, and are bored absolutely senseless with everything that used to make the frightened-of-flying rigid with foreboding. The plane sounds as though it’s about to explode from the effort of climbing to its cruising altitude? Well, Heather, in the front of the cabin, is telling Tiffani about how the cute software salesman she served in business class a couple of weeks ago finally emailed to ask her out when they’ll both be in Phoenix overnight in late February, and what does Tiff think she should wear?
From this moment forward, you are allowed to panic when and to the extent the flight crew panics. Cured!