Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sky Anxiety

Last weekend my son Ryan piloted a four-seater airplane under the supervision of his girlfriend's father who flies for Hawaiian Airlines. After a full day of soaring over the islands, Ryan was able to successfully take off and land the plane on his own. The thrill of it confirmed his desire to consider a potential career in the sky.

Ryan has always loved flying--with or without an airplane. The proof is in the pictures. If there's a pool to dive into, Ryan will look for a rooftop to launch off from.

If there are waves on the South Shore, Ryan will figure out how to defy them.

He even invents his own airborne methods to enable optimum thrills.

I have to believe Ryan inherited this love of air from me. As a gymnast in high school, my favorite apparatus was the uneven parallel bars. The slow-motion delays in mid-air before sticking a dismount always delivered an adrenaline surge beyond words. Sure, the ever-present fear of landing on anything besides feet threatened to steal my focus, but even after several bad falls and a broken tailbone, the quest to become airborne prevailed.

Unlike Ryan, however, I don't think I would get the same high in the cockpit. I love traveling by air. I even pursued a career as a flight attendant out of high school. But somewhere along the way, I have developed an annoying aircraft phobia. It's not the fear of crashing that haunts me as I can always rationalize that driving on a freeway is far more dangerous. My fear is more irrational, more agoraphobic than the common complaint of passengers feeling too confined. Unlike most air travelers, I actually enjoy the enclosed feeling in the aircraft. It's a camaraderie of sorts to me. Like we're all on one big happy journey over the clouds together. September 11 put a damper on this pie-in-the-sky mentality of mine, but not entirely.

It wasn't until a really long trek from Honolulu to St. Louis that I contracted my first in-flight case of agoraphobia. I remember settling in with a good book and a NY Times crossword puzzle. I read for a solid two hours then gave in to the drowsy hum of the plane's engine and slept just long enough to start dreaming. That's when the plane turned into a sickening carnival ride. The flight attendant announced that due to a [diabolical] storm system, we would be experiencing [death-defying and tumultuous] turbulence for a little while. Try three hours.

Trying to reason with my inner flight attendant, I reminded her that we wanted to do this for a living, but she shouted back to me as I looked out the window that we were suspended by absolutely the middle of the entire sky. This clammy epiphany made me uncomfortable. It was like the feeling I once had playing outfield in a softball game. It's hard to explain, but it's like being trapped in a wide open space.

Using the crossword puzzle as a distraction, I racked my brain to complete half of it, which I now regret as the jarring motion, combined with the straining eye work of the puzzle, spun me ad nauseam into a dizzying state. I put the puzzle away, closed my eyes, and breathed deeply. This helped, but not enough when someone behind me hurled. I was next in what would become a domino-effect of puking passengers.

As soon as we landed, we had to rush to catch the next plane to Orlando. Wishing for a set of sea legs, I pitched and reeled my way into a shop and bought a pack of Dramamine. I took four then boarded the next plane.

All I remember from that flight is the older man next to me. He was wearing a turban, and I woke up twice with my head on his shoulder. When we landed in Orlando, I tried to gather myself and apologize to the man with a soft shoulder. In his melodic New Delhi accent he told me it was no problem and that he had a daughter about my age. I was hoping I didn't slobber all over him or snore, but decided not to ask.

So ever since that harrowing ordeal, I have flown with trace elements of fear wrangling in the back of my thoughts. And now with the vision of my crazed son taking off into the wild blue yonder, I have to completely regather my senses and try to think happy thoughts.

Look! It's a bird...It's a plane...No, it's Flyin' Ryan!