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Friday, January 2, 2009


I was reminded of my fear of flying recently when I went to California. The flight out was turbulent, and, as always in those circumstances, I resolved never to fly again.

During turbulence I usually look out at the plane's wing and find some comfort in the fact that the plane is still horizontal. But on this flight the woman in the window seat kept the shutter down, so I didn't have that option. Plus I was in the very back row, and thus felt each jolt more strongly.

The fact is, airplanes never go down because of turbulence these days. You used to occasionally hear of a crash due to wind shear, but the technology has advanced so that just about the only time you're in any danger is at takeoff and landing. I must have told myself that at least a hundred times midflight.

So why is flying so scary? (I know I'm not alone in that feeling.) Part of it is that you're so totally helpless in a plane. You're sealed into that claustrophobia-inducing fuselage and have absolutely no control over your fate. (The first class seats look less constrictive, but I've never sat in one of them.)

In a car you at least have the illusion of control. (I'm familiar with the statistics showing that we're safer in a plane, though that knowledge neither scares me in my car nor calms me in a plane.) Whatever happens in your car is up to you and you can at least imagine that you can survive a crash, especially at low speeds, by simply bracing yourself.

In a plane, you know there's absolutely no way you'd survive a crash. I'm not sure exactly why they tell you to put your head between your knees in case of a crash landing, but the idea that this position will save you as you go into a mountainside at 500 miles per hour has always seemed ludicrous.

And all of us who have ever tried to fly a model airplane or even a kite know that the natural order of things is for gravity to eventually triumph.

Let's face it. That big heavy metal contraption is just not supposed to be able to stay in the air. It goes against nature.

Part of the fear, of course, is that we're so high up. When you look out the window, the ground is just so, so far beneath us. Most of us know from experience how much it hurts to fall from, say, six feet. So it seems only logical that falling from thirty-six thousand feet would hurt six thousand times as as much. This is not a pleasant thought.

There are in fact good evolutionary reasons for humans to have developed a fear of heights. If we didn't shy away from precipices, we would be more likely to fall off cliffs and not pass our genes along to the next generation. So for the most part we're descended from people who did develop that fear, and passed it on to us.

Other phobias have equally good evolutionary grounding. Freud, that old charlatan, would have had us believe that fear of snakes is simply a displaced fear of homosexuality, with the snake representing a phallic symbol. But in fact those who don't have an innate fear of slithering reptiles are more likely to be bitten and poisoned to death. Likewise with fear of the dark (we can't see as well as potential predators with night vision) and fear of spiders (most of which are poisonous, though few are poisonous enough to kill us).

There's a reason people don't take Freud seriously anymore. (The real question is, why did people ever take him seriously to begin with? Is seeing everything in sexual terms so appealing that it makes us forsake common sense?)

I haven't figured out exactly what it is about public speaking, most peoples' number one fear, that makes it so nerve-wracking. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when there are that many people all looking at you, it means you're in danger somehow. (In the hunting and gathering days, the only reason for everyone to be looking at you at once was because they wanted to hunt you down. Or maybe because a mammoth was about to stomp you.) But I'm not sure.

On the few occasions in the past twenty-five years when I've had to give a public speech, I've found that having a drink ahead of time puts me just where I want to be. The problem is, that heady combination of exuberance and dulled nerves from a drink tends to last only an hour or so, whereas a cross country flight lasts the better part of six hours. Staying drunk for that period of time would almost guarantee air sickness, which would make the flight unpleasant for one's seatmates as well.

Speaking of drinking, our return flight was on New Year's Day, and I found myself wondering if the pilots had attended a party the night before. I never got a glimpse of them, so I had to wonder for the entire trip. But the return flight was smoother, so their possible hangovers didn't loom as large.

There were no turbaned men on the return flight, as there had been on the flight out, so neither was that an issue. (9/11 sure didn't help my phobia any.) I find myself more than happy to go through airport security these days. In fact I would willingly undergo a cavity check if I knew everyone else -- especially those turbaned men -- were checked equally thoroughly.

Being back on solid earth, is, of course, wonderful at first, even if you're a little discombobulated and suffering from third degree rump-itis as you stumble towards baggage claim. But it's a little like getting your braces off -- you look forward to it intensely, but when it happens, you forget about it shortly thereafter.

Unless you're short of subjects to write about on your blog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


There is a valid reason for putting your head between your legs if a plane is about to crash. The reason is, so you can kiss your ass goodbye!