I loved to fly on airplanes until I was on a flight that experienced wind sheer, or something like it in the middle of a flight coming back from Mexico. One minute, the nice flight attendant was serving us all coffee and soft drinks, and the next minute the plane was diving for the ground so hard that the flight attendant was plastered against the ceiling of the plane above us. People were screaming, and then people started to pray. I had a death grip on my then husband’s hand, and the woman beside us began to recite The Lord’s Prayer in German. I don’t speak German, but I knew the rythmn of the prayer. I offered her my hand, we locked eyes, and she took my hand, because in the end, when you think it is the end, you offer a hand to the person next to you, because that’s what you do. I started saying the prayer in English with her. There were other languages reciting in the plane, in among the screams.
Then, as suddenly as it began to dive, the plane righted itself. The flight attendant dropped to the floor of the plane, shaken and covered in coffee from chest to almost thighs. She staggered to her feet using the seats to stand, some people offered her a hand. She said, “I’ve flown for six years and I’ve never seen anything like that.”
The Captain came on the speaker and said, “I don’t know what just happened, but we seem to be fine now. I’m going to keep heading for our original destination. If it happens again I’ll set us down somewhere closer.”
The rest of the flight was perfect, other than the crew kept commenting to the passengers about it. When the flight crew is saying how scared they were, and yes, thought we were going to die – you know it’s a rough flight.
I never really liked to fly after that. I didn’t like how few options I had if things went critical. Fast forward a couple of decades and another flight, this time for a book tour. We took off, and there was a loud mechanical knock that shook the plane a little. It happened just as the landing gear went up, so I thought that had gotten stuck. I’d researched planes by then in a vain attempt to get over this phobia and I did not want a belly landing for the plane – I really didn’t. I prayed, just let the landing gear work. Like many times in my life, I should have asked Deity for more.
The plane never gained much altitude. I’ve flown out of St. Louis a lot, and this was not how you did it. We barely cleared some trees and then it was too quiet. I realized, we’d lost an engine. But I also knew that this type of airplane could fly with the engines it had left. We were okay, but we never gained the sky, not really, we were too low and we began to circle back towards the airport. “Please, let the landing gear work,” I whispered, and then the smoke began in the cockpit. They had to open the door to keep the smoke from filling the cockpit so I could see white smoke and them using a fire estingquisher on the general direction of the smoke inside the plane. More smoke began to come out of the engine that had ceased to function, when I say we lost, I don’t mean it fell off, it just stopped working, and now apparently it was on fire. Perfect. Now, did the landing gear work?
We got lower and lower, people were beginning to freak, and the Mississippi River was there way closer than I wanted it to be. I started praying, “don’t let it be a water landing, please not the river.” I don’t know why, but that thought really scared me. But we made a runway; yay!
They taxied the plane to the far reaches of the airport. People were asking, “Why aren’t they taking us back to the terminal?” “Why are we in the empty part of the airport?” Here’s where too much research can hurt you: I knew why the plane was sitting in the middle of no man’s land. We were still on fire, or they thought we were and they won’t take the airplane near the terminal and endanger more people until they’re sure it won’t blow up. The fire trucks and ambulance came whirring towards us and stopped at a safe distance. Each airport only has so much equipment, and again they aren’t going to risk it getting blown up with the airplane. Finally one smaller truck drove slowly by us, while other passengers asked, “Why aren’t they letting us off?” It was like you were bleeding in the Emergency room and the doctor walks by and says, “You look fine,” and just keeps on walking. Finally they started spraying the plane with white foam, which meant they thought we weren’t going to blow up – Yay!
I still don’t have the words for how relieved I was to step off that plane and be back in the airport in St. Louis. My first thought was, “I’m going to have whipped cream!” Because I’d refused to get a rich, creamy Starbucks coffee drink (Lets just call them what they are, a coffee shake), I’d been all virtuous and not gotten the extra whipped cream I’d wanted and after the adventure we’d just had my first thought was that damned whipped cream, so I went to Starbucks and paid full price for a cup of whipped cream. Yes, the barista was confused.
I don’t know what it said that the first thing I thought after I realized I was safe was something sweet and creamy, maybe it means I don’t drink. It would take six and a half hours to get another plane and arrive in Chicago where the next tour event was scheduled for the next day. I could have driven faster, but I got there and the tour went on as scheduled, but the whole plane on fire thing didn’t help my fear of flying, though weirdly I hadn’t panicked either during or afterwards. I think I’m always more surprised that nothing goes wrong when I fly, so when something happens it seems like, “Oh well, of course.” Either that, or I have nerves of steel and I don’t think that’s it.
So, my fear of flying is trauma based according to the therapists I’ve seen about it, and phobias that originate in trauma do not respond to typical phobia therapy. In fact, I saw my current therapist before we left and she had no strategy to share that I hadn’t heard before, so I’m stuck with being afraid of flying. I could live my life without flying, but that would mean most touring for my books wouldn’t happen. You guys wouldn’t see me much, at all, but I could do the whole recluse thing, I guess. But . . . there are places in the world that I want to see that flying makes possible.
I’ve seen Rome and stood in the beautiful ruin of Palatine Hill, I’ve stood in the museum hush of St. Peter’s with all the mummified pope bodies with their begging boxes next to some of the most amazing architecture in the world. I was finally able to weep for my grandmother’s death in Milan at the Basilica at the Mary altar with it’s hundreds of candles. Paris is actually as romantic as its supposed to be, which I didn’t think was possible. Having my husband, with me may have influenced me on that, but it really is a beautiful city. We found the Parisians friendly and happy to help as we spoke our few words of French to them. Apparently my pronunciation of French is really terrible, but they appreciated my effort. Jonathon’s accent was so good that if I kept my mouth shut no one realized he didn’t speak the language even better than he sounded. He has a real ear for languages and I seem to be tone deaf unless I’m singing.
I’ve stood on the white sand of a tropical beach and seen the ocean roll out to the offing until sky and water merged into one blue line. I love the warm ocean spread in turquoise, and aquamarine waves. It’s like magic to this midwestern girl. It was so worth the planes rides to get to spend weeks staring out at that view while I finished my latest book.
If I wasn’t willing to get on a plane I couldn’t go back to England and do my first ever signing in London on August 8! I’m so excited to sign books for all you patient fans across the pond. You’ll have another chance at seeing me on panels at Nine Worlds Con on August 9th. This is your chance to see me in person and hear what you’ve been missing at the American conventions I attend. There will be other great writers on the panels with me, as well. I’ve been to England twice before, once on a family trip with our daughter and Jonathon’s parents. If I hadn’t faced my fear of flying I’d have missed Trinity when she was so small she could curl up completely in the Devil’s Seat at Avebury, or climbing the Tor together, and having tea at the Abbey Tea Room across from the Abbey Ruins at Glastonbury. Hampton Court was fabulous and the Tower of London is a must see! The British Museum is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. We’ve had two days there on different trips and we’ve only seen portions of the treasures inside each trip. The sun really didn’t set on the British Empire.
As we prepare to fly back across the pond, I’m just as scared as I was last time, but I know that it’s worth the it. Every time I’ve gotten on a plane the destination has been worth the trip. I just have to hold onto that thought and keep moving forward. Somehow we missed Stonehenge both times, so maybe this time.