My junior year of high school, I wanted to visit my sister for my spring break. She was away at college in Minnesota and my mother, my main mode of transportation, decided to travel to see her mom. So I found myself faced with a solo trip. I selected to take the Greyhound bus. From Ohio. Cue an almost all day excursion.
Yes, my folks might have put some money towards a plane ticket. If not, then I could have swung it from my babysitting and summer job fund. Yet I did not, could not, because of my fear of flying.
How does a fear develop about something you’ve barely done? How does the brain circle around and create doomsday scenarios without any basis of fact? Before that trip, I’d flown twice to South Carolina. I remember the first was on Eastern Airlines and that the flight attendant gave me pin-on wings.
I also remember the hot tears streaming down my cheeks and the feeling that my head would explode. My mom gave me chewing gum and instructed me to yawn. None of those tricks relieved the pressure within my blocked ears.
I don’t remember any turbulence, unexpected bumps or weather-related conditions. There was nothing concrete to pin the fear to yet there it landed, festered and grew. My concept of a good travel destination was to confirm we could get there by car.
When I stated working and found I needed to take flights for the job or to be able to fit in vacations outside of quick driving destinations, I resisted flying in the winter, balked at small planes and white-knuckled all the way–unable to sleep, eat or read.
Then on August 25, 2001, Aaliyah Haughton died while returning on a chartered plane from a video shoot in the Bahamas. My mom called to tell me she’d heard a singer had died and I turned on CNN to see the announcement running across the bottom of the screen. I remember sitting up in my bed with my hand over my mouth, then saying over and over, “oh no.” I’d first seen Aaliyah when she performed “My Funny Valentine” on Star Search in the ’80s and became a fan by her first album in 1994.
My heartbreak at learning of her death was as much tied to her being only 22 as it was to the way she died on that plane. Rumor is that she was a nervous flyer too, but did it as a requirement for existing in the fast pace of the entertainment world.
As I sat there in my bed and flicked channels then headed to my computer to learn every detail I could, I played the thought over and over in my head of her on that plane. Of the fear that someone must feel when they realize a takeoff has gone wrong. The grip of the gut as a plane loses altitude. The pain and destruction of impact. I thought about her fellow passengers on the flight and if they had a chance to say anything to each other. And I thought about the words of prayer they all might have offered.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, KJV)
And it was there, in that moment, that I faced my fear. I thought it was crazy at first, to find a sense of personal understanding from the tragedy. Yet in her death, I reflected back on myself at 22 and the years I’d been able to enjoy since. I thought about the difficult flight I was on out of Tampa a few years back and how I made it through. I thought about Aaliyah’s courage to get on those small planes again and again. I thought about my spiritual beliefs and how if I truly had faith, I’d know I would be okay regardless of what the plane did.
Now, the majority of my trips involve a flight. Once I even flew roundtrip from Phoenix to Laughlin in a four seat plane with my best friend’s husband at the controls. When I fly, I say a silent prayer as we board and takeoff and then say “thanks” when we land. In the middle, I watch a movie if offered, read my Kindle or a book, eat snacks I’ve brought on board or doze off as my iPod spins on random play. And I think of Aaliyah and her strength and know it will be alright.
What are some of your fears? Have you found the courage to face them through the experiences of others?