Solo Flight to Paris: A Phobic’s Tale

Being the product of parents who came from two very different parts of the world, I spent countless hours at SFO and OAK–picking up and dropping off relatives, my Dad (who travelled weekly,) or heading somewhere with my family. I was enchanted by the cosmopolitan, sophisticated romance of air travel.  There was something magical about the electric air of purpose and anticipation at the international gates.  I especially loved watching the glamorous European women breeze through the terminal.  (Not one of them looked like one of the herd over in the Domestic Terminal, dressed in old comforters, and looking like they should have passed on that second packet of peanuts.) So chic!  I vowed to be like them.

By my early twenties, I had crossed the Pacific no less than 9 times, and had flown all over the US.  I made my first solo trip to Europe at age 23—Madrid to be exact, with only a month of Pimsleur Spanish, and not knowing a soul! (Indisputable proof that I am my Mother’s daughter.)  I made my first trip to Paris with my maverick traveler Mom just a couple years later.  Air travel was an easy-peasy way of life.

Most people can pinpoint when “it” happens.  That moment when everything changes. My once blissful romance with flying ended in 1998, as I attempted to cross the Pacific on a return flight from my cousin’s wedding.  The pink cotton candy bunnies that used to skip through my mind as I thought about flying, and for that matter while I was on a plane, were shot dead with an AK-47, by the new slimy, green, blob-like bully sheriff in town called, “Fear.”   Lulled into a false sense of security, I bought the notion that even in the “unlikely event” of an “in flight emergency,” things would play out exactly as illustrated on the eerily sticky, laminated, passenger safety instruction cards in the seat pocket in front of me.  I scoffed haughtily at the notion of disaster, with likely the same characteristic arrogance of one of the First Class Passengers on the Titanic.

Long, torturous story short, my Northwest Airlines flight blew an engine 3/4 down the runway on take off, setting off a chain reaction of events that left me terrified of flying.  At first, I  wasn’t alarmed.  It wasn’t until it hit me that our flight path takes us over the Pacific for almost 7 hours with virtually nowhere to land that I freaked. The gravity of what “could have” happened sunk in.  Thankfully, semi-rational thought intervened.  I remembered some show I had watched about the wonders of the Boeing 747 and how it could still stay in the air with 2 engines.  That show could have been shameless Boeing propaganda, but in that moment I didn’t care.

Things  did not improve when I was re-routed to a new flight. To soften the blow of being a refugee from my original flight, I was graciously given an upper deck seat.  Upper deck, miles away from the unwashed masses!  Twenty minutes into the flight, it didn’t matter where I was sitting–I was convinced we were going down.  We hit the worst turbulence I have ever experienced.   It was as if Lucifer decided to amuse himself by violently jerking the marionette strings holding up the aluminum cylinder I was riding in, as it hurdled through the air at 500 miles per hour. The other passengers who had been thus far orderly and silent could be heard shrieking in the lower deck.  Even the flight attendants, who were usually my trusty barometers, were sheet white.  With the shrieking, I could feel myself becoming unhinged.  Had part of the plane been ripped off?  Could someone see a gremlin destroying the wiring in the wings? (Yes, I was scarred by seeing that scene in Twilight Zone: The Movie.)  The rocking and rolling went on for most of the flight.  I swear I lost 10 pounds sweating and was so exhausted from terror that I passed out.   When I landed safely in San Francisco half a day later, I resolved to never fly again.

In the years since that incident, despite my proclamation, I have continued to travel. The classic phobic move of simple avoidance wasn’t an option. The siren song of European travel was just too sweet.  Like any self respecting phobic, I developed slightly irrational rituals and strategies to deal with my fear.  First, I always sit by a window.  If I can’t get a window seat, I take a different flight.

I get to the gate early, so I can take a good look at my fellow passengers.  I have no idea exactly what I am looking for, but in the wake of 9/11, I keep an eye out for possible crazies and people who I think could help me kick some ass if the need arises. Word to the wise?  Seeing people pray as if their lives depended on it, as they are about to board a plane, is a bad sign.  Take the next flight.

I immediately engage the in flight map on the seat back screen–I need to know exactly where we’re positioned in flight at all times…just in case the pilot needs my help.  Speaking of the pilot, I make a point of scanning the faces of the pilots and flight crew.  Does anyone look like they might have just had a fight with their spouse?  Do they look sober? Do they look like they are having a religious or existential crisis? If anyone looks like they might have some issues to work out on my flight, I’m out.  It would be to awesome to have clones of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and put them to work on every non-stop flight to Paris.

I have a flight uniform.  It may have some connection to  my sincere belief that if one is to meet their maker, they should have the decency to dress for the occasion. Formal? No. Neatly comfortable? Yes.  Dark jeans, black t-shirt (not a bit faded), perfectly tailored wool blazer, a freshly dry cleaned cashmere pashmina, and polished black loafers.  I always, always, always wear a watch.  I look at my watch hundreds of times during the flight hoping that somehow 5 minutes would turn into 5 hours and I would be landing that much sooner.  (The irony is that all that watch gazing probably makes me look pretty damn suspicious…)

I have a firm policy of rarely leaving my seat during the flight. Inexplicably, I operate under the bizarre idea that if I move from my seat I will immediately cause the plane to tilt to one side or the other.  Preposterous, but who cares!  My neurosis, my rules!

On occasion I have even called upon the strongest talisman of all against air travel evil–my Mom. Cheerful, funny, and prepared, she has the unique ability to keep me from going off the deep end.  With her on the plane, nothing could go wrong, and even if it did, I would have my Mommy to hold me as we plunged into the abyss.

Since “it” happened in 1998, I have survived crossing the Atlantic during hurricane season, a specific terrorist threat against my Air France flight on Christmas Day in 2003, a multitude of patches of turbulence that caused me to seriously consider the purchase of a parachute to place in my carry on, and in 2005 the wing of my United flight bursting into flames at 130 knots as I was about to take off from Charles de Gaulle in Paris.

By the time I decided to make a 5 week solo trip to Paris in 2010, I had some serious baggage when it came to flying.  That baggage was heavy and unquestionably of the phobic’s Louis Vuitton variety. Nevertheless, renting an apartment in Paris and living like a local for a period of time was a lifelong dream.  I cast fear aside as I purchased my ticket for August 31, 2010.  When I got to SFO, I felt confident.  I was excited to be on my way.  32 hours prior, I had secured an upper deck window seat on the Air France flight. ( A steal at a mere $70, available online.) Maybe my luck would differ from the last time I had an upper deck seat.  After I waved `a dieu to My Beloved and parents at security, I made my way to the gate.  I scanned the waiting area and happily determined that there were no members of Al Queda on the flight.

In the upper deck, I was seated next to a pleasant American woman and her French boyfriend.  Their presence was mildly comforting.  Before take off though, I had a “holy shit” moment.  I started to ask myself, “what the hell am I doing?” A few hours into this flight it will be dark and I won’t be able to see the ground! I am entirely on my own!  If there is an emergency, they will start shouting the instructions in French!  Will my formal French be of any use when the flight attendants are speaking freak-out French? Not wanting to scare away the nice couple next to me with my panic attack, I managed to conceal it (or at least I thought I did.) Instead of having a screaming meltdown, I talked their ears off for 4 hours until they passed out from exhaustion.  Panic did wonders for my French.  Once the American woman stopped talking, I dove headlong into conversation with her boyfriend.  Decorum be damned, this was about survival people! There is no doubt in my mind they must have thought I was on methamphetamines.

Once they were out, I was left to my phobic rituals and devices.  I looked at my watch every few minutes.  As I looked out the window, I could see the occasional lights here and there as we flew over northeastern Canada.  I was glued to the inflight map, trying to calculate whether if we went down at any given moment I could safely swim to land.  Why didn’t I just watch a movie to pass the time you might ask?  Heavens no. That would only distract me from my vigilant observation of the map.  There also seemed to be a rather suspicious correlation between me not looking at the map and a sudden increase in jostling around of the plane.  Phobic irrationality at its finest.  Up to that point there were a few small bumps, but nothing to send me into a panic.

The story changed when we started to go over the southern tip of Greeland.  Jarring bumps and dives.  I started sweating profusely.  I waited to hear the screams from the lower deck. I started thinking about the Air France flight from Rio that had gone down just months prior.  Was this pilot going to have the sense to slow the plane down in this turbulence so we didn’t break apart mid air? Had the perpetually striking Air France mechanics actually addressed the speed sensor issue that was blamed for the Rio to Paris tragedy? Could metaphorical lightning strike the same airline twice in the same year? Why was I such an idiot for booking an Air France flight!?

I looked all around me and almost everyone was asleep. How in the hell could they sleep through this?  We were going down!  My arms were completely wrapped around the under sides of the arm rests.  Why?  Why did I have to live out my dream to be in Paris?  Why couldn’t I just be a sheep and stay at home day dreaming? It would be a lot safer. I looked over at the American woman and her French boyfriend–should I wake them up?  They had the decency to be patient with me earlier.  Didn’t I owe it to them to wake them up and inform them that were were going to die?  There was not a single flight attendant in sight, so I had no barometer.  Had they decided to jump?  I began working out a plan in my mind to take a Norwegian fishing boat home if I was able to survive this flight.

Then, it stopped.   As dawn broke, I started to breathe easier.  Relief washed over me as we flew over Scotland, then down through England.  The view of Normandy as we glided over the English Channel was magnificient.  As we flew into Paris, we made a giant loop of the city, putting the Eiffel Tower clear in my sights on the right.  That view, that magic, the anticipation of living out a dream, is what I braved that crazy flight for, despite my fear and baggage.  I could see Parisian life playing out on terra firma below me.  I was ready for it.

Am I cured of my fear of flying?  Absolutely not.  Every time I get on a plane I am in crisis.  For me it is about choosing to live my life, rather than having fear dictate my existence.  Paris (and a few other things) are worth it.  N’est pas?

Elation at Landing in Paris in One Piece

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