On Solid Ground: Conquering a Fear of Flying

“You’re going to be okay, right?” my husband asks. It’s probably the panicked look on my face that tips him off to the fact that I am very far what would be described as “okay.”

I’m standing on an airfield, hugging myself against the cold March air, watching my flight instructor perform the pre-flight checks on the small Cessna plane in which I’m about to fly. I’m trying to concentrate but I really just want to run away – $100 deposit be damned. The sun is shining but a frigid wind has picked up, along with my hopes that we’ll need to postpone, but instructor Scott says it’s safe for us to fly, so I reluctantly lift my foot and step into the cockpit.

I wasn’t always afraid of flying. There was no traumatic event that flipped my fear on like a switch, but within a few years faint apprehension had progressed to full-on panic attacks. Every flight required Xanax; every ascent finished with my husband’s shirt soaked from my tears or my own fingers numb from gripping the armrests. And so my husband proposed that a lesson in the mechanics of flight might help me better understand that getting in a plane did not equate to gambling with my life.

I settle into my seat, put my headphones on and check my microphone. The cockpit is tilted towards the sky; I can see cloudless blue above but I can’t see the runway directly in front of me. The dashboard is full of knobs and gauges that I can’t decipher and I’m having trouble catching my breath. Scott explains what each button does, but I’m barely listening. The only thing that registers is when he says, “If I say ‘my controls,’ you let go immediately.” My legs start to shake and I realize: this is the first flight I’ve taken without Xanax in three years.

Scott pushes and pulls various knobs and then I do the same, watching the needles on the gauges spin. He flicks a switch and the engine starts. I feel the plane bucking slightly beneath us, but Scott’s feet on the brakes hold it in place.

He explains how to turn and stop the plane using the floor pedals and I struggle to control my legs and follow his instructions. Press down on the right pedal to turn right, now tip my toes forward on both to brake. My feet feel numb but I manage to clumsily maneuver the plane to the runway.

“Okay, let’s go!” Scott says. “Release the brakes, hit the gas, and when I say so, lift off.” I relax my feet and the plane begins to coast. I depress the gas knob and the propeller spins faster, faster, until I can no longer see the dual blades. We gather speed and when Scott gives his cue, I pull the controls back slowly and we’re airborne.

Jumbled thoughts start ricocheting around my brain. I’m flying a plane! ….Wait, how hard am I supposed to pull back? ….How do I know when to stop pulling? …Why didn’t I ask these questions before?! A gust of wind grabs the plane and yanks it sideways. The left wing drops and the horizon line tilts sharply. I panic, shouting “Your controls! Your controls!” I recoil from the joystick, throwing my hands up like I’m being mugged.

The plane’s nose dips forward slightly and we begin to lose altitude, but before the crash scenario I’d been dreading plays out, Scott steadies the plane almost immediately and we resume our climb. I’m not as quick to recover. “I’m so sorry, but I’m too scared,” I whisper. I focus on breathing and try not to cry as we fly over the blue shimmer of Lake Michigan. The ground looks so far away.

When we turn back towards the airport, I realize it’s “now or never.” I’m terrified, but I have to try. All I can think about is how ashamed I’ll be to have made it up here, and then been too scared to fly the plane. I don’t want that regret.

“I can do it,” I say, more to convince myself than Scott. He releases the controls and I freeze, afraid any movement of my hands will send us crashing into the houses below.

At Scott’s urging, I press down on the right pedal and carefully shift the steering. The right wing dips just a little and we turn, forming a wide arc in the sky. We line up with the runway and I relax as Scott guides the plane in for landing. I grow calmer as the earth gets closer and finally smile as the wheels hit concrete.

My husband assumes the smile comes from conquering my fear, but he’s mistaken. I’m proud that I challenged myself and relieved to have succeeded (if only partially), but – more than anything – I’m just happy to be back on solid ground.

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