Monday, May 7, 2018

The Joy of Flying

Just kidding. This post is about Flugangst - flight fear.

In a few days I will be flying to the US for the first time in two years, and to Wisconsin for the first time in three. The occasion is my son's college graduation, and I am looking forward to seeing my kids and parents, some of the rest of the family, and friends.

I am not, however, looking forward to the flight, to say the very least.

I'm glad I don't fly Delta anymore, because I really hate landing in Atlanta
and being screamed at by personnel speaking Suth'rn.
It's not the fact that I'll have to scrunch myself into a spot fit only for small children in a straight jacket, or the length of the long flight from Zürich to Chicago (8 hours? 10? I don't know; I didn't bother looking.), or the fact that the asshole passenger in front of me will recline his seatback whether he's sleeping or not and will flash me the side eye when I ask him nicely if he would mind putting his seatback up during meals, or the diabolically filthy stench of the airplane toilets, or the other passengers who will annoy me in a thousand ways, beginning with speaking.

It's mainly the fact that I never took physics class and simply do not believe that tin can of a deathtrap with wings should be able to do what it does. I do not assume I am going to make it to the other side alive. I'm glad every time I do, and I'm not kidding when I say that the first thing I do after I pry my claws from the arm rests after landing and feel the plane begin to slow down (the first sign to me, after a multi-hour flight, that we might make it) is to whisper "Thank you" - to the pilot, God, mother nature...whomever I think might be listening.

I was not always afraid to fly. My dad had his pilot's license when I was a teen, and he took me on several flights in a 4-seater over our town, and on one flight over Lake Michigan to a wedding. I flew to Germany for the first time at age 17 and thought the feeling of taking off was really cool. I have flown back and forth between Europe and Chicago 31 times before this, a few times from Wisconsin to Florida in my earlier years, and since moving to Germany I've flown to Scotland and Berlin twice, Vienna, and Rome. So it's not like I'm an inexperienced flyer.

The above photo was taken during one of those death-defying turns when I do not understand why the plane doesn't keep flipping and just fall out of the sky.

Flying is a necessary evil for someone who lives six time zones and an ocean away from her family. And evil it is. If God had meant us to fly, He would have made us birds.

I don't know when the fear started, but it was definitely after I had kids. From that point on I had two someones who needed me, and I started to take mortality a bit more seriously. By now I'm just enjoying life so completely that I'm not ready for it to be done. I know I have no control over that moment. But I have far less control in a frickin' airplane! Frankly, I prefer the illusion of having at least a little control.

This is where I like planes - on the ground.
I always hope there are no children near me when I fly, not only because children on airplanes are usually even worse than their parents with regard to behavior and noise, but because I don't want to be responsible for the expansion of their vocabulary while they listen to me curse like a drunken sailor whenever there is the slightest turbulence. Seriously, one thump, and the "Fuck!" is out before I can bite it back. The repertoire of colorful language expands with each thump, bump, and air pocket plunge. I only hope the Almighty believes me when I look heavenward and offer a terrified apology for misusing His holy name before beginning anew.

Flying to and from Scotland with M is generally less problematic. The flights are short, and he's with me. "If we go, at least we go together, Luv!" as his English grandmother used to say to her husband.

Statistics only help when my loved ones are flying. I track their flights and am not afraid they won't make it. I get it that flying is statistically safer than driving - perhaps especially in our area, where I swear there is a fatal or near-fatal automobile, truck, or motorcycle accident nearly every week.

Plane crash dreams hardly even freak me out anymore because they're so common. Usually I'm watching the plane that crashes, but in the latest one from a few weeks ago, I was on the plane. I remember thinking, as the plane tipped like at the top of a rollar coaster drop, "Well, that's it then. I'm surprised I feel so calm."

Don't worry if you ever have to sit next to me on an overseas flight. Except for the barrage of profanity during turbulence and the shimmies and shakes of take-off and landing, I generally try to pretend I'm not terrified.

A few years ago I booked a flight for my dad and M with a pilot in the Wisconsin town where I then lived. The pilot was a former student of mine and the son of a good friend! The flight was over that town and then 45 miles east to fly over my hometown. I was not able to decide until the moment of boarding whether I would accompany them or not. My mom, who stayed on the ground because there was only room for four, captured my moment of indecision after peeking into the tiny box I'd be sitting in:
I believe my thought at that moment was,
"Are you f-ing kidding me?!"
I did go, and I'm glad I did, though the men enjoyed it more. They got some great photos, but with every turn I buried my face in M's shoulder, and I think I bit him once.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin from above
If it weren't for the take-off, the landing, and the turbulence, I'd be fine with flying. I actually also hate being on boats and would never in my life go on an ocean cruise. I simply prefer my feet on firm ground.

So for the three people I'll see who are still reading my blog, know that my restrained enthusiasm isn't because I don't want to come to the States or see you. It's because I am terrified to fly. The only thought that has ever helped me calm down a little during turbulence was, "At the moment, we're not crashing. So everything right now is actually ok."

I thought perhaps writing this blog post would help "get it out" and untie the knot in my stomach, but it didn't. Darn.


  1. Anonymous8/5/18 14:12

    I wish I could reassure you with more than words. I've been reading your blog for more than 18 months, and your words have brought me insight, reassurance, and humor regarding this huge leap in our lives. (We moved from the Midwest to Stuttgart in July last year.) So I'm returning the favor.

    I literally am a Rocket Scientist. My Aeronautics and Astronautics degree is from Purdue.

    These machines work. The lift comes from air rushing faster over the top of the wing than across the bottom. (A puff of air splits at the front edge, part of it goes across the curved top and the other across the somewhat-flatter bottom. Those sections of air must rejoin at the back edge, it's a property of the very existence of the physical world. In order to meet that rejoining requirement, the air across the top has to travel a longer distance in the same amount of time, which forces it to move faster than the air crossing the bottom of the wing.) That difference in speed creates a suction upward. That's how lift is created.

    You can experience the same effect by sucking liquid through a straw. You make a lower pressure (suction) with your mouth, and it draws the liquid upward.

    And the engines pushing the aircraft forward create enough airspeed to make that lift-effect strong enough to suspend the entire aircraft.(Light breeze= light lift that's not strong enough to lift the entire aircraft. Strong wind= strong lift. That's why aircraft are tied down or put in storage hangers during high ground winds.)

    Even with that knowledge, I still marvel at the seemingly-visually-impossible feat it creates. Plus, you feel every bump because there are no shock absorbers between the wing and the air (compared to a car's wheels on the road). Yes it can be unnerving, and I don't take flying lightly. I can get motion sickness in turbulence.

    Bumps and sounds have good and innocent reasons. On the ground, pilots checking the maneuverability of all the essential parts of the wings/rudder. Landing gear extending or retracting. Air pressure being equalized. Wing surfaces extending backward for more lifting power for takeoff/landing, but retracted once airborne for better fuel economy (and plenty of lift still being generated). The bells/tones you hear over the intercom alert the flight attendants of different phases of the flight, so they make the proper announcements and have time to clean up and strap in for takeoff or landing.

    I searched in vain for a video that would explain each sound as it happened. I know there are courses one can take that give that information. If you have a friend who is a flight attendant, ask if they would do this for you (perhaps watch a takeoff/landing video together and have them explain the sounds). I also found two web sites that do a good job explaining many of the sounds:

    I hope these help. Wishing you peace of mind --LYnn

    1. Thank you for trying! I read those two articles this afternoon, and I might print one out for this flight along with your comments on how those darn things fly. My fear is more about the movement than the sounds, but every bit helps. The bit there's no help for is what I have seen/learned watching "Alarm im Cockpit" over the years - how one tiny defect in one piece of the plane can wear over time and cause major damage without warning. Freak accidents, basically, that no one can prevent. Fear is irrational. What can I say? :-)

      Nice to sort of meet you! I'm glad my blog has been helpful. Next time I say "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand this..." I'll link to your website. :-)