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Perfect sense

Fear of flying


In my head I had it rationalized as to how it made perfect sense that I worked for the airlines even though I was terrified to fly. It helped, too, that in the years I had the job I discovered I was not the only flight attendant afraid to fly. There were lots of us up there faking like everything was fine as we passed out Cokes three miles in the sky. The only difference is that I dropped the act around my co-workers after I figured out I couldn't get fired for my fears as long as I was fairly reliable about showing up to face them. So when I boarded the plane for work, the other crew members were happy to let me sit in one of the jumpseats that ensured my back would be to the cabin so the passengers couldn't see the panic in my face as the plane ascended.

Because, Lord, did I hate takeoffs. I hated landings, too, but takeoffs mostly. In fact, if you were to list the things about airplane travel that terrified me the most in the order of their terrify-ability, it would be takeoffs, bad turbulence and landings. And the worst, the absolute worst, was bad turbulence during takeoffs and landings. I remember once when we were trying to land in Dublin, the plane was being tossed around and pounded so much it felt like we were all seated inside a giant plaything for a big, drunk baby. I am proud to say I was the only flight attendant not screaming in the aft cabin on that occasion. I can't explain why I didn't scream like the others except to say that maybe I felt obliged, as the senior phobic among us, to keep a sense of decorum as the others entered my world.

Still though, it made perfect sense to me that I became a flight attendant. After all, I inherited wanderlust from my father, who roamed the country hawking trailers during his intermittent periods of employment. In between those periods he would describe his travels to me in such loving detail that I'd dream of a livelihood that included travel as well.

Then, when I was 16, I fell madly in love with the bag boy at our local grocery store, who returned my affections up until the precise moment they interfered with his plans to live across the globe on a beach under a lean-to and surf for the rest of his life. He made good on his plans, leaving me behind like a little cloud of spent exhaust. I never really recovered from being considered too unworldly to accompany him, and I think that's when I made it my mission to become the kind of girl he'd consider worthy. I literally spent years daydreaming about running into him during my world travels. The most popular daydream was when I'd happen upon him in a strange country just as the police were about to drag him to the hoosegow because of a misunderstanding that only I could correct, because by then, of course, I'd be multilingual.

So then I became a world traveler and a qualified language interpreter, only instead of embarking on my adventures in a trailer like my dad, I did it in an aircraft, because what is an L1011 but a big Winnebago with wings, right? Those glorious Silver Streaks my father sold were famously fashioned by aeronautic engineers in homage to an airplane fuselage, after all, so it makes perfect sense.

Except for, you know, the terror. I never really got past that. Because I still can't fathom how a structure that outweighs an office building stays up in the air, no matter how many times pilots patiently explained it to me. For one, the explanation always entailed the necessity for a huge amount of speed, which is not comforting combined with the heaviness of us all.

"Just think of it as a bumpy road," the pilots would say to me during bad turbulence. But air is not a road. For one, roads take time to traverse, whereas air travel is accomplished in an eyeblink by comparison. I still sometimes gawk at the passengers as they situate themselves for a flight overseas, with their neck pillows, earplugs and eye masks, ready to encase themselves in a cocoon of sensory deprivation for eight hours, after which the door will open to an entirely different part of the globe. I found myself watching this and wondering why everyone wouldn't just stay home. At least there they'd experience their surroundings. It made no sense to me at all to embark on an adventure only to pasteurize the voyage out of it. At least on the road, you get to experience the journey. Then the day came when I overheard a co-worker tell a complaining passenger that the 10-minute delay we'd accumulated as we crossed the country "sure beat travel by covered wagon." I left the job soon after that, because it made perfect sense to leave an airline job when travel by covered wagon actually did begin to sound a ton better by comparison.

Hollis Gillespie authored two top-selling memoirs and founded the Shocking Real-Life Writing Academy (

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