Come Fly With Me

ELEANOR PEHUWJ is the author of several travel articles which have appeared in our Pleasures and Plates section. She is engaged in magazine writing and work in New York.

I am terrified of flying. Not just a little nervous, not uncomfortable, and certainly not airsick, just terrified —out of my wits, or senses, whichever you prefer. I am worried about that thin trickle of oil on the wing, the tuning of the No. 2 engine, the black case that the little old lady in the third seat from the end is carrying (remember the boy who blew up a whole planeful of people just because he wanted to collect Mama’s insurance?), and the bell that has just rung sharply from the pilot’s cabin. I don’t like the bumping, and then I have this little private superstition that if somebody gives me flowers before I leave, which someone did. . . In fact, I need another phenobarbital and possibly a drink — not, you understand, of water.

Is this my first flight? It is not. I started in those modest little crates that, before World War II, used to ferry you from Paris to London. Flying boats came next, taking off like ducks but with much more noise. I have flapped over the mountains of Central America in DC-3s (oh, yes, I know they won the war); I have hurtled the Atlantic in Constellations that looked like silver serpents and subjected one to such preposterous experiences as suddenly being asked to eat breakfast in Iceland. i have flown in super-Gonstellations, DC-7Cs, and turboprops that screamed like banshees. It has been a long quarter of a century. And now jets. Well, enough’s enough. And don’t tell me they fly at between 30,000 and 40,000 feet, because it is not the kind of thing I want to hear at all. I have been looking all my life for an airplane that would fly at about 10 feet.

The trouble is, one can’t admit to being afraid of flying. Society, which offers aid and comfort to alcoholics, homosexuals, dope addicts, and kleptomaniacs, is cool to airophobes and hostile to what ails them. Being afraid to fly docs not make you interesting. It just makes you a square, lucky to meet another such with whom you can compare notes at a dinner party ("the most ghastly thunderstorm, and you can imagine what I felt”) because you will never by any chance meet him on a flight. Clearly, the airlines have some sort of radar for screening out Yraidy cats, to whom they apply this rule: Never let two travel on the same plane. The theory must be that they would egg each other on in, say, an attempt to assault the pilot with the demand that they be returned to La Guardia. If so, the airlines arc misinformed. Most of us are glued to our seats by a variety of subfears, of which the most tenacious is that any commotion will make the bottom of the plane fall out. We would do anything rather than disturb the fragile mechanism which has us at its mercy.

Flying is, therefore, almost unique among fear-engendering experiences. Unlike war, surgical operations, dangerous scientific experiments, or childbirth, it must be undertaken on the strict understanding that you are not eligible for public sympathy. Your triumphs — an Atlantic crossing during which you never once screamed, the finding of Nantucket after twenty cloudy minutes when it obviously was not there, the landing in Guatemala City through a sort of wind tunnel between two very large volcanoes — arc as private as death. They exclude your family, who are excluded anyhow. People who are afraid of planes never marry each other, and airophobia is not inheritable. The parent who is afraid of flying has merely discovered a new way of making himself ridiculous. (“Golly, Ma, what’s the matter with you?”) One person, of course, does understand: your psychiatrist. He knows exactly why you are afraid to fly, and you will not like it when you hear it.

What are the airlines doing about this portion of their audience who fly in fear — or not at all? Well, something, but not enough. Food, for instance, is served in delicious, stupefying quantities, especially by the foreigners. Frightened people need food, as any army knows. Also drink, which is another matter that ought to be straightened out. The sovereign state of Georgia, for example, says it is dry at 25,000 feet and presumably to infinity. This is clearly absurd, and the airlines should serve notice that alcohol will be supplied to nervous passengers at any altitude. Regardless.

What is mostly needed, though, is a sympathetic attitude, an understanding gleam in the eye, and the admission that one’s fears may be perfectly justifiable. I remember the cheery representative of a British airline who, noting my shaking hand as I collected my ticket, said briskly: “Nervous, what? Can’t say I blame you. I’ve a yellow streak a mile wide myself.”Now that was public relations. I went forth bold as a lion. Failing, however, such heartening honesty, I have some suggestions, which might be put into booklet form. This could be slipped into that pocket attached to the back of the seat, presently taken up with pointless promotional literature or shy requests for complaints and suggestions. It would serve the double purpose of giving the passenger something to do and reassuring him, and it might start off like this:

“Since misery loves company, let us tell you about some of the famous people who are alleged to hate flying as much as you do. Churchill is the most distinguished, but Vivien Leigh loathes it too. Stalin never flew. That was why all those conferences had to be held on Russian soil. Have you tried hypnotism? Don Newcombe, whose baseball career was being ruined because he couldn’t fly with the team, claims he was cured by a hypnotist called Joseph Edelman. We’re checking . .

This sort of thing would quickly establish a mood of confidence. It should then be easy to give out a little practical information: “The whine you hear as a Constellation rises or descends comes from the ailerons. It is not a fire truck which has been summoned to the field below.”

Or: “That flame as from an acetylene torch you see issuing from the engines does not mean the plane is on fire. It always does that at night.”

Finally, the booklet could come to grips with the real problem: What is the frightened passenger going to do with himself for all those hours and hours? It should come straight to the point. “Never,” it should say, “look at your watch. It is incredible how long it can take the minute hand to get from 1:00 to 1:10, and calculating that you have 14,400 seconds to go is no help at all.'’ It should advise the wearing of earplugs. This prevents your listening to the tuning of the engines and may stop you from hearing such nerve-racking announcements as, “We are approaching the volcano of Popocatepetl; flying at 18,000 feet. We will pass over the crater in one minute’s time.” The booklet should frankly state that serious reading is out of the question, unless it somehow manages to be more frightening than the plane itself. George Orwell’s 1984 once served me admirably in ibis respect, but there arc not many such books. The booklet should admit that it is inadvisable to look out the window. There is only one thing worse than the fleecy nothingness which is the usual view on a long flight, and that is something that might be familiar if you were not seeing ii from this appalling vantage point: the Alps, or Cape Cod, looking like a map of itself.

The advice is, so far, negative. And it is a fact that learning not to do certain things in a plane is far more important than learning to do anything. “Don’t,” the booklet might say, “try to strike up an acquaintance to pass the time. In the first place, your neighbors are never nervous — making you feel even sillier than you do already — and secondly, you may find yourself studying them for signs of the doom which perhaps awaits them.” Those who like to say that they never worry about flying because either their number is tip or it isn’t never seem to have considered that planes carry up to eighty people — and jets will carry even more.

But it is not only for these reasons that one should avoid all activity when in flight. The fact is that one is working toward a goal. One is learning a vegetable art. Yoga might help, or Zen Buddhism, if one were up to them, and future space travelers may well have to be indoctrinated to some form of meditation, with or without an object. The young man who was recently sealed for a week in a simulated moon ship got very tired of pushing buttons and soon asked the experimenters to shut off his piped-in music. Eventually he turned surly. There is no doubt about it: fear becomes ennui, the uneasy but colossal boredom of the soldier in the trench or the condemned man in the cell. Real space travelers may find this so menacing as to drive them to the reading of The Critique of Pure Reason, but that is their problem. For us frightened but short-term air travelers, boredom is the salvation, the magical release we work toward. Bored, we can stretch, yawn, look out the window, even — if the flight is longenough — sleep. Bored to death, we become that euphoric creature, the one who has just stopped being scared to death.

The sensation is glorious and very nearly worth the anguish it took to achieve it. It also takes a longish flight; on short ones, wc may arrive as terrified as we started. But see us as we step down from the transcontinental hop, the overseas jaunt. How do we feel? Marvelous. Not a tremor. With a devil-may-care smile, we collect our luggage and stroll off, looking very much like the other passengers except that we want to keep talking about how unexcitingflying really is. Jets? We can’t wait. They will be even duller. Until the moment when wc find ourselves standing once again by the exit gate, teeth chattering like castanets, waiting for the siren call of the announcer: “Will the passengers for Flight Number . . .” “Messieurs les fiassugers pour . . .” “I signori pas-

saged . . .” See us then. Or perhaps you would rather not.