I am afraid of flying. I am frightened whenever I get on an airplane. This is a strange thing for a person who flies as much as I do. I mean, I live on a remote Alaskan island, no roads on or off with a ferry system decimated by politicians who view us as chess pawns. It’s a strange thing for someone who made his living as a foreign aid worker, constantly flying from place to place.
The night before flying I take an anti-anxiety tranq. I often take one during the flight. I have good reason to feel uneasy when I get into that tin tube. When I was 17, I watched stuff fall off the engine pod of our prop driven Super Connie. It dropped into the ocean off the Jersey shore. Our YMCA delegation had taken off from Wilmington-New Castle International Airport (A runway and row of Quonsets) in Delaware. We were headed for a European summer study tour. The stewardess (they weren’t called flight attendants then) said we had neglected to take on enough fuel to deal with headwinds so we were returning to Delaware to top up and for a “special treat.” We would be “ground fed” rather than having to eat airplane food. One wag in the row in front of me yelled out: “Gas ain’t all you’re missin’ lady.”
Our flight left from Wilmington-New Castle International Airport because New York’s Idlewild (now JFK) withdrew the airline’s permission to operate. We were bused down the Jersey Turnpike to Delaware and herded into a Quonset while they readied the plane, not readied it enough it would seem We took off over Delaware Bay, flew over Cape May and dropped engine parts somewhere off Ship Bottom. Back at Wilmington-New Castle International Airport were herded back into the Quonset hut where someone handed each of us a hamburger, a bag of Fritos and an orange soda. After an hour or so it was back over the Jersey Shore and out to sea. Somewhere over the Gulf of St. Laurence the lights went out, one engine sputtered and the propeller feathered. We landed in Gander, Newfoundland on three engines with no cabin lights and sat for 11 hours while they rolled some scaffolding up to the wing and worked on the engine.
We were only teenagers but somehow someone got a hold of some cheap Canadian airport whisky and we learned the advantages of self-medicating before getting on an airplane. We arrived in Europe late, I say Europe because Paris, Orly airport withdrew the airline’s landing certificate and we diverted to Brussels and bused to Paris, 36 hours late, at dawn. Instead of checking into our hostel we traded buses, were handed a baguette and set out on the scheduled tour. Someone produced several bottles of red wine. By the time we got to the hostel a third of us were hungover or just plain sick.
Since then, I have walked away from a plane wreck in the twin cities when a Beach 99 landing gear collapsed on landing, the wing hit the ground, we did a loop and I popped the window over the wing and got out of the plane — fast. Then there was the flight from Minneapolis to Seattle where we lost cabin pressure. It was in the days before deregulation and I had a whole row of seats to myself. I was sleeping and woke when a woman wearing a respirator tried to put a yellow cup over my nose and mouth. I looked out the window, we were losing altitude, decided I was dreaming, at least that was my hope, and tried to refuse the mask and go back to sleep. Suzi, who was across the isle remembers shouting “stop fighting and put the damn thing on.” I woke up. The bag did not inflate.
Then there was the flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam. I had just finished an AID stint in South Sudan. The Flight Attendant announced that one of the door seals had not seated correctly, we were slowly losing pressure and after doing a scenic 180 around Mt. Kenya were heading back to Kenyatta Airport. We landed in a 747 with a full load of gas and blew ALL the landing gear tires at once. I come by my fear of flying honestly.
But I do fly, and at times I enjoy it, especially on the Alaska Airlines “Milk Run” up and down the coast between Seattle and Anchorage, the plane making stops in towns along the way with enough take offs and landings to allow a fine view of our coastline.
And anxiety does not stop me from flying for entertainment. I’ve made a glacier ski plan landing on Denali and flown over the Nazca Lines in Peru. My friend Dave was celebrating his 75th birthday and we went flightseeing together with Alaska Seaplanes and an experienced bush pilot. I did take an anti-anxietant the night before and I was nervous climbing into the back seat of the Cessna 206 aircraft but, as with every flight I have taken so far, it was worth it. Even the bad ones have given me stories.
Here are some pics.
For more pictures of this flightseeing trip, ones flying over the Kruzof Island volcanic field, please click here.