I used to love to fly. When my parents divorced they began living in two different cities, and I often flew unaccompanied between them. The flight attendants always gave me a little pin for my shirt, and toy planes to play with. I recall that on one flight, the weather soured as we approached Houston, and we had to circle the airport in turbulence waiting for a break in the storm and an opportunity to land. Inspired, I flew my little airplanes in front of me saying, “Reeowwwwrrrrr, COMING IN FOR A CRASH LANDING!” Repeatedly. Only the fear of willing their own death with me kept my cabin mates from praying for my demise. Adorable child that I was.
I was a confident flyer.
And then in my early 20s I had to fly (on a very tiny plane) to take care of funeral arrangements for my mother. Hours after I learned of her death. For the first time, flying was hard. I was acutely aware of my mortality.
And, for a long time after my mother’s death, my mortality hung out with me constantly. And it was accidentally linked to planes because of the whole “mom dying” experience.
A few years later I flew to Japan. International flight. Everyone packed in tight. I scored a center seat located three rows behind a woman who was wrapped in a blanket and coughing the entire flight. I had just seen Outbreak.
I actually survived the flight to Japan, but on the way back we had a difficult landing in San Francisco. First, because when you fly into San Francisco from Japan, it looks like your landing in the surf. Second, because the wind shears coming off the ocean are un-fun. And third, because it was raining, the pilot landed us on the runway like a sledge-hammer. It was one of those landings where people who never cuss yell “FUCK!” and “HOLY SHIT!” And hug their kids a little tighter when they get home.
And then came 9/11.
After that my fear of flying got a little out of hand, but I love to travel, so “ain’t nobody got time for that!”
I provided my own therapeutic intervention. I studied up on how to survive a plane crash by watching documentaries about air disasters. (MAKES TOTAL SENSE.) Which means… I sit in seats on or near the wing (to increase my chances of survival). I count the number of seats to the nearest exit. I listen for the wing mechanics I’ve long since memorized. I keep my seat belt on at all times. I listen for the landing gear to properly deploy.
I use what I learned from television to control what I can, and I leave the rest to God.
It works. I’m a fairly confident flyer.
Although, if there’s turbulence, this is all useless. I resort to deep breaths and prayers to God. A very specific prayer I’ve designed over the years to keep me from imagining the worst and accidentally manifesting the crash I’m trying to avoid.
Oh, and I never text “See you on the other side,” or any similar message, to my family before I get on a plane. I’m very specific. “SEE YOU WHEN I LAND IN AUSTIN.” Again, I want to manifest the right thing.
My approach is ‘major league sports superstition’ meets ‘Rain Man.’
So this weekend, I flew on a series of tiny planes in and out of mountainous regions. (We’ve all seen Alive. You can’t unsee, Alive.) I was on the last leg of my travels, on the tiniest plane yet, but feeling good.
I was talking to the young pregnant woman next to me about
motherhood. She was pondering how she was going to handle taking care of a child in a medical emergency, like a broken bone. Moms, you remember “worry” period of pregnancy, yes? I told her everyone responds differently. But that somehow, I manage to be super naturally calm in these situations. I bet she’ll be fine too!
The words are still hanging in the air as we descend on Austin, when the pilot comes over the intercom and says, “mhph mhph BROKEN PLANE mhph mhph COMMUNICATE WITH FLIGHT CONTROL mhph mhph DIVERTING mhph mhph mhph.”
My coworker, two rows in front of me turns around with wide eyes and just looks at me. “WHAT DID HE SAY?” I ask her.
“The plane is broken, we’re landing in Houston.”
Queue Angie working through her mental air disaster show Rolodex. Why would we get this close and divert to another airport? 1. “Brakes” don’t work, and we need a longer runway to land. 2. Houston has the bigger fire trucks? 3. Houston has the proper response crew for what ever explosive device or individual is causing a problem?!
Everyone in my section of the plane frantically waves to the flight attendant (she’s in the front). We’re signing a high anxiety message of flailing arms and cupped ears that means, “WHAT THE HELL DID HE JUST SAY?!”
Side note. Our flight attendant looks and sounds like a red-haired Rosanne Barr. She has flower barrettes holding back her hair at each temple, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” style.
She gets on the intercom, “Our plane is broken and we’re diverting to Houston. Sometimes planes break in the air, but we can fly and we can land. I promise.”
Translation: WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!
Should I text or call my family?
“I’d like to remind everyone that your phones must stay in airplane mode.” She’s a mind reader.
We’re flying low to Houston.
I’m sweating buckets at this point. My jeans and my t-shirt are soaking wet. That’s from the panic response.
On top of that, the air conditioning in the cabin stops. The flight attendant starts passing out water to our panicking, panting, pathetic selves.
Know what fear smells like? 100 people sweating their ass off.
As she walks through with the water the pilot comes back on the intercom. “mhph mhph Houston mhph mhph mhph.”
For all I can tell, he just said, “put your head between your knees and prepare to land in Houston.”
I have my hands clasped in front of me white knuckled. “WHAT? What did he say?” I ask the flight attendant.
“I know. He talks like a gerbil, right? He says we’re approaching Houston. It’s going to be fine, I promise.”
My coworker is in front of me sitting two inches higher in her seat than she did when this flight began. Like a meerkat. On high alert. I frantically grab the seat in front of me every time the plane does anything. The pregnant woman next to me breaths through the vomiting fit she’s fighting off. I keep apologizing to her for being the absolute worst seat mate ever.
“Oh no, no problem. Anxiety is way worse than nausea.”
She’s really thinking “‘super natural calm’ my ass, lady.”
The flight attendant starts over the loud speaker, (remember, Rosanne Barr voice) “So, they’ve got us a plane already. When we land, we’re going to have to take everything off of this plane and move it to the new plane. Those of you who had us store carry on items under the plane, just wait beside the plane when we disembark, get your bag, and take it with you to the new plane.”
Yes. Comfort me with the inane details of our life post-landing. If we’re standing next to the plane, it’s not on fire. I’m buying it. I’m buying it.
We start our decent. I am a zebra on the Sarangeti. Wing adjustment? Check. Landing gear? Down. Does it stay down? Yes. Holding the seat in front of me with a death grip? Yep. Moment of truth.
Brakes and rear thrusters? Yes.
As we enter the new, unbroken, plane the flight attendant says, “It’s me the crazy flight attendant again. Welcome back.”
“Thank God it’s you!” (I will never forget this woman’s face.) Afterward, my other coworker, in the back of the plane (apparently he hasn’t seen the movie Alive) said he looked in her eyes on the broken plane and saw truth, so he knew we were going to be fine. My pupils were dilated with fear. I couldn’t see shit.
The flight from Houston to Austin was uneventful, except that I could not stop my sweat production.
When we landed I texted my husband: SAFELY LANDED. I’M TOTALLY GOING TO EAT MY FEELINGS WHEN I GET HOME. WHAT DOES TERROR TASTE LIKE?
(It tastes like a Craig size bowl of Lucky Charms. For reals.)
Oh, by the way, why does a broken plane on its final descent into Austin divert to Houston? 4. Because all repairs, great and small, are done at the “hub.”