Fear of Flying: Trying to Trust God at 30,000 Feet

(via istock)

Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, a memoir about flying, sits on my bookshelf collecting dust, its cover pockmarked with blood.

It is not my blood but the blood of a man who sat next to me on a flight from Phoenix to Dallas 20 years ago. I had just settled in. Others were finding seats. The book was open, across my lap. My plan was to finish it by the time we landed. The author was pictured on the cover, wearing old-fashioned flying goggles. When I think of it now I picture her looking at me with a sideways glance.

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Leveling off, the plane hit some turbulence. Routine stuff. No big deal. Then we hit more. But this was not routine: A stewardess, serving passengers a few rows ahead, shot up in the air and hung there for a second, plastered against the ceiling. The nose of the plane lifting, she dropped like a corpse. Later, I would learn, she broke her leg.  

Women screamed. Children shrieked. Debris, like artillery, filled the cabin. Somehow, despite all the noise and chaos, I could hear the stewardess, immobile on the floor, whimpering softly. Then something hit the guy next to me. A can of Coke? A pen? A bottle opener? He was on the aisle wearing a t-shirt and shorts, his leg was bloody and so was my copy of West With the Night. His blood on Beryl Markham’s cheek was like a splash of red freckles.

A stewardess, serving passengers a few rows ahead, shot up in the air and hung there for a second.

Finally, mercifully, the plane smoothed out, and the captain’s voice blared over the intercom: something about radar, that the radar was not working, that we had just collided with a “weather cell”—a what?—and were forced to rise suddenly to escape it. It seemed like an eternity before we landed in Dallas.

That was my first terror, June, 1997.

My second terror occurred four years later on Sept. 11, 2001. My wife was in New York City that day, but I was not certain exactly where. I could not get through to her. She did finally reach me—while mentally I rehearsed what to tell our kids in case Mommy did not come home.

She did come back. I am not sure I ever did—home to a safe place away from images of the walking dead wearing suits of dust and of other souls lost and leaping from unimaginable heights.

My third terror occurred December 1977—two decades before the Phoenix fight, a whole generation before Sept. 11. This one contains the sum of all my terrors. It is also more chronic than the other two. I suspect this is because it happened when I was just a young man, impressionable, unfamiliar with death. Since that night I have been trying with all my heart—with all my mind, with all my soul, as a faithful Catholic, as a member of the human race—to live peaceably with a terror that has been grafted onto me. Or I have tried to avoid it entirely, or to simply grow up and get over it. But I just cannot quite get there. Not while memories recur with greater frequency as the 40th anniversary of this one terror approaches.  

In the late 1970s, I was an undergrad at the University of Evansville in Indiana. On Dec. 13, 1977, a Tuesday night, a winter storm menacing, the Evansville men’s basketball team boards a plane for a game in Louisville. The plane takes off.  There is trouble from the start. Ninety seconds later—a crash.  

Twenty-nine dead. No survivors.  

Since that night I have been trying with all my heart—with all my mind, with all my soul, to live peaceably with a terror that has been grafted onto me.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, somebody left on the gust locks. Gust locks keep the tail’s rudder firmly in place while the plane sits waiting on the runway. If a gust of wind makes the rudder flap, this messes with the cockpit controls. The pilot had tried to fly the plane with a rudder that was frozen in place.

I knew these guys. I knew them all. That is not to say we hung out. But I knew them as anybody on a small campus knows everybody else.  

There was a time afterward when I wanted to avoid flying altogether. But I have family all over the United States. Nowadays my wife and our kids fly regularly, and fearlessly, and I am forced to choose between staying at home or joining the people I love. I have tried drugs. They make me sick. I tried a shrink. He seemed bored. I tried hypnosis but it was too dreamy.  

I need clarity. I need answers. I need answers this very second because I just boarded a plane.

I am all buckled in, the belt cinched tight. I have made sure to snag the best seat—window, immediately north of the wing, where there is less sideways movement and I can easily see the ground.  

I am a little worried about that ground, for more than standard reasons. Seeing it, I feel oriented. But the sun has set. There will not be many lights because this plane is flying west, west with the night, right over the highest peaks of the Rockies. My wife is in San Francisco on business. I love her dearly. So, God help me, here I go. Again.

I have all my traveling gear. All of it is clutched in my fists: a rosary from Bethlehem, all the beads made of fragrant rose petals; a devotional opened to a chapter titled, “Be Not Afraid”; and my list of data that shows the mathematical probabilities of my dying in a crash.  

Reading this list gives me comfort in a logical sort of way. Some data on the list are actually funny. I could fly every day, from coast to coast, without a crash for 19,000 years. Amazing. I will die from a toppling vending machine before anything truly bad happens on a plane.

I listen intently to the in-flight announcements. I count the rows to the nearest exit. I read about being not afraid. The author writes convincingly about Jesus calming the storm. If he can calm that storm then he can calm mine.

I will die from a toppling vending machine before anything truly bad happens on a plane.

The plane takes off. We poke through the clouds. They inspire a little ducking and weaving. Routine stuff. No big deal. Below me, the lights of Denver are reassuring and beautiful. But soon they recede then disappear entirely as the plane rockets toward the mountains, climbing quickly, moaning and creaking in unidentifiable ways.

I should probably fly more often, like these happy-go-luckies all around me. They are drinking cocktails, preparing to snooze or talking like they are at a high school reunion. The lady on my right opens her laptop. She flips on a movie. She looks bored to death.

Outside is now dark as the abyss. No lights for orientation. We could be flying upside down, for all I know.  

I unscrew the lid of the little plastic container that contains my rosary. I raise it to my nose. I take a deep breath. I expect the sweet smell of the roses to calm me. It does that when I am on the ground. But up here all it does is make me queasy. I decide that I could throw up.  

I study my list of mathematical probabilities. But right now they are just that: Mathematical. Sterile. Meaningless. The ducking and weaving are now shudders and shakes that inspire the image of a stewardess against the ceiling and of blood from a stranger splattering my book.

Calm down, I tell myself. You are being morbid. And the pilot, over the speaker, interrupts my thoughts. His voice is loud. It startles me.  

“Folks, we’ve got some rough air up ahead. So tray tables up. Flight attendants take a seat.” Fear grips my stomach. I look outside. Maybe I am hallucinating.  Maybe I do see pinpricks of light way out there in the distance. A lit up campus? A basketball court? Stars along the bottom of the galaxy—

As long as people exist there will be human error. It can lead to one’s first step toward redemption.

Wham.

What was that?  

Wham.

Mid-air collision?

I shoot a frantic glance at the woman next to me. Engrossed in her movie, she does not seem to notice.

Wham!

What is that? Are the gust locks are still on?

Gust locks are not part of my working vocabulary, but up here the words float naturally to the surface. I recall the news the morning after the team crashed: terrifying headlines, awful photos, lists of all the dead. One member of the team, a statistician, did not fly that night. Two weeks later he was driving a car and got killed by a drunk driver.

I grab the sick sack. I squeeze as if to choke it, as we rise and fall and rise again, a yo-yo on a string, a toy of the gods.

I am ready to scream. I am bursting to scream, my voice deep down inside of me now gaining momentum like this afternoon’s lunch.  

I picture what that would look like. I imagine what that would sound like, but what is bubbling up is not the sound of my retching. What I think I perceive are words. Only these words are not mine. Not while my teeth are clenched. I am left to assume that what I now hear is my conscience talking to me.

Aren’t you tired of this?

Y-yes I say internally, helplessly.

Aren’t you just sick of it?

Yes, I’m sick! I could fill this bag!

Then when are you going to trust?

Trust? I’d love to trust! But this plane is—

Ignore the plane.

Which one?  

The one that’s been tormenting you for 40 years.

How do I do that? I live with that plane. All those young men, all their coaches. I could recite each name. All dead because of a gust lock? You’ve got to be kidding me. One little error. So much pain. That punishment does not fit that crime!

Human error has existed since Eden. As long as people exist there will be human error. It can lead to one’s first step toward redemption.

This voice, this conscience, this whatever it is, drifts off as the voice of the pilot returns. “Folks, keep those seat belts fastened!” And, hearing this, I picture the plane from overhead as it assumes in my mind the image of a cross, its crossbeam nailed to a post.  

I lean against the window and the wall that surrounds it, mentally hugging it with all my might. I begin to feel, finally, after all this time, something like peace spreading tentatively, from way up here, and to the ends of the galaxy.

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