So then…I enter the airplane with trepidation. I quickly glance at my preferred seating section by the emergency exit, but all those seats are taken!
My heart speeds up a bit. Anxiety looms.
Typically, I’m a nonchalant traveler, calmly criss-crossing the country. To me, turbulence is not terrifying – just annoying – especially if it spills my wine or makes my book too jumpy to read.
But a recent flight has shaken my confidence in the air travel industry as a whole – and, in fact, in the very concept of human flight. (That flight made me skittish as a cat on a hot tin roof — on meth.)
I sidestep passengers shoving their bags in the bins.
I trudge down the aisle, desperately seeking a seat near an exit, when suddenly I see him – A PILOT!
Sweet mother of Jesus! Sitting here in the passenger seats — a Southwest Airlines pilot in full uniform with distinguished white hair and a solid, reliable face.
I am so excited! This airline lets you sit wherever there’s an empty seat – and who better to sit next to on a plane than an EXPERIENCED PILOT? He can help me in an emergency – hell, he can even fly the plane!
I scramble over to him quickly. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Of course,” he says in a rich baritone voice, exuding confidence and reassurance. I am in love with him. He is 25 years older than me and possibly ill-suited to my temperament, but I don’t care, because if there is trouble, he will save my life and for that, I most surely owe him my undying devotion. (Key word: undying.)
After I settle in, I turn to him and say, “I hope you don’t mind my confiding that I’m a nervous flyer these days — and I feel safer sitting next to you, since you’re a pilot.”
(I want him to pat my hand, proclaim, “Don’t worry, my child, you are safe with me,” then stare straight ahead on high alert, prepared to handle the slightest jiggle or jump of the aircraft.)
But instead, he smiles and says, “Well, the key to being a good pilot is to have as many landings as you have take-offs.”
“And in my 32 years of flying, I have to admit I did have one more take-off than landing.”
“Back in ‘Nam, our chopper was taking heavy artillery ground fire, and we knew it was going down, so my co-pilot and I ejected, deployed our parachutes, and smashed down in a field – with only three broken bones between us.”
He smiles, self-satisfied, and waits for my congratulatory oohs and aahs.
But in my head, I’m thinking: Dude, we are on an airplane right now. We do not have parachutes! We are lucky if we get a pack of peanuts. We don’t even get pillows or thin scratchy blankets, with which to FASHION a parachute! Why the hell are you telling me this story?
But instead I say, “Oh, well, heh heh, I guess we’re lucky we won’t be encountering any heavy artillery on our way to LA.”
To which he replies, “Oh, there’s lots more stuff that can take a plane down other than artillery. One time, we were flying to Seattle, and suddenly the engine….”
I stare wide-eyed as he tells me a story of a near-miss in Seattle. Then he proceeds to tell me about every other mid-air mishap and dangerous take-off or landing he’s had – or heard about – in his entire 32-year career!
I keep trying to steer him away from this topic, but clearly he relishes these spine-tingling gems about missed maintenance checks, co-pilot error, disastrous weather impacts, flight crew hangovers, small cockpit fires, and the damage a 4-lb. bird can do to the engine of a 200,000-lb. plane!
It would be difficult enough to hear these stories if I were safely on the ground, in a bar somewhere, allowing the alcohol to dull the edges of these dreadful terrors.
But I’m hearing about all these airplane malfunctions and near-crashes while sitting ON an airplane, hurtling through space at 600 miles per hour!
As he speaks, I’m turning paler by the minute, trying desperately to change the subject – but also trying hard not to offend — since he is, after all, my appointed rescuer.
So I just keep consoling myself by repeating over and over in my head: But he’s alive — so he obviously survived all these calamities! And I will too!
In an effort to conclude the catalogue of horrors, I say brightly, “Well, those are amazing stories. But you survived them all! You lived to tell the tale!”
To which he replies, “Oh, but some pilots are not near so lucky. In fact, one time in ‘Nam, we had four choppers on the way to Da Nang…”
At this point, I want to stick hot pokers in my ears just to stop the flow of ghastly stories.
I am ready to jump off the plane myself right now just to escape HIM.
I can’t believe that I sought the sage counsel of a distinguished airline pilot about safe flying — only to be regaled with tale after tale of aviation catastrophes!
I clench every muscle in my body and sit, taut and terrified, for the remainder of the flight — desperately wishing for an EJECT button for my seat-mate!
— Darcy Perdu
Original Illustration for So Then Stories by Mary Chowdhury
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(Ever turn to someone for support and guidance – only to be freaked out even MORE? Like a doctor who confirms your WebMD fears? Tell your travel terror tales – or anti-reassurer stories below!)