I dream when I sleep. In these dreams, airplanes are made of glass, runways are rickety roller coasters, and when I try to hold the hand of the person sitting next to me, his face is as blank as an unused easel. Then I realize his hand is cold because he is either a crash test dummy, or he is already dead.

I don’t know about you and your dreams—or how you feel about absurdist horror—but I don’t read these as promising signs.

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You see, I’m not just a member of the 30% of flyers who don’t enjoy the bodily experience of flying. I’m among the elite 10% who will rearrange life plans when possible to avoid taking an airplane. And when I do have to fly, I’m often a mess with desperation and fear. I’ve grabbed ties, thighs, forearms, forearm hair, many, many hands, weirdly sometimes just fingers, and once the crown of somebody’s head. (I was in the aisle. There was turbulence. He was bald. It was bad.)

If I weren’t a white woman who’s been trained, in the Midwestern tradition, to smile and apologize a lot when afraid, I’m pretty sure an Air Marshal would have apprehended me long ago.

So when I saw an off-duty pilot sitting in 6A—next to my 6B—on the small commuter plane on that humid, blustery day just months before 9/11, I released a ragged sigh. I thought, as the average flyer does not: Well, at least if we get into trouble on this regional jet flying in a clearly mounting low pressure system, we’ve got an extra expert on board. (I also thought, I hope I don’t accidentally assault him.)

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I was on this tiny plane flying home to Detroit from New York City after having spent ten days trying to figure out the bus routes in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where my girlfriend had just moved. I wanted to show her I was supportive of her big attempt at the Big Apple and demonstrate, one day real soon, I could be a big girl and join her. But I never did figure out those routes. Instead, we were breaking up, and I had just spent half an hour in an airport bathroom stall shitting my brains out and self-talking my way to the gate. In the hierarchy of fears, the loss of my first big love was minor compared to what I had to mount first: the plane. I had to get back to Michigan. I had a job and a semester of college to finish. I was under deadline. I had to go right then and fast. Which meant: By plane.

But then—even before I saw the pilot’s crooked set of lapel wings and the alcoholic beverage in his hand—I thought about my mom. A licensed small-planes pilot, my mom is my least favorite person to fly with. She’ll grind spearmint gum at the edge of her molars right before exclaiming an unnerving insider-observation. “Woah!” she erupted once in the mid-90s on a puddle-jumper. “Never heard a plane make that sound before!”

My brother, who is also afraid of the big bird’s fragility in the sky, is all too familiar with my mother’s penchant for contra-comforting and her habit of oversharing hypotheses about fellow pilots’ choices. “But I get to be afraid,” James says. “She was pregnant with me when she was flying.” As if this excuses his phobia and leaves my fears comparatively inexplicable? Yeah, well, I think we all get to be afraid when Mom spouts, right before take-off, a common flight instructor’s adage from her day: “Just remember, kids, ‘Shiny side up. Rubber side down!’”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when this disheveled off-duty pilot failed to inspire much confidence. When I told him how afraid I was and offered a preemptive apology for the surprise physical contact that would likely ensue, he said, “Flying’s EASY.” He kept repeating this, emphasizing the period every time. “You just pull the controls toward you to go faster and go up, and you push ‘em away to go down. EA-SY.” He then proceeded to share that pilots in his company start off making right around $30,000 dollars a year flying the small commuter jets. They work about 60 hours a week; by leveraging healthcare benefits with pilots’ unions, airlines were trying to squeeze labor concerns right off the bargaining table. By this point, I had sucked my lips into the space behind my front teeth and was nodding indiscriminately while staring over his right shoulder, at the opaque mass of cloud that had swallowed us.

And that’s how a big fear—a phobia—works, doesn’t it? It swallows whole a vast array of niggling worries so that all sorts of anxieties collect, gather, wed, and multiply under its banner. Soon you’ve got a clusterfuck of fears not-so-happily housed under an umbrella of terror. Call it Big Fear’s Big Tent.

So it is that aviophobia contains a whole host of associated fears that your run-of-the-mill fretful flyer doesn’t actually have: For most of us, it’s not about cloud-terror, traveling, or heights. It’s not that we’re control freaks or motion-sick sensitive claustrophobes or secret agoraphobes. Nor are we necessarily suspicious of authority, hate small talk in confined quarters, or just need to be in the front seat. We’re not angsty about collaborations or funny about the limitations of free will. We’re not conspiracy theorists who think as a society we’ve collectively become Icarus itching for our comeuppance. Only a few of us are generally paranoid people with over-active imaginations who’ve cultivated an extensive mental database of doomed flights—what went down, where, under what kind of clouds, and with how many people. And only in our darkest moments do some of us think that weather is Mother Nature’s last prayer for population control and is therefore ultimately out to get us.

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So what is the phobia all about? It’s something very basic and simple, something I think we forget amid all our theories about the very real psychodynamics of our various fears that intersect under the one wide symbol of the plane. Years ago, on a flight into Albuquerque, I was able to pinpoint the real source of terror.

Before beginning our descent, one of the pilots came on over the speakers to warn us about the seven unsettling minutes ahead. When flying in from the East, he said, planes have to fly low over the Sandia Crest and then descend as quickly as they can to catch ABQ’s tarmac. We were told to prepare for shakes and pressure drops—the plane pushing hard only to let off the throttle and let go into a turbulent stream. He ended his reassurance by reminding us that there was “nothing to worry about because it’s just natural.” That’s where I kind of totally lost it. Because as far as I’m concerned, there is absolutely nothing natural about being tossed around the sky like croutons because you’re trying to descend a complicated air column of 5,000 feet in a tin can while avoiding a belly-flop into a mountain range.

Say what you want about flying: safest and fastest form of public transportation, a feat of human engineering, an accomplishment of daily collective social pacts, and the only way, if I’m lucky, I’ll ever get to go to New Zealand. Say all of these things, and you’d be absolutely right. But natural? What weird fucknuttery of modern day dogmas have you had to swallow to believe that? One could argue that a car is just a motorized, heavyset bicycle with a big-ass basket, and that as soon as we invented the wheel and learned to walk standing up, the advances of the bicycle and car inevitable. But an airplane? What technological leaps inspired the plane? Getting into a barrel and tossing yourself over the Niagara? (By the way, this is how and where flight phobia meets various needle-escalator/MRI machine/tanning bed phobias. We didn’t do these things 100 years ago, people. So, wait, why can’t our bodies be skeptical?) Yes, I know this line of thought discounts and dismisses the importance of human progress. No, the arguments behind my fear are not rational. That’s why it’s a phobia.

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Underneath all of the parsing, psychoanalyzing, and unfair pathologizing of our plane-phobia is a simple explanation: Aviophobes are afraid because flying doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t feel right. It feels wrong. And perhaps the most troubling part of the panic is not only does flying strike us as abnormal, but that everyone else around you is acting like catapulting ourselves high into the sky so that we can hurtle across miles and miles of terrain at incredibly high speeds is totally natural.

How is it that we’re asking, “Why are you so afraid?” Shouldn’t the question be, “Why would you put yourself on a multi-ton vessel to be launched into the sky by a complete stranger whose inner life you can’t even know, let alone control?”

I have suspected that flying—because of its aggressive departures and speed—is secretly about desperation, about appealing to some kind of human need to flee. I imagine it’s also a yearning for some critical distance, gaining a new purchase on each of our very earth-bound plights. But I also know that most people just think of it as an effective way of going from Point A to Point B. And so they go and go and go. But what about those of us who’d like to just go a little bit less? Or at least go a little more slowly?

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Look, it’s not that Amtrak deserves an enthusiastic customer base. (Believe me: they once abruptly ended my “California Zephyr” train in Reno and another time pulled my train car off the tracks at 4 a.m. in North Dakota for an impromptu health inspection due to a literal flood of fecal matter.) And I certainly don’t believe we shouldn’t travel. It’s that we deserve to slow down and experience the world at a rate that allows us to be in tender relationship with it. When you roll through America’s rambling backyards and industrial parks reclaimed by ragweed and porcupine grass at 45 miles an hour on a train, your thoughts open up and sprawl out. The same can be said of driving an interstate, lonely and in love with it. Suddenly the flyover feels like the real phobic state of mind. Out here, you think, is a wide and wild expanse of the heart. Nothing to fly over at all.

Or maybe that’s just my phobia talking.

Image via Shutterstock.


Molly Bain is writer, teacher, and performer. She lives in Pittsburgh near a blooming rhododendron and her sprawling hopes and dreams.

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