the suzi parker files

Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

Thanks, TSA: My Fear of Flying Is Crippling Enough Without You

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Flying does not become me.

That’s why I’ll be driving this holiday weekend. And a short distance at that.
I was in second grade the first time I flew. It was a one-way flight on Delta Airlines to Chicago, where my dad traveled frequently on business. Our journey happened because my dad had driven to Chicago and a snowstorm struck. His only option: Fly home and return to get the car once the blizzard subsided.

In the plane, I sat by the window, mesmerized by clouds and the pretty stewardesses who gave me a plastic wings pin. Oh, one day I could be a pilot, too. But I was a girl. Could girls be pilots?

“Girls can be anything they want to be,” my mom said then and has repeated more than a thousand times since.

Except a good passenger, in her case. “I’ll never fly again unless I have one foot on the ground and one in the plane,” my mom proclaimed the minute the plane landed.

She was terrified. When the pilot announced an update on the plane’s altitude, she flipped. Mom didn’t take tranquilizers, but she needed one of my uncle’s Valiums. On the other hand, I felt fearless and free. Of course, I was 8 years old and didn’t know any better.

True to her word, it was the first – and last – time my mom, who was then in her 40s, ever flew. Her fear of flying – or aerophobia – cemented itself. With the new TSA screenings and the footage she sees on television, she will likely never step foot on a plane.

Perhaps it was her fear that transferred to me. My dad certainly didn’t help matters.

He would return from business trips in the 1970s and talk about the air marshals that he met on flights. Back then, the sky marshals were plain-clothed police officers who flew planes to prevent hijackings. That system remained in place until x-ray screening equipment was made mandatory in civilian airports. My dad could get information from anyone, even if they weren’t supposed to talk to him.

“Terrorists could hijack our planes like they do in foreign counties,” he said.

That bit of intel, along with television coverage of numerous plane crashes, stripped my flying innocence. I knew too early bad things could happen. That’s how my parents operated. They never let me live in Candyland for very long without explaining its harsh realities.

In college, Australia beckoned. But I needed an anesthesiologist to knock me out in order to make the epic flight across the Pacific Ocean. Alas, I didn’t go.

I flew a couple of times in my early 20s, both to Philadelphia. The flights were uneventful until the return flight on my last visit to Philadelphia in 1996. A very jittery man from the Middle East sat across the aisle from me. Maybe he had a fear of flying, too. His friend sat right in front of him and looked equally stressed. They were fidgety and looked frequently inside their jackets.

The stories my dad had told me about hijackings haunted me. The men watched me. I watched them. Something was amiss. Suddenly turbulence hit, lightening struck all around us. While everyone else went on high alert, the two men unexpectedly appeared calm. Had the storm thwarted plans? Was my imagination getting carried away?

We landed in St. Louis and the men vanished into the crowd as I connected to my Little Rock flight. I don’t remember much about that flight except I had a couple of cocktails to calm my nerves, and Bob Franken, who worked for CNN at the time, was on the plane to return to Little Rock to cover the Whitewater trials.

I didn’t fly again for two years. An opportunity to work in a Mexican orphanage arrived, and I took it. Mexico was wonderful; flying, not so much. Still, I knew that this fear could be conquered.

Two months later, a dream trip landed in my lap – a 10-day trip to Ireland. I made a pact with myself. If I survived that trip, I would annihilate my ridiculous fear of flying.

The night flight to Ireland was fantastic. An Irish businessman entertained me with stories about his homeland as he tried to assure me all would be fine. The flight was as smooth as a nightcap.

It’s always the return trips that turn hellish. The flight from Dublin to Atlanta made me wish the airline attendant carried a tranquilizer gun. The plane had mechanical problems before it taxied off the Dublin runway. On a stopover in western Ireland, the plane was evacuated because of a bomb threat.

Finally, the plane landed safely back in the States. My pact was sealed. Aviatophobia, be damned. The airline even sent a reward for surviving the flight – a $400 voucher. It was a sign to fly again. So I did. For the next three years, I flew all over the country on jets and prop planes. Then, Sept. 11 occurred, and my fear returned.

I’ve flown a handful of times since then, but my nerves are wrecked by the time the plane lands. With TSA now reminding the country that anyone may be hiding explosives in their boxers, briefs or G-strings, that phobia is likely to remain. The realization: I’m just the kind of girl who likes both of her feet firmly planted on the ground.

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Written by suziparker1313

March 8, 2011 at 10:43 pm

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