(With apologies to Erica Jong.)
You could say that the whole dreary business began at around elevenses on a Wednesday in the spring of 1982. Occupying the aisle seat of a DC-9, parked at the Pan Am gate of Will Rogers airport in Oklahoma City, I waited to take off on a short flight to Tulsa. There, the plane would change flight crews and move on again after a short layover, carrying me back home to Virginia.
Having just spent the previous several months at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control school in OKC, I was in what might be called a delicate state of mind. I’d always been a bit of a white-knuckle flier, so the prospect of a cross-country flight was intimidating enough; but that particular terror had been heightened to an exquisite pitch by the curriculum I’d just finished.
Just about every aspect of the ATC school was seemingly designed to impart stress. Each air controller cadet competed against all, not only for a job, but also for berths at preferred towers and flight centers; yet there was never a clear-cut way to tell how you were doing in comparison with your peers. Real-time, graded air traffic exercises threw simulated planes at student controllers as quickly as they could handle them — and the simulations got faster and more crowded each week. Then, after you finished working through them at school, you went back to your apartment and re-ran them over and over with your fellow cadets, afraid to take an evening off lest your competitors steal a march on you.
The mission itself was rather fraught as well, of course. The thought was never far from our minds that once we graduated — if we graduated — we would soon be playing foosball with commercial airliners full of real, tragically squishable people. I recall one day when an instructor played us the cockpit tape from a famous airline accident, the wreck of TWA 514 near Dulles Airport in 1974 — a crash for which Air Traffic Control was partly responsible.
It was eerie and surreal to listen to the banter among the men in the cockpit, knowing they were about to die along with 89 other passengers and crew on a snowy Virginia mountaintop. Every time we heard a beep — cockpit tapes include a beep once each minute to mark the passage of time for forensic purposes — we knew we were sixty seconds closer to witnessing the awful dénouement. Mercifully, out of respect for the dead, our instructor turned off the tape with a few seconds remaining before the end, to the evident relief of all. He’d made his point about the responsibilities that came with the job.
Not that I would necessarily have to worry about such responsibility, mind you. By graduation time, I was undeniably in trouble; I’d made mistakes in several of the simulations and lost a lot of points. Desperately needing and wanting the job, I was nevertheless a candidate on the bubble.
Fear of Flying, part 1
Graduation itself was the biggest mind-fuck of all. That morning of the last day, the administrators assembled all of us in a big auditorium, where we sat… and sat. Thirty minutes. Forty-five. An hour — and not a peep from anybody in charge. Finally, a bespectacled member of the computing priesthood emerged on stage to let us know there were “technical difficulties” in calculating the class ranks. Could we go away for a while and come back after lunch?
After a food-free lunch, which a group of us spent taking a cautionary tour of the NTSB wreck yard adjacent to the school, we reassembled in the auditorium — and the waiting began again.
At length, an administrator came onstage to begin reading out the names of the Quick and the Dead. That wasn’t quite how they phrased it, of course. “The following people please report to the travel office,” the man said — and we somehow all understood that those unfortunates would be… the Dead.
Four or five names into the roll call, it became clear that there would be no apparent order to the list: it wasn’t alphabetical; it didn’t go by individual class groups. There was no anticipating who would fall next into the line of fire. As each name was tolled, the victim would grunt and slump in their seat as if they’d taken a bullet. Months of work with nothing to show for it. No job, just a ticket back to the Reagan recession.
Three names from our class were called in quick succession, and the rest of us breathed easier, figuring we’d cheated the hangman… until a dozen or so names later, when three more of our own were taken. And on it went, through the entire roll of the doomed. The excruciation came to an end only when the speaker announced, “The rest of you please remain in your seats.”
And the auditorium went wild.
Now it was the next day, and I was seated in my economy row, still a basket case and just hoping to survive the trip home. Shortly before the doors were shut, a pleasant looking fellow about my age strolled down the aisle. Though I didn’t recognize him, he might have been a cadet from another ATC class. Or he may have been Satan; sometimes it’s hard to tell.
“Wow, this is really an old one,” he declaimed, giving the cabin a long look.
“Beg your pardon?” I asked as he took the middle seat beside me.
“This old DC-niner!” He said it as if it were the most wonderful thing he could imagine. “Looks about a hundred years old. Look at the paint peeling off the wing,” he continued, pointing out the window.
Thanks ever so much. “That’s fine, I — I’ll take your word for it.”
“I was in a plane like this one time when an engine flamed out,” he plowed on. “It might even have been this same plane! I tell you, with only one engine left, I was terrified. I thought I was gonna die young for sure.”
There’s still time for that, I thought, wondering if his seatbelt was long enough for me to choke him with it.
Eventually, the cheerful emissary from Hell quieted down, and it was time for the flight attendants’ “safety” demonstration.
I don’t know about you, but on every flight I’ve ever taken, I have wanted to call bullshit aloud on the whole safety briefing concept. It’s like if, every time 7-Eleven sold a lotto ticket, they had to give the customer a short seminar on how to spend their future winnings. The likelihood just doesn’t seem quite to justify the effort, if you follow me. It’s especially ludicrous on international flights, where you might get the briefing in two or even three languages. C’mon, by now I could have been above 10,000 feet, and self-medicating with my first vodka from the beverage cart!
If there absolutely has to be a safety briefing, I personally think it should go something like this:
Thank you for choosing Acme Airlines. On behalf of the flight crew, I’d like to say that like you, we’re all hoping malign fate won’t decide to kill us on this trip.
In case you flunked sex education, be advised that your seatbelt can be fastened by inserting the tab into the slot as shown. We recommend that you keep your seatbelt fastened throughout the flight, so in case of a crash the coroner can identify your remains from the seat you’re attached to.
This aircraft has eight exits: two each in the front and rear, and four over the wings. Please note that in the event of an accident, none of that will matter since the plane will disintegrate like a trailer in a tornado; so if you still have legs when the plane stops moving, feel free to exit in whatever direction is not engulfed in flame.
In the event of a water landing, you will find a life preserver in a pouch beneath your seat. Simply bend forward at the waist, pull on the red velcro release tab — and while you’re down there, kiss your ass goodbye, because when this plane hits the water at 200 knots it’s going to be the same as smacking into Mount McKinley. Also, that cheap plastic life preserver has been folded up in that little pouch for about eight years, so in the unlikely event that you live to put it on, the chances that it will still inflate and hold air are about the same as your cat spontaneously quoting passages of Paradise Lost, in Yiddish.
Please note that FAA and EASA regulations prohibit smoking anywhere in the aircraft unless you are actively on fire.
In case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop automatically from an overhead panel. Since there will likely also be a large hole in the fuselage, you may wish to secure young children from being sucked out of the plane before donning your mask.
At length, all the preliminaries were behind us, and our aging Pan Am chariot took to the skies over Oklahoma, for the roughly half hour flight to Tulsa. Aside from the usual (terrifying) bumps and noises, the trip seemed uneventful, and we landed without incident. It was as we were rolling out that the captain’s voice came over the cabin speaker with a rather, well, ambiguous message:
“Welcome to Tulsa, ladies and gentlemen. We came through that one all right. I hope the experience showed.“
Instantly, my nether parts puckered tighter than Elvis’s spandex. Wait, what? What was the “that one” that we just “came through”? Why was “experience” a factor?
The Prince of Darkness got up from the middle seat and stretched languidly. “Well, this is me,” he said, gathering his carry-on bits. He stepped past me to the aisle and looked back with a roguish grin. “Good luck!”
As flight crew members walked by me on their way out of the plane, making way for the unsuspecting schmucks coming aboard, I was plucking at their sleeves. “What did the captain mean by that? What just happened?” They smiled serenely and continued to deplane.
The next flight crew did not appear yet, however, because this play still had one more act to run.
A maintenance crew of three or four guys came aboard instead, and invaded the flight deck with tool satchels in hand. Within minutes, all the overhead electronics panels were unscrewed and hanging down by bundles of wires; and through the open cockpit door I could see the technicians yammering at one another and gesticulating at the wiring chaos like jawas negotiating a droid sale.
My layover at Tulsa was supposed to last twenty minutes. After more than an hour, during which both my panic level and the cockpit dysfunction only escalated, a single idea began to impinge on my thoughts:
There are other ways to get home.
Which is how I found myself, early that evening, commencing a 36 hour bus ride from Tulsa to Washington, DC — on my way, with perfect irony, to take up my new job as a rookie air traffic controller. I would soon be issuing instructions and guidance to airplanes; but I was now confirmed in my conviction that I would never again actually ride in one of the damn things.
That’s the story of how I came by my debilitating fear of flying. Some time in the near future, I’ll tell you the sequel: how I (mostly) overcame that fear, to the extent that I’ve now flown dozens of times, to destinations all over the world.
Fortunately, I haven’t run into Satan again. Yet.
Postscript: In case you’re wondering, I didn’t spend much time as an Air Traffic Controller — which is surely fortunate for the nation’s air traffic system. I washed out after a single season.
This was in the period after then-President Reagan fired most of the country’s controllers for daring to go out on strike. Yes, I was one of the scabs who came in in the wake of the firings. My team trainer, Ron, was an older guy who had stayed on the job rather than walking out, but that didn’t mean he was happy with management — or with people like me who were taking the jobs of his former comrades.
When after three months he recommended letting me go, the head training officer for the facility urged me to fight it; he thought my unsatisfactory rating was motivated by Ron’s personal animus. But I knew it was the right call. I wasn’t a good fit for the job.
“Think of it this way,” Ron had told me one day in the break room. “Imagine you got two planes with hundreds of people barreling toward the same piece of airspace at a combined speed of six hundred knots. You’ve got to make sure they don’t collide, and you can’t stand around with your thumb up your ass, wondering about the textbook way to do it. This is air traffic control in a nutshell: a good decision now is better than the best decision five minutes from now.”
He and I both knew that I’m all about the textbook. I’d be the guy who makes “the best decision five minutes from now” — and God and the NTSB would be sorting out the aftermath.
So I left and became a computer guy instead, while somebody else got to throw planes around the sky in my place.
Good call, Ron.