Column: Fear of Flying? Not today, anyway

There was a time in my life when the first thing I thought about as soon as I booked a commercial flight was: death. And also the last thing I thought about as I departed the plane after another uneventful and safe landing. Whew!

Death in a fiery crash when an engine failed just after takeoff, a la American Airlines Flight 587 from JFK to the Dominican Republic. Death in a fiery crash after a mid-air explosion, a la TWA Flight 800 from JFK to Paris. Or death in a fiery crash due to an attempted bad-weather landing, a la Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo.

Logic has nothing to do with it, obviously. Statistically speaking, flying on a commercial jetliner is pretty much safer than riding my motor scooter from our home on King Street to the Orient County Store. But logic went out the window back in the mid-’70s on a flight from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., with my boss at the time, U.S. Senator Richard S. Schweiker (R-PA).

A quick aside about Dick Schweiker and flight safety. Beginning with the 1966 crash that claimed the life of his friend and colleague, Pennsylvania Attorney General Walter Alessandroni, Schweiker had a policy of never flying in a small plane without two pilots, and never flying into bad weather. Period. But that policy applied only to charter flights, not commercial flights, where passengers have little or no input.

So there we were in a holding pattern, circling Washington’s National Airport (before it was renamed after Ronald Reagan) for at least an hour. In a wicked thunderstorm! Due to an air traffic controllers’ work slowdown!

I knew we were in trouble when I looked over at Senator Schweiker and saw him praying, with his eyes closed and his hands clasped tightly. Now I am not a particularly religious person, but I’m pretty sure I uttered a few Hail Marys myself before we finally touched down safely after the SCARIEST FLIGHT OF MY LIFE.

That’s when my fear of flying took off, so to speak.

Illogically, said fear did not apply to flying in small planes. This I confirmed a few years later when I took off in a single-engine plane from Rose’s “International Airport,” a grass landing strip at Orient Point, with pilot John Duell at the controls. Back in those days, John flew commercially for Delta Airlines, and he had a small plane of his own to commute to his “base” at Logan Airport in Boston.

We took off to the north, and I vividly remember (although it’s probably a false vivid memory) the plane dipping down below the Sound bluff upon takeoff, just as we barely cleared those power lines upon landing from the south. Absolutely no worries, mate.

So why wasn’t I frightened? It’s all about control, or lack of control in the case of a commercial flight. With John at the helm of a small plane, I theorized that I could simply push his lifeless body aside in the event of a fatal heart attack, then land the plane on my own. No matter that I’d never (ever) even sat in the pilot’s seat.

The corollary to this was the mystery of what was going on up in the cabin as a commercial airliner hurtled through space at nearly the speed of sound. What if the crew was partying up there instead of paying attention to business? Or asleep at the wheel, literally, as in the recent case of Northwest Airlines’ Flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis?

What has gotten me thinking about this fear of flying again, of course, was the even more recent incident in which the roof of a Southwest Airlines jet ripped open at 34,000 feet over Arizona. Fortunately, due to some quick thinking by the flight crew, who apparently weren’t partying or napping at the time, there were no injuries. But it does cause one to ponder. Particularly when one flies regularly on Southwest between Islip and Florida. And particularly when one has two such flights scheduled just this week.

But surprise of surprises: I am no longer afraid of flying! And this is because we’ve taken so many flights in recent times that flying has become routine, matter of fact. Apparently, at least in my case, the more you fly, the less you associate flying with death.

And even on those rare occasions when such dark thoughts do sneak into the back of my brain, ever so briefly, as the plane lifts off, I have come to realize, at this point in my life, that I fully subscribe to the ancient saying from the Sioux leader Crazy Horse: today is a good day to die.

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