Learning to fly

I was flying home the other day from a business trip, and I ended up sitting next to a woman, probably 19 years old, maybe 20, who’d never been on a plane.

She seemed OK, but when the plane headed down the runway, she closed her eyes, gripped the armrests and whispered, “Shit,” and when we left the ground, she said, “Oh, God. I feel like I’m on a roller coaster. Shit.”

I’m not much of a talker when I fly. I’d rather read, but I thought the nervous flyer beside me really needed someone to talk her through this.

I asked if she needed some air and showed her how to open the air vent. I asked if this was the first time she’d flown, and she said yes, that she was going to visit her boyfriend in California and that he was shipping out in a few days. Then, she glanced out the window, pulled down the shade and said, “Shit.”

I said it was OK, that planes are built to fly, that’s what they do, they can’t help it, and that she was OK.

We hit a little turbulence. I barely noticed it, but she clinched the armrests and said, “Shit.” I said it was OK, that sometimes it’s rougher, that it might feel like she’s on a roller coaster and even that the plane is falling, but it really isn’t and that she’s OK.

Then she asked me a question I couldn’t really answer.

“How many times have you flown?”

I honestly had no idea. I flew the first time the summer before 1st grade. We went to Disney World. (I suspect a lot of people’s first flight was to Orlando.) I flew twice in high school — once to a funeral and again to Orlando — and didn’t really fly again until after college. I flew a few times on business, a few times on vacation, and somewhere along the way I stopped counting.

Somewhere, flying lost its magic. It stopped being special. It became routine. It became a hassle.

We hit a little more turbulence on our approach to Nashville. I barely noticed it, but my seatmate gripped her armrests, closed her eyes and said, “Shit.”

When we landed, we finally introduced ourselves, and I wished her good luck on her flight out to California and her boyfriend good luck on his deployment. I was thinking how glad I was that her first flight had been so smooth, so uneventful, but then I heard her on her cell phone, calling home.

“Oh, Mom,” she said, “the flight was awful,” and I thought, if she thought this was bad, then she’s got a long night ahead of her.


36 thoughts on “Learning to fly

  1. Ha ha that must have been an entertaining flight. At least you had someone to give flying lessons to. I generally get very bored… reading too much on board often gives me a headache and more often than not, I fall short of carrying music along.

  2. My first flight was to Germany, when I was 16, to participate in an exchange program. When the cabin pressurized, so did my ears, and I heard nothing until we landed. It was the dullest seven hours of my life.

      1. There was a movie, but I couldn’t hear it. I read the magazine in the seatback in about an hour, and then tried to sleep the next 6. It didn’t work.

  3. That was nice of you!

    The first time I flew, I was about 20 as well. I was pretty freaked out, too. I was so worried I was going to puke (because I get motion sickness pretty easily), but I didn’t.

    1. If I’d had one, I’d have given it to her. She didn’t have anything to read, and she didn’t have any food, and they wouldn’t let the passengers flying through to California get off in Nashville, so she was in for a long ride.

  4. oh dear. iwent on holiday once with a girl who hyperventilated the whole way, scratched at her skin and whimpered. i felt bad, but needless to say i didnt fly with her again

    1. That sounds brutal, tink. On a rough flight on a puddle-jumper once, I sat in front of a woman who prayed, loudly, the entire flight. Luckily, it was a short flight.

  5. She was so lucky to have you sitting next to her, Todd. How kind you were in trying to help her overcome her fear and anxiety. On my recent trip, I thought about how grateful I am that I enjoy flying and marveling at views like the one in your photo. I feel for couples where one spouse refuses to fly (could be that young lady at some point). I wouldn’t be able to cope with that.

    1. I told my seatmate she might want to open the shade and enjoy the sunset and look at all the towns down below at night. I like how it’s black except for these spider webs of light here and there.

      1. The first flight I ever took was as a first grader. We returned at night, flying into JFK. I will never forget how beautiful the city looked with the lights. At that age, it was magical.

  6. Such an articulate seatmate. I’m about to leave on a jet plane (although I do have some idea when I’ll be back again). I hope the person next to me is a reader.

  7. What a nice guy you are, Todd!

    My first time flying was when I moved to Newfoundland from Ontario…I was 22 and flew alone. I was proud of myself, and really happy to touch down in St. John’s after being on the second plane from Halifax…a Bombardier Dash 8 turboprop…talk about noisy!

    In the last 30 years, I’ve also flown more times than I can count…agreed on the hassle!


  8. First thing first: I approve of your travel companion’s vast vocabulary.

    My brother is the same way–deathly afraid of flying. He flew out to Las Vegas with friends a few years ago, and when the airplane hit a rough patch, he grabbed onto his buddy’s hand without thinking about it. His buddy just held his hand back and said, “You’ll be ok, bro. You’ll be ok. It’ll all be ok.”

    I crack up every time I think of that story.

      1. Peoples’ recollections of first flights reminds me of my first time. I was in university and a company was paying to fly me to a job interview! I was totally full of myself and feeling a lot more cool than I probably was/am. I sat next to an old guy (probably younger than me now) who spent the whole flight telling me horror stories about his bad flight experiences. I wasn’t scared before but I was by the time the plane landed.

  9. I remember on my first flight I liked the takeoff, landing and turbulence because those were the main things (besides the view) that let me know I wasn’t on a bus.

    I was on a flight a couple of years ago with a newly married couple – not sure what country they were from, he was much older than she, and it kind of struck me as an “arranged” marriage. They were very cooing and cuddly and then soon after takeoff, she dissolved into tears and sat there sobbing while he comforted her. He confided in me that her mother had just died and he waited till they got in the air to tell her! I wasn’t quite understanding his logic, but he seemed to be doing a good husbandly job at supporting her, so maybe it was a good bonding experience. But it was possibly a bit more information than I needed.

    1. Holy cow, that’s awful! I don’t know what else to say. BRIDE: “I love you, sweetheart.” GROOM: “I love you, too. Say, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. I would have told you sooner, but we already had these tickets, and I was afraid you’d want to cancel….”

  10. My first flight was when I was 20, on my honeymoon. People actually dressed nice to fly back then. The aisles were big, plenty of room in the seats, and we were not subjected to strip searches or asked to remove our shoes.

  11. I was 18 the first time I flew. I remember being pretty terrified at the strange noises — it sounded as if the wheels were falling off! After I got married and learned exactly what those noises were, flying lost a lot of its scariness. It was nice of you to try to reassure your seatmate; too bad she didn’t seem to listen.

    1. Yeah, I was telling her about the noises, too. I figured, the more she knew, the better she’d feel. I suspect by the time she flies home, she’ll be as bored as everyone else on the plane.

  12. I was about six the first time I flew, and I flew plenty to boarding school, to university, holidays and so on. I had a terrible flight once in my early 20s that made me afraid of flying for a time. I sat next to a guy on a very bumpy flight, just like your new young friend did, and spent the whole time thinking, “Should I grab his arm? I need to grab his arm! I’m so scared,” and I thought if I did that, we would come straight out of the turbulence and we’d look at each other and I’d feel stupid. Perhaps I should have just sworn.

  13. My first flight was to Texas as we were heading to Mexico. I had a pretty good experience but will never forget a few years later when the scary one happened. It got so bad that some people were crying and one woman screamed a couple of times. That was one time I barely kept my cool in the air.

  14. How nice of you to help. I have always been a sleeper sort of flyer from my first flight on. Something about the sound of the engine and the vibration makes me sleep all the way through – even 20 hour flights LOL!

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