I’m buckled in. Everything is sorted: tray table up, seat back in its upright position, electronics off, backpack stowed. Nothing to do but sit and wait until cruising altitude when I can turn on my book (still an absurd concept) and mentally escape from my imprisonment in a metal tube of death suspended in a cloudy limbo. I meditate on air travel’s safety record over the last decade, only breaking to review my knowledge of physics. My mantra is simple: I am safe. I am safe. I am safe.
Just as I relax into a moment of blissful rationality, another plane flying perpendicular to my own appears out of nowhere and crashes right where I’m sitting in the window seat over the wing.
It’s clearly no spoiler to tell you this doesn’t happen; I am here writing to you after all. However, this gruesome vision, this terrible feat of imagination, never fails to swallow the functional and practical part of my brain. I’m left sitting in a silent fight-or-flight freak out with the only sign of my uncontrollable mental work manifesting in the adrenaline-spiked palm sweat outlines on my jeans.
Flying phobia is an old and disturbing fear, but it’s new to me, emerging only over the past 10 months in Asia. For years I loved airports for their aura of excitement, the prospect of adventure thick in the cool, sterile air smelling slightly of coffee and stale carpet. A flight meant embarking on some quiet time—away from the call of email—into a sacred space often spent daydreaming alone.
Asia must have been the trigger for this previously unfounded anxiety. Never mind the freaky visions, flying in southeast Asia is an in-your-face cultural clash. Where flight attendants in domestic American flights may have trouble limiting guests’ carry-on luggage, those in Asia have another set of problems on their hands. On my last flight, an attendant tried communicating in no fewer than three languages to a woman doing calisthenics in the plane’s aisle during a period of turbulence that she should really sit down. Behind her, a man jumped out of his seat to grab a bottle of duty-free whiskey from the quivering overhead bins. The flight attendant’s exasperation was palpable, though I was thankful for the distraction from the aircraft’s trembles.
Back in the airports, I’m the spectacle, with my Americanness perceptible in the absurd security rituals I go through out of habit. Often, I’m the only one who has stripped down to base layers, unpacked a clear bag of liquids, presented a laptop, removed shoes, and stepped up for a special safety grope. Equally often, the airport I’m in requires few, if any, of these procedures. No one understands why the lady is getting naked and dumping the contents of her bags across the security conveyer belt; I may as well be wearing an American flag cape and carrying an eagle for the drama I create inadvertently.
I hate flying so much, I am taking trains and boats back to America from Asia. All of my tweezers and cuticle trimmers and cheese knives and shampoos will be free from confiscation while I face the earth’s enormity head-on. Yet trains and boats have their own limitations. They can’t take you to see Everest, for instance. That impediment and a good deal of peer pressure is how I ended up on an early morning flight on a tiny airplane out of Kathmandu.
The flight’s purpose was to give passengers a lovely waltz around the Himalayas, providing spectacular views without any prerequisite for physical fitness that, say, climbing would require. On this, it delivered. It also thrust me into the raw heart of my new and inconvenient phobia.
The diminutive plane greeted every cloud, shook the hand of every spot of low-pressure, and hitchhiked on the back of air currents. The cotton shoved in my ears could not dampen the plane’s mechanical caterwaul. Through the door of the open cockpit the pilot pressed buttons and switched levers to which the plane responded promptly and with a roar. Given my recent history with airplanes, I should have been in the midst of an airborne nervous break down, but this time it didn’t happen. For the first time, I recognized flying for what it is—traveling in the belly of a magnificent flying machine. I felt as though I was living in some steampunk future imagined by someone more creative than I.
The scenery below certainly didn’t hurt. We soared above the clouds and aviated among the tallest peaks in the world. When my face wasn’t pressed to the window dirty with oil and dirt from a thousand faces before mine, I attempted and failed to capture the splendor of the mountains with my camera. Small villages dotted the imposing foothills in the thin air, and I thought how about the peculiarities of this place wherein peasants get the best views in the world (and I mean that without any hyperbole—I do not believe anything can top a view of Mount Everest from the kitchen window).
About halfway through the hour-long flight, I was granted permission to go into the cockpit, where the pilots seemed focused and competent, yet privy to the arresting scenery and the effervescence of their passengers. The pilot grabbed my camera and started taking shots as casually as a driver on a road trip changes the music, and his confidence soothed me. It seemed impossible that anything so glorious as a plane ride through the resplendent Himalayas could go wrong, and I gleefully proclaimed my fear conquered.
When it was time to leave Kathmandu, I boarded my Airbus channeling the confidence of the pilot on my mountain flight. My palm sweat held off until a period of considerable turbulence, my adrenaline calm until the captain came over the intercom with a few too many “uhhhs,” both of which mark a significant improvement from the palm-printed jeans of yore.
However, this isn’t a truly happy story of triumph over fear. When I touched down in Beijing, I learned some sad news: a small aircraft—like the one I rode ’round Everest—crashed in Nepal. A bird flew into the engine, leading the plane to stall and then nosedive into the rocky Himalayan peaks below. This hasn’t convinced me that flying is unsafe, as I’m not willing to give up the heady pleasure of victory over fear. It has, however, planted the seed of a new phobia: birds, those awful, aircraft-savaging brutes.
Susan is a Texan with a history in environmental consulting, Thai language learning, hookah bar management, and slinging co-operatively-owned beer. Currently, she’s searching for the best food in a 500 meter radius of any given train station between Asia and America as she travels overland from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Austin, Texas. She writes the website Splendor in the Lemongrass, where the content is everyone’s two favorite things: explicit food porn and travel navel-gazing. While attempting to be productive she lives on Twitter under the @siouxzen handle.