Nervous fliers really should get a grip -- if not on their fears, then on the armrests

April 25, 1996|By KEVIN COWHERD

ON A RECENT FLIGHT from Atlanta to Baltimore, we hit a patch of turbulence, which caused the man in the next seat to grab my arm and say: "This is it!"

As a nervous flier myself, I knew exactly what he meant.

He meant it was all over.

He meant we were about to come pinwheeling out of the sky and slam into the ground at 600 mph, leaving nothing but charred remains.

Yes, we were all doomed -- at least that's what I thought the man in the next seat meant.

Because when I looked back at him, he had this eerie, Bernie Goetz-ish smile on his face.

Then he said: "Yeah, I love turbulence!"

"You ... love turbulence?" I asked.

"Reminds me of when I was a kid riding a roller coaster," the man said. "It's so much fun!"

Well. As the plane continued to buck, my thoughts immediately turned from, "We're all gonna die, we're all gonna die!" to, "How can I get my seat changed?"

Because there was no way I was sitting next to this nut for another hour and a half.

There was no way I was listening to some half-baked sermon on the joys of turbulence while I white-knuckled the armrests and knocked off a couple dozen "Hail Marys."

Of course, extreme fear of turbulence is but one way to tell if you're a nervous flier, the others being:

On the day of the flight, you click on CNN to learn the weather forecast for the area of your flight. You study the brightly colored weather map in USA Today, paying particular attention to the graphic illustration pin-pointing potential trouble spots ("Winds will blast northern Rockies").

If the forecast is for anything other than 80 degrees and clear, you know the plane is going down.

If there is even a mention of thunderstorms, your first thought is: Why bother driving to the airport? Why not just throw myself in front of a bus right now?

Upon arrival at the boarding area, you study your fellow passengers intently. Are there any potential terrorists in the group?

That swarthy man in the Bill Blass suit talking quietly into a cellular phone over by the window -- isn't he a militiaman communicating with his field commander in the last few minutes before they take over a Boeing 757 at gunpoint?

That grim-looking woman in the windbreaker pushing the baby stroller -- doesn't she just scream environmental extremist?

Isn't she probably laden with 16 sticks of dynamite and bound for a logging camp somewhere in the Northwest?

As you board the plane, you make it a point to glance in the cockpit and study the captain.

This is what you want to see: a tall, clear-eyed fellow of 45 to 60 in a uniform that doesn't look like a bellhop's, with a distinguished swath of gray at the temples.

On the other hand, you don't want to see too much gray hair on the pilot.

You don't want someone who thinks he's back on a bombing run over Dresden, either.

In the moments before taxiing to the runway, you want to see the plane swarming with enough white-suited technicians and high-tech instruments to rival a NASA launch.

What you don't want to see is some mechanic who looks like he's with Ed's Sunoco banging on the rotor.

As the plane hurtles down the runway for take-off, you begin humming "Nearer My God to Thee."

Once the plane has reached cruising altitude, you immediately jump to your feet and begin windmilling your arms for the beverage cart.

It has been your experience that a cocktail or two helps during that inevitable moment when you gaze out the window and the No. 2 engine bursts into flames.

Throughout the flight, you eschew headphones in order to listen intently for any change in engine noise.

Each time the engine takes on a new pitch, you tug on the sleeve of the passenger nearest you and whisper: "This time we're going down!"

As the plane begins its final approach before landing, you point to a clump of blue spruce below and say: "That's where we end up, guaranteed."

Once the plane touches down safely, you turn to the person next to you and say: "You really oughta get a grip on that fear of flying."

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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