December 13, 2010

When You Think the Journey’s Over: Fear and Insights from the Scariest Flight of My Life

photo credit: mrhayata

The truth in life is that we probably have countless brushes with death every day that we never know about.  Just crossing a busy city street or shuttling the kids to school, one careless driver more or less at exactly the right moment and your number could be up.

There’s nothing, however, like a violently turbulent flight to make you think maybe, finally, despite the overwhelming odds against crashing, this is really it.

Today I had that flight.

It was a routine Delta jaunt from West Palm Beach Florida (my home airport) to New York City for one of the seminars I teach there several times a year; routine for Delta, routine for me. I hadn’t clued in much to the weather other than to know it would be rainy in New York and to select the most appropriate coat to bring.

About half way through the two-and-a-half hour flight, we hit some clear air turbulence at full altitude.  Nothing unusual or too severe.  Tom, my seatmate who seemed a typical business traveler working on his laptop, commented “I hate this, I can never get used to it.”  I agreed, but turbulence doesn’t both me nearly as much as it used to.

You see, I’ve been traveling for business continuously for twenty years and flying for nearly my whole life (I think my first plane ride was at age seven).  Over the last two decades, I’ve also traveled internationally every year, many of these trips on trans-oceanic flights of between seven and fourteen hours (you go down on one of those babies, and you’d better know how to swim). I’ve had many 25,000-mile frequent flier years at several points in my career and a few years flying almost double that.  I’ve even flung myself out of a plane at 12,000 feet for crissakes, so while I’m no road warrior I do qualify as a seasoned flier.

I first felt fear of turbulence in my early twenties.  I’m not sure where it came from, but I remember the first flight – around the time I was in college – that unsettled me.  Maybe it was just losing the innocence of youth, having more to worry about, or transferred stress – I don’t know – but I don’t remember ever being bothered by or even conscious of turbulence as a child or teen, and even flew a few long-haul flights then.

Over time, I learned that even though I couldn’t control the physical auto-response of my body to turbulence, I could re-focus, keep reading, and breathe through turbulence without dwelling on or buying into fear.  I could recognize the “fight or flight” response of my body and just let it do what it wanted while consciously realizing neither fight, nor flight would likely be needed.

What also helped immensely was having had ample opportunity to sit next to several pilots (just did again on my recent trip to Barcelona) and to have asked them everything inquiring minds like mine want to know about commercial flight.  How dangerous is turbulence? How good is flight safety? Just how difficult is it for pilots to navigate rough air and bad weather? From what I’ve gathered, turbulence almost always feels much worse, scarier and unsafe than it actually is.  Obviously, several people are involved in keeping any one plane in the air at any given moment – countless air traffic controllers, pilot and co-pilot, and even neighboring pilots all inform routing and take-off/landing decisions for any single flight.

Intellectually, I know this.  Intellectually, I understand how planes fly and the science behind lift.  Intellectually, I know the tolerances of commercial airplanes.  None of which, when serious turbulence strikes, prevents adrenaline from gushing into my bloodstream or my palms from getting clammy.

You Teach What You Need to Learn

As I noticed Tom on today’s flight wipe the beads of sweat repeatedly from his upper lip, I wondered if maybe he didn’t fly much, so I asked him.  He told me he flies almost every week, but still has never been able to get used to a rough ride.  I could empathize, told him so, and tried my best to reassure him. “They’re trained for this,” I reminded him, “they know what they’re doing.  Just hitting the potholes today, nothing unusual but not fun”.  Wisely, I kept the fact that the greatest risk of crashing is on take-off or landing – almost never in mid-air – to myself (yes people, foreshadowing here).

Then things literally went downhill fast.

The high altitude clear-air turbulence intensified.  By now Tom and I both had our laptops out on our trays and were holding them down (I really didn’t want to see mine hit the ceiling, you know?)  After about ten minutes of rocking and rolling, things smoothed out a bit.  No sooner had we found calm air than the pilot came on to let us know we’d be starting the descent, the rough ride would continue, and that because of it they were preparing the cabin early for landing so flight attendants could remain seated the whole way down.

Generally, this does not bode well. More fun, I thought.  Tom didn’t look happy.  The flight attendants made their required announcement about seat backs and tray tables and concluded it with “We’ll be on the ground in ten minutes”.  Well, I reasoned, it can’t get much worse and if it does, I can survive anything for ten minutes.

What followed was a harrowing descent from 33,000 feet to what I’m guessing was the holding altitude of about 10,000 feet in total clouds and with winds like I’ve never seen or heard on a flight before.

There were stomach-plunging drops.  There were downdrafts hitting the top of the plane, stomping it lower. There were loud rushing winds you could hear. The flight reminded me of those motion-machine simulation rides at amusement parks (I know because I just rode the Spiderman one at Universal Orlando a few months ago and vowed never again!), the kind that promise you movement on all three planes – horizontal, vertical, and lateral – because we were going in all directions except (praise Jesus) upside down. I’m not prone to motion sickness but for the first time ever on a commercial flight, I actually felt dizzy.

Then the puking started. Not mine and bless him, not Tom’s(!), but other passengers nearby were getting sick.  The flight attendants announced a reminder to please use the airsick bags in the seat pockets in front of us.  I wondered if my motion sickness threshold had yet been truly tested, but for the time being I felt too nervous to throw up.

Praying followed puking.  I know I wasn’t the only one silently praying – Tom’s head was down and his hands folded.  I started with “Hail Mary”s, conditioning from my Catholic youth, until I consciously realized that prayer ends with “now and in the hour of our deaths”, then decided maybe that wasn’t the best choice.  I switched to some sort of made-up prayer/intention combination that went something like “Mother, father, brother, sister God of all that is, keep us safe from harm.  Earth, ease your winds and make a calm space for us to land.”

I moved on to angels, calling on my own and everyone else’s (I bet my friend Amara would be proud I remembered), especially the pilot’s and air traffic controllers’, yep, I was calling all angels, saints and any other benevolent beings who could fly us down.  Calling them over and over in my mind, visualizing – as hokey as this sounds I don’t care – angels holding the wings of our plane and guiding it to safe landing.

At last we heard the landing gear lower.  The plane descended a bit more, and rocked harder.  The pilot gunned the engines, raised the gear, and up we went.  Failed approach into LaGuardia.  I wondered if they’d divert to another airport.

I checked my watch.  The turbulent descent alone had already lasted 15 minutes.  The pilot came on in that too-calm-for-the-situation-totally-blasé-sounding-like-he-just-smoked-a-joint voice to announce the obvious and that due to reaching known allowances for windspeed and stress on the aircraft, we would be “re-vectoring” to a different approach.

Your Limits May Be Exceeded

That was the first time I wondered how much more I could take, and if we’d actually make it.  I flashed to the US Air “miracle on the Hudson” in New York almost exactly a year ago. Well, all was not lost, and as I also didn’t share with Tom 80% of all air crashes are survivable.  I did a quick mental checklist of what I knew about cold water survival and hypothermia.

It’s funny what goes through your head when you think you’re genuinely close to the border between life and death. I really don’t fear death itself. I think of it as a “crossing over” and the transition plus the “other side” fascinates me.  But I am in no way ready to go.  And I do fear how I might go.

Like most people, I prefer that one of the most significant, mysterious transitions of my existence not occur in a fiery heap of metal surrounded by souls in wailing, panic-stricken fear (and naturally, there are countless other ways of going I’d prefer to avoid as well).  I’d prefer to have lived a long life and lived my purpose.  I’d prefer to have had time to prepare and say goodbye. I’d prefer not to leave a thirteen-year-old girl motherless and my husband a widower.  Wouldn’t we all, right?

No, there’s nothing like a conscious brush with death to make you realize how desperately – no matter how flawed your life – you want to keep living.

As I continued intentional deep breathing and prayer, I began to feel detached.  I got a glimpse of what I imagine an out of body experience is like.  I could sense myself getting ready to “jump out” of the body if it came to that.  I could see how it would be possible for the spirit/soul/energy – whatever you call it – to vacate the physical body pretty quickly.  It really can be a decision to go, as many who have had out-of-body experiences in a safe setting know.

The mechanical noise of the landing gear snapped me back.  We were going down, this time for good, I noticed, as over ten more minutes we passed through the final cloud layer that had prevented any sighting of ground.  Still, no one could see a thing.  The winds continued to bitch-slap the plane to a chorus of continued puking.  It was obviously raining.  We were low – really, too low for the wings to be see-sawing like they were, but finally we could see ground about 2,500 feet below. At last on final approach and without further incident but blustery winds to the end, we safely landed.

A Touching Touch Down

I’m always surprised when on certain flights – oddly enough, often into vacation destinations – the passengers applaud upon landing.  Who are these newbies I snidely wonder? Or, is it some international thing not part of American culture?  On today’s flight, there was practically a standing ovation. Normally one to eschew such displays, I myself clapped vigorously.  After we pulled to a stop, the pilots appeared from the cockpit – one heading straight to the bathroom, the other white as a sheet but putting up a brave front with his half-smile.

The comments, complaints and sighs of relief erupted simultaneously, along with a mighty stench (the vomit and lord knows what else).  As for me, I could feel the tears welling (my most common physical reaction to relief is crying), and tried to hold them back until I could get to a concourse bathroom where I locked myself in a stall at the end of the row and sobbed with abandon.

To be honest, there have been rough rides in my flight life before.  There have been a few applause-worthy landings before.  And there have been times I’ve wanted to cry from relief before, but wrote it off as hormonal, or stuffed it down.

Today took it all to a new level or I guess I should say, a new low.  Today I felt like the most honest and honorable thing I could do was express the emotions that came up; not bottle them, but instead, let them burst.  All the emotions – and what a curious mixture they were of relief, gratitude, exhaustion and even anger (how on earth can they be landing planes in this weather?)  Yes, express rather than repress, because as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while I’m not into creating any more emotional baggage to carry around.

As my crying quieted I could finally hear a woman’s voice outside my bathroom stall at LaGuardia ask “Are you okay?”

“Yes, yes, I really am, it’s alright,” I said, and came out to see a blond a bit older than me who had been on the same flight.

“It was a bad one, wasn’t it?” she said, smiling, then added (I kid you not), “but imagine how it was for those without faith?  I know where I’m going, so if it’s time, I’m ready.”

“Yeah,” I told her, “I know, I was praying to everything and everyone I could think of.”  She nodded in agreement, fixed her lipstick, smiled like a cat with nine lives, and sallied off.  I caught my bloodshot eyes in the mirror and tried to get a grip.

Now That You Know Your Life Isn’t Over

From baggage claim, I called my husband (an even more frequent flier now than I), told him I loved him and apologized for every lousy thing I ever did as he consoled me and sympathized with my flight from hell.  Most importantly he reminded me we made it, I am here, and I can happily get on with the business of living.

So I am.  It’s a rainy, windy gray day in New York City, but I’m going to see the Rockettes Radio City Christmas Spectacular tonight (for the first time after twenty years of business travel to New York City).  Oh, and I’m taking myself out to dinner first.  And before that, I’m finishing my goal-setting for 2011 and writing this.

It would be easy after a dose of fear that could choke a horse and weather this nasty to retreat into comfort and safety for the rest of the day.  To cocoon and rebuild the false sense of control we think we have over our lives as we go about our daily routines – any of which could be the end of the journey, at any time. But of course, we have only the illusion of control.

And when you get this – really get it in your core – you can use the scariest moments of your life as rocket fuel to live it in all its blazing, radiating, joyful brilliance, and nothing less.

That’s where I’m headed. The Rockettes are waiting, and I have two days before I have to get on a plane again, so you better believe I’m livin’ in the now.

Thanks for reading. Now, go forth and shine.

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