Fear Of Flying

My first flight was on the Eastern shuttle between New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Washington, D.C. I was age 9, and traveling with my grandparents. We three made the short flight to visit for a week with my uncle, aunt and cousins, who were then living in northern Virginia.

I kept that Eastern shuttle’s ticket stub for something approaching three decades after. Do you think I can find it now? Of course I can’t! (I have flown on so many airlines that are now long out of business. The list is extensive: Eastern, Pan Am, TWA, Tower Air, Air Inter. There may be others, but I can’t immediately remember them.)

You may be similar in first flying young. Others start flying much later:

Screen capture of Yahoo.
Screen capture of Yahoo.

And yet others appear likely NEVER to fly. I recall my parents not joining us for that Washington, D.C. trip. The reason given was my then three year old sister and not wanting to take her along.

Even to my 9 year old mind, it was perfectly reasonable they felt they couldn’t fly with her, so I thought nothing about it. I remember being thrilled for myself that I was going on my first flight with my grandparents. I recall feeling so “adult.”

However, a few years later I learned that there may have also been a tremendous fear underlying my parents’ then staying home: I discovered in my teens that my mother absolutely refused to fly.

And she has never relented. It’s now over thirty years later and she’s now in her young 70s. Needless to say she has never visited Europe. (Forget suggesting a ship like the Queen Mary 2 instead. I have. That isn’t happening either.)

Free Stock Photo:  Illustration of a baggage handler loading luggage onto an airplane.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a baggage handler loading luggage onto an airplane.

Did she feel that unwilling to fly when I was nine? I’ve never asked her and don’t believe she would necessarily tell me the truth anyway. But I do know that rather than attempt to deal with the fear as we all do (most everyone is nervous to some extent on planes), she has allowed the fear to take control of her life.

She had been urged by everyone for years to try to overcome it, but all efforts fell flat. She still refuses (often angrily) even to discuss it. My uncle (her older brother) once tried even enlisting the help of an American Airlines pilot friend, but that went nowhere because she would have nothing to do with him.

She does not even have a passport. Should she not have one, just in case? I believe she will not obtain one simply to create another massive – perhaps insurmountable – obstacle so as to avoid addressing her fear of flying.

In fact, an Irish girlfriend once asked me what would happen if my mother was told I was in hospital and would die within about 48 hours? Would she fly over to be at my bedside?

My reply: No, she would not.

She has missed funerals and weddings and numerous family events within the U.S. and here in Europe – and, as a consequence, so has my father. Yet I know my father would love to see Europe before he dies, but he will never visit here without her. (It was decades ago, but he has flown ONCE within the U.S., without my mother naturally, because he had to after his own mother had died in Florida.) So her phobia not only impacts her – that I could almost accept – but what now infuriates me is how it hurts him, too.

I long ago wearied of her attitude and became resigned to it. A little “insider” info: I’m now more or less reduced to venting my frustration “between the lines” in the novels, dropping in tiny bits here and there – as in this Passports family wedding reception scene, which features “Joanne” and “Uncle Bill” chatting as they find themselves briefly alone at their table:

Excerpt from "Passports," on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.
Excerpt from “Passports,” on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.

It’s almost hard to imagine in 2015 that someone like that still exists in the United States. Obviously, though, if she does she’s not alone. But my Mum is now the only person I believe I know personally who has never been on an airplane.

Whenever I think about it (as I am now), I’m incredulous and saddened. 😢 But every family has its challenges. That has been one of ours, but – in the larger life scheme of things – is actually relatively minor, of course.

Happy [grumble, grumble] Monday.

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Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.