Columnist: A look at the fear of flying

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

When I took my first commercial flight — on old Capital Airlines — from Atlanta to New Orleans, it was a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious experience. Nobody in my family had ever flown, and I don’t remember any high school classmates talking about a commercial airplane ride. I felt rather privileged.

There was a kid who had graduated with us and then joined his family, who had gone ahead and settled in Blythe, California. To reunite with his family, he went west on a Greyhound bus. With embedded provincialism and austerity, there was no reason for me to ever expect to spend much time aloft.

When it came about, I enjoyed the experience to the ultimate. Getting on a plane today still is enlivening and emotionally stirring. A plane takes to you a new experience or a familiar place. There is no contempt for redundancy. New York. San Francisco. London. Paris. “If I were a rich man…da, da dadda, dadda dah … I would fly to Paris for dinner.

I can also remember that first flight where turbulence was elevated and downright troublesome emotionally. The most wonderful experience is to enjoy a long flight when the air is silky smooth, invoking no stress.

I’ve seen passengers sleep through turbulence as if they were on the sofa in their den. When a plane ride becomes overly bumpy — even after a million or more miles — you will find me gripping the seat handles.

A good friend, with notable business success, chooses to fly private wherever he goes. His wife is apprehensive about flying — even if it is only overcast. He once made the mistake, while on vacation in Ponte Vedra, by talking to his charter pilot with the speaker on his cell phone engaged. She heard the pilot say it was going to be a turbulent trip.

She packed her car and drove to New Orleans — nine hours. He flew home in time to watch the Saints play, have dinner and was on his second Bailey’s Irish Crème when she walked in the door. Each was happy about the decision that they made.

The percentages are of succinct magnitude — it is much safer to fly than it is to drive. However, I often think about the fact that if something were to malfunction with a jetliner, you can’t pull off the road and call for roadside service. My friend’s wife often reminds me of that when I kid her about her flying apprehension.

Years ago, I heard a pilot say about turbulence: “It is just like driving your pickup truck down a bumpy road.”

But when you are five miles up, and it becomes bumpy, you can only embrace positive thoughts and consider the percentages. Yet, for most, it is difficult to imagine that it is safer flying to Paris than it is to drive to Atlanta.

Another friend, who works for Coca-Cola, flies to Europe — more often than not to London — sometimes every week. He can take an Ambien and sleep through the night on the trip over. Three days later he is back on Eastern Daylight time.

How ‘bout them flight attendants who have trips like Dallas to the Orient twice a month? They seem to learn to cope with the changing of time zones and irregular sleep cycles. All I care about is for pilots to enjoy comforting and settled rest.

Once, when in Biarritz, France, my French host invited me to fly with his friend, a seasoned pilot, up to Toulouse for a reunion of their rugby team. There was good food and a lot of excellent wine. The pilot drank three or four glasses, which had my nerves frayed and raw-edged at takeoff.

I became the happiest of campers when we landed back in Biarritz. The pilot was insulted and laughed when I asked if he was okay as we buckled up. It was the only time in France when I experienced a reluctance for French hospitality.

I remember a conversation with a guy who left Atlanta and flew direct to Korea for a four hour meeting and returned home before he left. That is an experience for which I have no interest. How could he possibly stay awake during that four hour meeting?

An old story, worthy of recycling, has to do with a farmer who was a pilot. He tried to talk one of his laborers, a very religious man, on taking a plane ride with him. The man refused. The farmer asked, “Haven’t I heard you say of fate …” that was a person’s time to die? That we all have a time to die.”

His farm worker had this explanation: “Yes, I believe that, but when we get up there in that plane, something could go wrong, and it might be ‘yore’ time to die.”

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.