The literature of the fear of flying.
Before takeoff, when the flight attendants are acting out the ways we’ll save ourselves in the event of a catastrophe, the same thought always occurs to me: it is possible not to fly. Plenty of people with enviable careers, even careers that require frequent travel, have managed it. The NFL’s John Madden travels across the country in his “Madden Cruiser,” a customized coach bus. Liz McClarnon, the British pop singer and member of the Atomic Kittens, hasn’t been on a plane in four years. Sean Bean (Game of Thrones’s Ned Stark) drives to all of his European film locations. He was finally forced onto a plane to shoot The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, though he refused the helicopter ride to top of the mountain where they were filming, forcing the rest of the cast to wait while he walked up.
Those of us with aviophobia know that flying is safe—it just doesn’t feel safe. During takeoff, the plane forces itself diagonally into the air, pinning us to our seats. We feel the strain as the engines grind, trying to lift an enormous, metal, bird-shaped machine packed with humans into the sky. Why did anyone ever think this was a good idea? The air is not our natural element; the first powered plane only stayed up for twelve seconds. At thirty thousand feet, the sounds are unnerving. The poet James Dickey wrote, “There is faintly coming in / Somewhere the vast beast-whistle of space.” It’s hard to think of any sound more terrifying.
At the root of aviophobia is the fear of falling. For those of us who feel in everyday life as though the world could give out beneath us at any moment, flying is too physically close to the bottomlessness and lack of control we already feel. When you fall, there’s nothing you can do, nothing to grab onto, no one to call. Your plane becomes a plunging death capsule and you are trapped inside.
On July 31, 1944, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, took off in an unarmed P-38 from Corsica and vanished. In The Pilot and the Little Prince, which contains an imagined account of Saint-Exupery’s final flight, Peter Sís rescues his protagonist from falling out of the sky. Antoine’s plane is kept aloft in a blue abyss by the Little Prince pedaling a bicycle beneath him. Sís writes, “Some say he forgot his oxygen mask and vanished at sea. Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars.” It’s a children’s book—of course Sís can’t send Antoine plummeting to his death. But the stories adults tell themselves about falling aren’t any less whimsical.
There is a man working diligently right now to prove his theory that Amelia Earhart’s plane did not fall out of the sky. A few months ago, Ric Gillespie claimed to have confirmed that a scrap of metal he found on Gardner Island was part of Earhart’s plane. This, he says, proves that Earhart did not crash but landed on the island, where she starved to death. There’s something desperate about this. The idea that she fell from the sky is perhaps so unconscionable to Gillespie that he’s devoted his life’s work to proving that she suffered a slower, more agonizing death.
James Dickey goes right for the final plunge in his poem “Falling.” He reimagines a real-life incident in which a stewardess was sucked out of an airplane when a door burst open. Falling, in Dickey’s version of the story, becomes sensual, erotic. Dickey undresses the stewardess, who
sheds the bat’s guiding tailpiece
Of her skirt the lightning-charged clinging of her blouse the intimate
Inner flying-garment of her slip in which she rides like the holy ghost
Of a virgin sheds the long windsocks of her stockings absurd
Brassiere then feels the girdle required by regulations squirming
Off her: no longer monobuttocked
She says goodbye to her body, celebrating her corporeal reality one final time: “she passes / Her palms over her long legs her small breasts and deeply between / Her thighs.”
The stewardess’s fall is life in miniature. She sees the ground, knows that she will die, but as she watches the ground near, “there is time to live,” and as she gets closer, “there is still time to live on a breath made of nothing.” When the ground finally approaches, she “remembers she still has time to die.” We, like the stewardess, are shuttling toward death, but more slowly, so slowly that sometimes we forget. There’s still time to live, we say. But in falling, death is laid out clearly before us. We have time to watch it approach, to meditate on it, and then to surrender to it. Life blossoms in this space before death. It is sensual and corporeal. It is with death in view that Dickey’s stewardess is “living beginning to be something.”
Is this the origin of the mile-high club? While it’s tempting to write Dickey off as a dirty old man orchestrating a striptease swan song, something rings true in his reverie. With danger in view, the stewardess’s senses are aroused. She’s hyperaware of her body now that she knows she will soon lose consciousness of it forever. She will never again remove her stockings, she will never again brush her hand across her breasts or her thighs. It’s almost over—rejoice while you can, the poem exhorts us.
Dickey, it turns out, is not really that different from the Amelia Earhart theorist or Peter Sís—he may not save his stewardess from falling, but he saves her from the ugliness of falling. What happens physically to a body when it hits the ground from thirty thousand feet? Do fragments of bone fly? Or are they eviscerated into dust? Is there anything resembling a human left? Dickey does not get into the blood and guts, though he does break the stewardess’s back. He imagines she is indented into the earth, but whole, complete, alive for one final breath and then, “AH GOD—.” God is Dickey’s version of Sís’s “glittering planet next to the stars.”
There’s no shame in these stories. They transfigure fear into a more beautiful form, allowing us to remake the world—and the world, seen from that vantage point, is better. If one day I must die in an airplane, give me Sís’s or Dickey’s ending.
Or better yet, give me my own. One night, my husband and I flew to Arkansas. Terrified, I drank three airplane bottles of Sauvignon blanc in under fifteen minutes, and suddenly, I was very drunk. But the swing from fear to fearlessness was too abrupt, and I burst into tears. My husband looked up from his book stunned.
“What is it?” he asked.
I was sobbing now. “I’m so happy,” was all I could manage.
I’ve since learned that crying on airplanes is a common occurrence (as is crying during sex)—and I’m sure the drinking didn’t help. In 2011, a Virgin Atlantic survey revealed that a shocking 41 percent of men have “buried themselves in blankets to hide tears in their eyes from other passengers.” According to Elijah Wolfson, who wrote about crying on airplanes for The Atlantic, “We cry happily when we recognize, deep down, that every connection we make in life could end up severed.” From a bird’s-eye view, life below is suddenly cast in more accurate proportions. The time we spend in traffic, bickering with siblings, and shopping for office supplies is invisible from up here. We are small; our lives are brief; only a few things really matter, and soon they will be gone.
In that moment, as I was crying on the plane, helplessness was transubstantiated into joy. This three-hour flight, during which I was never once offered peanuts and sat crammed into a cabin among strangers, quickly became one of the most joyous occasions of my life. It was more joy than my wedding day, more joy than waking up at sunrise on Christmas in Burma to see backlit temples rising out of the fog. In her essay “Joy,” Zadie Smith writes that she prefers simple pleasures like eating a pineapple popsicle to the feeling of joy because tucked inside enormous joy is equally enormous pain.
Maybe I lead too pleasurable a life, but pleasure suddenly seemed too ordinary, too insignificant to fill this space between being born and dying. It’s almost over—rejoice while you can. We were thirty thousand feet in the air, headed for Little Rock, and there had never been anything more amazing. Our lives were at the mercy of the pilot, the weather, the machine, and one another. We could plunge at any second—and finally, I was okay with that. I thought of the Sean Beans and John Maddens of the world, bested by fear, stubbornly maintaining the illusion of control as they bus and train across terra firma. There’s something so hopeless, so undreaming, about staying down there.
I was in the air, and I saw flying for what it was: to fly is to insist on the ethereal in a weighted world. My plane emerged from the clouds leveling off into the nighttime. If you could’ve somehow seen our bodies without the plane, you would have seen rows of humans two by two, reading, talking, listening to music, suspended in the night sky.
Laura Smith is a writer based in New York. She is currently working on a book about Barbara Newhall Follett, who disappeared in 1939.