Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fear of flying

So there I was, about to board one aircraft, while SFC McG would board a different one (going to the same place). That was a bit odd, given our experiences up to that point; we've pretty much been joined at the hip since arriving at Summer Camp almost 90 days ago.

Another odd aspect of this particular mission was that my boss boarded the same bird as I did, and his Chaplain Assistant was on the other, with SFC McG. Added to the strangeness was the fact that we didn't have to schlep ourselves over to the place from which we would normally begin our missions; that part was very nice, and convenient! The crew made sure we were buckled in, then slammed the door, and we took off.

On the first leg of the trip, my boss and I had the passenger compartment of the chopper all to ourselves. Unlike other vehicles SFC McG and I'd traveled in thus far, which show their age inside and out (like me) and seem a bit careworn on the inside (also like me), this one was completely squared-away, and even had headsets at each seat. My combat earplugs do what they're supposed to do, but certainly not as well as having those headsets on!

It seems as though the other two passengers who'd eventually board the chopper we were on were having dinner Elsewhere, so we flew there to await their advent.

We wound up waiting there about forty minutes. I was standing outside the aircraft on the tarmac right next to the bird as we waited.

It was another of those beastly hot late afternoons, and even though the sun was beginning to set, it was still almost 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I, of course, was in full battle-rattle (looking like a geriatric mutant Ninja turtle, as I've mentioned before), standing in the rotor wash of the chopper.

"Convection oven" doesn't even come close to describe the experience, what with the heat radiating off the tarmac, coupled with the heat from the engines whipped into a vortex by the blades whirling above.

I had a bit of a spiritual awakening while standing there, as it turned out, but that's a story for another time, perhaps.

When the others finally arrived, we snapped to attention and I scrambled up into my seat as the last one to board. I wound up sitting facing the rear of the aircraft, next to the door on my left, with my boss seated directly across from me.

The other two had more space between them. The crew again made sure I had buckled myself in, and we took off.

They did not close the door this time.

I was right next to it.

Now, I've got to let you know that when I was younger, I did not like flying at all. I wound up being a frequent flyer, but I was not a pacific passenger.

Every bump or lurch of the cabin immediately signaled impending doom.

I really, really, really did not like being on planes -- and especially the little rubber-band planes that my friend Brian B and I would wind up on as we went to out-of-the-way places to go SCUBA diving. Oy.

A thousand would not have been enough of them for him; one was too many for me.

Anyway, one of my friends who goes to AA and Al-Anon meetings pointed out to me a while ago that no matter how tightly I was gripping the arm rests, I was *not* helping the plane stay in the air. She then proceeded to point out that I could choose to surrender to the situation and relax, or not.

I could choose to have a good time, or not.

It was up to me, but whatever choice I made, I was still *not* helping the plane to stay aloft.

Wow. What a concept.

So, over the years since then, it's become much less of an issue for me to be on aircraft, and I've even used that analogy about gripping the arm rests with people who've come to speak with me about their own fears.

Ironically, the night before I wound up on the bird which was taking off with the passenger compartment door open -- and me next to it -- I'd mentioned the arm rests to CPT M who'd just celebrated two years of being clean and sober, with reference to a situation in his life he was experiencing powerlessness in.

I'd seen photos of helicopters flying with the compartment door open, and especially when I'd been crammed in with a full manifest of passengers and their accompanying ruck sacks, musical instruments, and even a dog (I kid you not), I've found myself wondering what it would be like to be winging our way westward while the doors were open, secretly both glad and annoyed they were not.

So there I was, the ground dropping away beneath me, when I realized I'd better hold on to my helmet (I had the headset on), or it'd become an unguided missile.

The phrase "dropping away beneath me" is quite literally true. Because of the curvature of the body of that aircraft, the seat I was in is situated such that even though we were flying level, I could look down and see the ground directly below.


My first reaction was, of course, to see myself as Wiley E. Coyote blissfully unaware of the anvil about to drop. Given the configuration of the compartment, there was nothing to hold on to, other than the lap belts or shoulder harnesses holding me in.

I was immediately aware of God's cruel irony that I'd just the night before been mentioning to CPT M that no matter how tightly he was holding on to the "arm rests" in his situation, he was not helping his plane stay in the air.

I hate it when God shows off like that!

I remember thinking: "I hope these seat belts stay fastened." (I'd been on one chopper where one of the shoulder harness buckles would spontaneously pop out). "What am I doing here?" and "Why does this uniform have to make me look fat?"

I said the Serenity Prayer. I let go of holding on to the shoulder harness, and just held onto my water bottle and helmet. I really didn't want to be the occasion for renewed/enhanced hostilities because someone got hurt (or worse) because my Kevlar helmet or water bottle clunked them on their noggin.

Things were going well until the aircraft started to bank. On my side. I suspect it was probably only 15 degrees or so, but my broken brain immediately had us at a 90-degree angle. I was reminded of a poem by May Sarton which begins:
Fragile as a spider's web
Hanging in space
Between tall grasses
It is torn again and again.

So there I was, hanging in space, feeling very fragile indeed, with only the seat belt and shoulder harnesses keeping me in my seat. What a rush!

I've heard a lot of alcoholics and Al-Anons over the years saying that fear and faith can't coexist, and maybe that's true for them, but it sure ain't true for me. Fear and faith have no problem at all having a grand old time together in me.

I've heard plenty of people saying, "If I'm afraid it means I just don't have enough faith." Pshaw. I'm here to tell you that I've got lots of faith (most of the time) and lots of fear (some of the time). However, my "fear quotient" has been diminishing of late, as I've let my Higher Power get bigger and bigger and bigger. (Thanks, Fr. Tom W!)

The bigger I let God get in my life, the less fear I'm distracted by.

The reason for that is because it's not faith and fear that don't play well together, it's that *love* and fear that can't coexist. In the Christian scriptures, in the First Letter of John it says "perfect love casts out fear." (1Jn 4:18) If I have a God who is perfect love, it's God who casts out fear.

So if I have a God who's big enough, I live with much less fear.

The poem by May Sarton is entitled, "Love." Here it is:


Fragile as a spider's web
Hanging in space
Between tall grasses
It is torn again and again.

A passing dog
Or simply the wind can do it.
Several times a day
I gather myself together
And spin it again.

Spiders are patient weavers.
They never give up.
And who knows
What keeps them at it?
Hunger, no doubt,
And hope.

So there I was, suspended above the earth, watching the landscape directly below me with nothing holding me in that aircraft but the love of a very big God, made manifest in that moment as "personal protective equipment," having a great time, filled with gratitude and awe. Who knew?

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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Anonymous said...

Father Tim, Petr Walker here. God bless you my friend. Well on this end I work heaps trying to raise millions for the homeless of LA. I work for a very large group whose hearts and actions are in the right place. Not cycling as I like to take a month or so off each year (well most years) to let the bod get a little soft and repair. I am in charge of the fundraising dept and all of that is going well. My girl and I are great and I have been hitting about 7 meetings a week. Sponsoring heaps of guys and sitting on perhaps too many commitees. Breaki with Dad this morning. Its 6 40 Am on Sunday say the 28th. I have a house full of sleeping women in various stages of hungoverness. Actually I have known these women for years and they rarely get hang overs. They simply do not drink that much. They dance around and get loud. Turn the stereo too loud, logical conversation gets a bit rare, spill chips. Almost boring. No broken windows no blood I love you will keeep up now. XXX

Capt Tom Bunn LCSW said...

It would be easy to think of fear of flying as a lack of faith. But it really comes from another "lack". It isn't good news, and when we know we had good parents, it sounds like blaming them. There are many way to comfort a child. Some of them can be "internalized" so the child can take that calming effect with them. some of the ways can't.

A lot of our understanding of how a person builds in the ability to remain reasonably calm in facing uncertainty is new information learned through brain scan research.

As both an airline captain and licensed therapist, I've specialized in helping people deal with fear of flying for twenty-eight years.

I have tried to give a good understanding of the cause and cure of fear of flying in a video at

Also, at

JP said...

Hey Tim,

I have a 18 minute cure for your fear of flying called GoGetter JetSetter.

If you blog about curing yourself of a fear of flying, I'll give you the GoGetter JetSetter program for FREE (a $49 value).

Check it out at:

For the Love of Living Life to the Fullest,

JP Richards, MC.hT, MNLP, MTLT®
Certified Rapid Phobia Removal Therapist, Master Hypnotherapist, &
Master NLP & Time Line Therapy® Practitioner

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the big leagues brther in law---just remember you arent the first one to ever do what you are doing and really we aren't as important as we think we are. These two nuggets help keep things in perspective.

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