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Fear of flying might not be such a bad thing


Mike Royko is on vacation. This is one of his favorite columns, which first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1984.

THE MOMENT I SAW that Newsweek magazine's cover story was about phobias, I thumbed through looking for the part about mine.

I skimmed past the part about the agoraphobic (fear of spaces) lady who had come out of her apartment only three times in 61 years. And the gephyrophobic (bridges) man whose wife puts him in the car trunk when they cross a dreaded span. And all the other examples of phobics who fear snakes, shopping malls, strangers, eating in public, dogs, germs, vehicles or darkness.

Then I found it. Aerophobia: the fear of flying. My own, personal phobia.

As I've probably mentioned before, I have this thing about airplanes. I've been on a plane only once in the past 25 years. Actually, I've been on two, but I don't count the second one because I scrambled off before the stewardess closed the door.

Since I won't fly, naturally I'm interested in the subject of not flying, and I read all the articles about it -- especially those that suggest a remedy.

Just once, I'd like to read something that got it right.

And, I'm sorry to say, the current Newsweek article didn't succeed.

It said: "The fear of flying is usually experienced as the fear of being trapped inside an airplane. It is a kind of claustrophobia of the soul that has very little to do with the real dangers of air travel."

What nonsense. It has nothing to do with being trapped inside an airplane. Or any "claustrophobia of the soul," whatever that means.

I don't mind at all being trapped inside an airplane. I could get on a plane right now, sit down and be totally relaxed, comfortable, without a trace of fear. As long as the thing stayed on the ground, where it belongs.

That's the part that bothers me -- not being inside that tin tube. But being inside of it when it is hurtling through the air at the speed of a bullet, four or five miles above the nearest rooftop.

Over the years, I've tried to explain that to those who urge me to fly or try to get to the root of my resistance.

I tried going to a shrink. He spent hours listening to me talk about all the things that can happen to an airplane. Birds flying into the jet intake. Mechanics with hangovers forgetting to tighten bolts. Guys in the control tower having nervous breakdowns or sniffing glue. Pilots with suicidal tendencies. Some passenger jumping up and saying: "Take me to Havana or we go boom!"

When I finished our last session, nothing had changed, except the psychiatrist had become so scared that he wouldn't fly either. And after all I did for him, he still sent me a bill.

Once an airline sent a public relations man over with a briefcase full of statistics that were meant to be reassuring.

He said things like: "You know, the chances of your being killed while crossing the street are much greater than of being killed in a plane."

I said: "Yeah? When I cross the street, I look both ways first. If I look both ways on an airplane, will that prevent the pilot from running into the side of a mountain?"

He said: "Do you realize that there are more dangers of being killed or injured in an accident in your own home than on an airplane?"

I said: "Yeah? Well, I've never landed my home in a swamp at 200 miles an hour."

He said: "You are in far more danger while driving your car."

I said: "When I get ice on my windshield, I stop and scrape it off. Can your pilot do that?"

When I finished with him, he wouldn't ride an escalator.

But to get back to the Newsweek article. It provided possible cures, but they were the usual ones, such as the group therapy sessions run by the airlines during which they teach you how to relax and tell you how safe airplanes are.

A pilot who runs one of the programs described the fear this way: "When people go on an airplane journey, it's very similar to the journey of life."

More nonsense. I don't journey through my life at 650 miles an hour, 26,000 feet above the wilderness of Ohio, with my stomach in my mouth.

That public relations man tried to get me to join such a class. I asked him: "Do a lot of people do that?" He said: "Oh, sure. You know, there are millions of people who feel the way you do." I

said: "They can't all be wrong."

I've tried all the remedies. The only one that worked was when a friend in Washington, upon hearing that I was taking a train back to Chicago, suggested that I drink martinis until I was ready to ride an airplane. It worked. After only nine large martinis, I rode the plane. The only trouble is, after nine martinis I'd also be willing to ride a bull or python.

I even tried hypnotism once, but I don't think the hypnotist was very good. I told him that I wanted hypnotism to help me fly. When he put me under, I flapped my arms and quacked like a duck.

So I've given up. And maybe it is not a bad idea. According to Newsweek article, Ronald Reagan didn't launch his political career until he overcame his dread of flying. That means that if he hadn't overcome it, he wouldn't have become president.

Who says phobias are bad.

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