Of all the phobias humans possess, probably one of the most common is the fear of flying. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Hardly anyone is really afraid of flying. What they’re actually afraid of is falling to the ground from a long way up in the air, and being mashed and ground into pulp when they hit the ground, to the point where they could be buried in a standard sized Altoids box, if in fact any of their personal body parts are ever found at all.
This is a pretty reasonable fear, if you ask me, especially considering that man has a perfect record in air travel since heavier-than-air flight was invented by the Wrong Brothers in 1903 – so far not one plane has been left up there. They’ve all come back down, some a lot faster than others.
Personally, I’m not necessarily afraid to fly, although I’m a little more particular about who I fly with and what I fly in than I used to be. This is because of an episode that occurred about ten years ago. Since the statute of limitations has probably run out on this incident by now, and it’s doubtful anyone could get in trouble over it anymore, I guess it’s OK to relate exactly what happened, as near as I can remember it.
My wife and I were attending a hamburger supper early on a Friday evening in the fall, before a football game we planned to attend. It happened to be Homecoming weekend for the local high school where we were, and the field had been elaborately decorated. A friend, who shall remain nameless, and his wife were also at this event, as they lived in the town and had kids in the local high school.
As we were eating our burgers and talking, my friend mentioned that someone from the local school had asked him to fly his private plane, a small, two-seat Cessna, over the stadium before the festivities started, and take some pictures of the decorated field. Since he couldn’t fly and take pictures at the same time, and since his wife was busy helping with the meal, he asked me if I’d like to go along and operate the camera. I said sure.
Then I noticed that he was, at the moment, drinking a beer. When I pointed out that most pilots avoided drinking immediately before and during air travel, he said, "Yeah, I probably shouldn’t be drinking this. I guess I won’t have another one." I should have backed out right then, but I didn’t.
We loaded up in my pickup and headed for the airport, where my friend kept his plane. On the way he asked me if I had a flashlight, and I dug one out of the glove compartment. I asked why he needed it and he answered vaguely that it might come in handy.
At the airport we parked and walked to a sort of hanger-shed, with a roof and two walls, where his plane, which looked like it had seen better days, was tied down. He said, "Check under the wing on that side and see if there are any wasp nests. We need to knock those off." At the time he was evicting some yellowjackets that had made a home under the wing on his side. I should have backed out right then, but I didn’t.
We got in the plane, me with the camera in my lap, and I started looking for the seatbelt. I couldn’t find one, so I asked, and he said, "Aw, you don’t need a seatbelt. We won’t be up that long." I noticed he had a seatbelt on, but mine was conspicuously absent.
When he tried to start the plane we discovered the battery was dead, so I figured I was off the hook. No such luck. He said, "Get out and spin the prop for me. Counterclockwise. When the motor starts you need to step back real quick." I should have backed out right then, but I didn’t.
I managed to get the thing going, and we finally took off. After we got up he leaned over and shouted over the engine noise, "Do me a favor and watch that gauge right there," he was pointing at the dash. "That’s our airspeed indicator. If that needle goes below this line, let me know." He tapped the dash a couple of times to get the needles to move.
We found the stadium and got some pictures before it got too dark, and started back toward the nearby airport. I noticed the instruments were all dark. My friend leaned over and shouted, "Turn your flashlight on and shine it on the dash. My cabin lights are all out. Something’s wrong with the wiring." So I held my light on the dash so he could see well enough to land and let me out to kiss the ground.
By the time we got the plane back in the shed and tied down it was dark-thirty. At the game my wife asked me how it went. I said, "Fine."
But now, when someone invites me to go up in their private plane, I usually remember a blood test I need to study for, or something. It’s not that I’m afraid of flying so much as I’m opposed to sudden, violent death . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who has no problem driving anywhere he needs to go. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org