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(Eduard Brantjes)

Fear Factor

Panic attacks in an airliner? Try a smaller airplane, with a friend as your pilot.

So I tried other methods. I would buy a ticket to whatever city was cheapest that weekend, and as I got closer to the boarding area, I would try to push past the surge of adrenaline and catastrophic thoughts. When that repeatedly failed, I got more creative.

I tried medication; I tried having a few drinks. Having a lot of drinks. Planning flights on small airplanes, on big airplanes, window seats, aisle seats. After hypnosis. From different airports, different gates, different times of day. I once called a phone-a-pilot, who spent my half-hour consultation explaining how wings produce lift with the conviction that knowledge is power.

More than 25 spent airline tickets later, my face surely became familiar (if suspicious) to the Transportation Security Administration agents at Orlando International as I passed through their lines without baggage, only to walk past an hour later with my boarding pass still in hand.

I managed to keep these attempts a secret from my colleagues. Nothing is as embarrassing to aeronautical engineers as a fear of flying. But when word got out—as secrets tend to do—it was a friend and colleague, Hari, who offered assistance. A specialist in the vibration loads of a rocket launch, Hari was also a private pilot and an astronaut wannabe who couldn’t stand the idea of anyone not sharing his excitement about flight.

Our first trip to the air field at Titusville was less than encouraging. Hari proudly showed me the four-seat Cessna 172 he had rented and took me through the preflight checklist. While he removed the pitot tube covers and checked for blockages, I checked my quickening pulse and initiated calm-breathing exercises. By the time he called out “Clear prop” and started the ignition, I was struggling to catch enough breath to fight off the pinpoints of light scattered across my field of vision. I bailed before we could even taxi onto the runway.

Hari promised that flying in small airplanes was safe, and that he was up to date on all his certifications. I tried explaining that the fear is not about the airplane, or the heights, or the possibility of crashing, but about my ability to escape the situation if I’m hit with another panic attack—something not easily done at altitude.

Other co-workers went up with Hari, making a point to stop by my cubicle afterward, report on his flying skills, and encourage me to give it another try. Eventually Hari told me that he had booked the 172 again. “You don’t have to fly,” he said, “but you should come. We can taxi around all day if you want. And if we take off, we can land whenever you want.”

This time, with the chance to back out at any moment, the adrenaline didn’t pump quite so heavily. We taxied around the airport and Hari offered me the controls. “Just keep us out of the grass,” he said.

When we got to the end of the runway, Hari radioed the control tower to give me time. I looked out at the open space of the air field, my mind running through three years of inspirational quotes and psychological assurances. With the authority to say yay or nay, a calm fell over me. I could breathe. I could relax. I could tell Hari to taxi back to the hangar. But now, with a clear mind, my only thoughts were ones of anticipation to see up over the treetops, to look out over the ocean and to try to see the space shuttle in the distance on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

A Beechcraft Bonanza pulled up behind us. Hari looked over at me. “Are we flying today?”

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