I still remember my first airplane ride like it was yesterday, even though Richard Nixon was president, people listened to music on machines called “record players” and the trendy thing to drink was an orange concoction called Tang, rather than Red Bull or Fireball.
I was around 7 years old and my parents and I were traveling from Dayton, Ohio, to Tampa to visit my great-grandparents, who had retired there a few years before. My father wore a suit and tie, and my mother dressed up in the pink linen shift dress with white pumps that she often wore to church. Mom had me in a pretty white dress with an eyelet pattern paired with shiny black patent-leather shoes and lacy white socks.
This was back when traveling by air was a REALLY BIG DEAL.
The stewardesses (this was before they became “flight attendants”) were tall and gorgeous and looked like fashion models in their colorful, groovy outfits and matching hats. They made a huge fuss over me and gave me a pin with wings to wear. I even got to meet the captain and shake his hand. The plane, as I remember it, was enormous with plenty of room to stretch out. The last few rows were the smoking section, where passengers leisurely puffed away while sipping fancy cocktails with umbrellas in them. I guess we must have been in the air around dinner time because I clearly recall being served a hot meal. It was a TV dinner-type tray with maybe Salisbury steak, instant mashed potatoes and some sort of fruit cobbler—but it was definitely a hot meal. I’m almost certain my mother was drinking wine out of an actual wine glass.
One would think that after such a pleasant experience I would never have developed a fear of flying, but I did. I’m not sure what happened during the more than 20 years between that first flight and the next one I took in the late 1990s, but it probably had something to do with a violent airline tragedy I saw in a movie, similar to how I avoided swimming for at least a decade after seeing Jaws. (For a long time I was convinced sharks could actually be found in swimming pools—but that’s a whole other Ms. Adventure.)
To say I’m a nervous flyer is to put it mildly. The only reason I finally got back on a plane in my mid-30s was because I had to travel to New York City for work. Before the flight, I saw my doctor and explained my fears. For instance, what if the engines stop working and the plane falls out of the sky? Or our plane collides with another plane? Maybe the landing gear fails, or our plane is struck by lightning? I’m pretty sure the only reason he wrote me a prescription for Xanax was to get me to shut up.
Alas, the Xanax didn’t do the job. A co-worker was traveling with me, and I’m guessing that to this day the poor man still has my fingernail indentations on his knee even though he was wearing jeans. I cried, I prayed and, every time we hit even the mildest turbulence, I audibly yelped. It was awful. Not just for me, but for the other passengers around me. I probably frightened small children.
Days later, as we got ready to board the flight back to Southwest Florida, my traveling companion, his knee likely still in pain, suggested that rather than Xanax I try tequila.
I was resistant at first; I like to enjoy the occasional margarita or three on a Saturday afternoon at the beach, but he was suggesting a stiff shot at the airport bar. With nothing to lose (except possibly my breakfast), I downed two shots complete with salt and lime.
It was truly the best, most amazing flight ever. While the Xanax had done nothing for my fears, the tequila made me not care a bit that I was stuck in a claustrophobic, airless, metal tube hurling across the sky. Every time we hit a cloud bump, I would just happily slur, “Welp, if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.” And then I’d order another cocktail.
Which is why I was so happy recently when my friend Asha brought the makings for mimosas for us to enjoy pre-flight, when, for the first time ever, I got on a small six-seater plane at Aeronautical Charters Inc. at Page Field in Fort Myers. I seriously fly only when absolutely necessary, so this was an enormous step for me, especially since Asha, at 5-foot-11, was taller than our airplane. Before boarding, our trusty pilot, Glenn Frith, co-owner of ACI, gave us a tour of his hangar and we checked out some of the charter planes in his fleet. He does everything from fly corporate folks around to meetings to whisk bachelorette parties down to Key West for girls’ weekends. Our ride would be an hourlong tour of the Gulfshore—and I was terrified.
Luckily, Glenn dealt with it well. He asked me what my fears were and gently explained about the high level of maintenance his planes receive. He also told me about his 14 years as a pilot and let me know that I’d have a headset on so I could hear him, Air Traffic Control and the other pilots in the sky.
I’ll admit to clutching Asha’s knee a bit during takeoff, but I don’t think I caused permanent scars. It was a breezy day, so there were some bumps in the air, but my yelps weren’t disturbingly loud or anything (“That’s just the wind pushing the plane around a little,” I heard Glenn say in my ear). Finally, when we made it to an altitude where the ride was smoother, I peeked out the window and saw we were flying over my condo in downtown Fort Myers. “That’s where I live!” I yelped and began snapping pictures on my cell phone. Flying over the Caloosahatchee River afforded a pretty view, but I kept looking for places for an emergency landing, just in case. As we flew over gorgeous Cayo Costa, I asked Glenn, “What if we have to land suddenly? Can we land on the beach?”
“We can,” he answered, “but we’d rather not.”
“There are actual people on the beach,” Asha, an old hand at flying in small planes, said smiling.
She had a point. Glenn switched on some calming smooth jazz music. As we flew over upper Captiva, we could clearly see the brown spill-off from Lake Okeechobee creeping into our blue-green waters (not the nicest of sights, unfortunately). We were so low that we could see sailboats in Matanzas Pass near Fort Myers Beach and pink, blue and yellow homes on Boca Grande. I wondered if we could land on a driveway on Sanibel, just in case.
Fortunately, as I again grasped Asha’s knee, we touched down safely back at ACI, and I had to sit there for a moment and grasp the fact that I really did it—and without Xanax OR tequila. Several days after, I was still thinking about how I saw Southwest Florida from up in the air and lived to tell about it. It helps to have a good friend with you, a calming pilot you trust, a little smooth jazz, a comfy plane, a gorgeous view—and, of course, orange juice mixed with champagne.