How to Fly

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I do not like to fly. It has nothing to do with fear of heights or being separated from the ground. Most of the time I have no problem with the fundamental concept of being in a metal tube a few miles above the earth held aloft solely by the physical forces of velocity, drag, and lift. Rather, what I experience is a dread that arises from the fact that I am six-feet, two-inches tall and get panicky when I am wedged into an airplane seat that was built for a child. This feeling is amplified when the person in front of me puts his seat all the way back and when the person next to me erects a wall of electronics consisting of laptop, iPad, iPhone, and noise-canceling earphones, and when the traveler behind me lets his toddler crank up her Queen Elsa singing doll, the one where when you lift its left arm the doll begins belting out “Let it Go,” as an array of LED lights flash under her blue dress.

This will not be an essay of complaint, however. I wish only to share some solutions that I have come up with to manage my unhappiness with flying. By the way, as I am writing this I am at 29,000 feet over Montana, with thunderclouds blooming around me like mushrooms after a downpour, and the captain has just announced in his captain voice, “Ladies and gentlemen we anticipate some turbulence, and have turned on the seatbelt sign. Please return to your seats, and stay the fuck there, because I have never seen weather conditions like this in forty years of flying. God save us all.”

First, let me list some of the things I like about flying.

Now let me list the things I have found effective to help me get through long flights.

1. Xanax. This is a drug, not a place, and it was prescribed for me by my physician after I told him about my issues with flying. I was about to depart on a book tour which would involve a lot of flying in small regional airplanes, which if you ask me are a creation of the devil—aircraft like the Canadair Sopwith Pup and the Embraer von Richthofen 9E. At first I was uneasy about resorting to a pharmaceutical solution to my problem, so before I tried Xanax, I Googled it. I learned that psychiatrists do not like to prescribe it for depression, because it works so quickly that it can become addictive. This gave me pause. But then I checked a couple of online fear-of-flying sites. Here Xanax was considered a drug with magical powers. People wrote about getting on a plane in New York and then landing in Los Angeles without being aware of the passage of time. This sounded good to me. I have never taken a whole tablet, only a half, and only when I fly long distances or in unsettled weather or in regional jets or in propellor planes or when through some act of dark magic I end up in a middle seat. The drug does seem to calm me, and when I am calm, I am very courteous, and the flight attendants all like me and give me treats as if I am a particularly cute schnauzer strapped into a seat. The most beneficial effect, however, is the drug’s ability to compress time. I find myself marveling on transcontinental flights when the captain says we will soon begin our descent, and yet the flight feels as though it has only been underway for an hour or so. For me, this is a singularly pleasurable feeling. My fear is that one time I will awaken from this trance and find my fellow passengers looking at me strangely, with smirky smiles on their faces, as if at some point during the flight I had exited the bathroom and strolled the length of the plane naked but for my headphones and iPod, singing “Take me to the River,” the Al Green version.

2. Bloody Marys. These can be effective as well. So can Jack Daniels. It is not a good idea, however, to combine these with Xanax, according to my doctor. “Whatever you do,” he told me, “do not drink alcohol when you take this.” He rolled his eyes. “That’s when the crazy things happen that you read about.” He did not elaborate.

3. Talk. Sometimes it is helpful to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you, though this can lead to a nightmarish hours-long engagement with a person who decides that your soul needs saving. On one flight to Europe I overheard a clean-cut young man attempt to persuade the young woman next to him that the Bible was her one path to salvation, a point she did not dispute because immediately she asked a flight attendant for permission to move to a seat twenty rows away. Traveling with my wife is helpful. Flying does not trouble her; she stays calm in turbulence; and I like talking to her—although I learned recently that she and my daughters will sometimes draw straws to see who has to sit next to me. I acknowledge that I can be a pest. I have been known to write secret notes in the margins of the books my wife is reading as if the author had written to her directly, and sometimes, but only if the book is a paperback, I reach over and tear out a page and hold it hostage. (It is in fact true that once during a particularly competitive Scrabble game at my home I tore a page out of our Scrabble dictionary and ate it, to keep my fellow players from confirming that the word I had just put down did not exist in any known language.)

4. Avoid TV news. I discovered by accident that YouTube is home to scores of videos of airplanes making scary landings in high winds. If you enjoy this kind of thing, go to YouTube and search the phrase “Scary Landings.” There are also “Scary Crosswind Landings” and “Scary Takeoffs,” or my favorite, “Scary Landing at Fort Lauderdale with People Yelling.” And by the way, those are actual titles. I could be wrong but it seems to me an inordinate number of these scary moments occur at German airports in the dead of winter. I find myself curiously drawn to these videos, in the way that a toothache sufferer cannot resist tonguing the sore tooth. The commentary of the amateur videographers is particularly compelling. “Mein Gott, zat vas a cloze von, vas it not Herr Gruber?” I have learned to avoid these videos at all costs.

5. Know your airplanes. As a cautious flyer, I am picky about the aircraft in which I travel. Other travelers must be this way as well because now when you book a flight you can see what kind of airplane will be flying the route. I avoid aircraft where in the course of a routine flight I bump my head more than twice. Once on a flight on a tiny jet the captain asked if anyone aboard was a physician, and could help with a medical emergency. My wife is a doctor. She volunteered. A very large man, whose weight likely exceeded 300 pounds, had suffered what at first seemed to be a heart attack while seated in the tiny bathroom at the very back of the cabin. My wife learned that the man was diabetic and discerned from his symptoms that the likely cause of his distress was a sugar imbalance. She recommended the flight attendant get him a glass of orange juice. This helped. He was allowed to remain in the john for the landing, which is probably the only enviable thing about the incident, the toilet being the most comfortable seat on that size aircraft. We landed without incident.

6. Sit by the window. This is crucial. When I sit by the window I can see what is causing the airplane to roll around like a kitten in one of those tedious GIFs that populate Twitter, and thus reassure myself that we have not flown into the center of a thunderstorm but rather are experiencing clear-air turbulence that, while uncomfortable, is at least survivable. It may also be the case—and I am not confirming or denying this, just putting it out there—but it could also be that in sitting by the window I, through sheer willpower, help the aircraft stay aloft.

7. Only fly in daytime. I like to know that the pilot and first officer of my aircraft can see what is around and ahead of them. As I routinely tell my daughters, “If I can see, the pilot can see.” Often when I fly, I see other jets darting past in the opposite direction at what seems alarming proximity. Or, I see aircraft flying parallel with us, keeping pace, seeming to float at zero velocity, but also seeming to drift in my direction. This happens a lot on the approach to San Francisco International, which for some godforsaken reason has two parallel runways. This is when I have to restrain the impulse to push the flight-attendant call button and tell the responding attendant, “Could you please inform the captain that there is a 757 two inches away, so close that not only can I see the Queen Elsa doll in the window, I can tell that the doll is singing, because it’s left arm is raised. Thank you so much.”

8. Always sit in a bulkhead seat. While these can be awkward, because you have to put your personal belongings in the overhead bin during takeoff and landing, they also allow you to exit the row without asking the person with the wall of electronics to remove it so that you can go to the bathroom.

9. Don’t fly at all. This is my favorite resolution. On my book tours I will gladly drive five hours in a rental car to avoid flying, though five hours is about my limit. I like driving. I like seeing the countryside. And I have a passion for road food, in particular a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries, and a chocolate milk shake (without the whipped cream). Sometimes I substitute coffee for the milk shake. And depending on time of day, I will substitute an Egg McMuffin for the Quarter Pounder. I vary my road-food consumption by geographic region. When I am driving on the east coast I stop at Dunkin’ Donuts and get a couple of plain cake donuts, or maybe chocolate-frosted cake donuts, and a cup of coffee. You cannot get these things on an airplane, which is something the FAA needs to look into. What would help me get through a flight would be a package of Hostess Ho-Ho’s, because at least I could offer these as a bribe to the little girl with the Elsa doll, to get her to turn it off. But that may be asking too much.

Crowded plane

Dante’s first circle of hell.

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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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