Fur hat finally answers, "Yup. Just the wheel," as he points to his carry-on suitcase.
Classic. My mind had leaped in the space of a nanosecond from a waiting room in Logan Airport to a death spiral over the Atlantic. Dr. Curtis Hsia of Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders calls this automatic thinking. It was even worse a few hours earlier when, as part of my treatment for a debilitating case of aviophobia (fear of flying), Dr. Hsia had booked me on Exposure Airlines. It's the newest thing in phobic therapy: a virtual airplane of hardware, software and fancy head-mounted display screens that feels like the real thing.
I hate window seats, I remember thinking just before my virtual flight took off. You can see how far you'd fall if... Oops. Don't go there. I want to speak to the crew for reassurance, but there is no one. Instead I'm squeezed into a row of four seats, alone.
I take a hurried glance out the window to check the weather. Just a few stratus clouds. That's O.K. The sound of jet engines drowns me as my virtual airplane heads down the runway. My legs are stiff, and I arch my back in anticipation. No g-force in this simulation. A small break for me. We level off. Sky is still good. I begin to relax. Look around. Not so bad.
A humongous noise sparks my body upward. Another glance out the window. Not good. We're in the middle of a thunderstorm. The seats ahead of me are shaking. I can feel the thunder in my bones. I know this isn't real, but I can't seem to control my fear. Through the din, I hear Dr. Hsia ask me how I'm feeling on an anxiety scale of 1 to 10: total relaxation to panic. I'm pushing 9. The storm thunders on. I am hating this.
"Why isn't the pilot saying anything?" I ask Dr. Hsia. I crave reassurance. The pilot must be fighting to stay aloft, I think. Maybe he's drunk.
"What about the co-pilot?" Dr. Hsia asks.
He's probably drunk too. Otherwise someone would be saying something to reassure me.
"What's the likelihood that both pilots would be out of it?" he asks.
Probably nil, I answer reluctantly. All right. They got bad weather information. I start looking around the cabin, searching the seams of the fuselage for any signs of strain. Don't know what I'm expecting. A loosened panel. Dripping water.
A broken bolt. Still no word from the crew. I'm getting ticked. They should be talking to me. My head is pounding. I'm fingering my necklace. My legs ache.
It's over. The sky is clear again. I get my breath back. My back is just sinking into the seat when—Gotcha! We're in another storm. Just as bad. Panic level back up to 9. Still no pilot.
Damn him! Does this plane have a lightning rod? My head is bursting now.
"What do you think would happen if lightning did hit the plane?" Dr. Hsia asks. I don't know. It would break apart. "Has that happened before?" Not that I know of. "If the pilots are flying through this, it's because they know the plane can take it," he says calmly.
Maybe the plane can, but I can't.
Another calm. I think it's over. Wrong. A third storm. Still nothing from the pilot. Seams are holding. I lean in to the window as far as I can. Nothing but black, punctuated by flashes and that dreadful crash of thunder. I'm wearing out my necklace. I want out of this. I close my eyes. Maybe that'll help me cope. Eyes pop back open. Need to see what's going on! Have to get through this. The pilot apparently is. Plane isn't breaking apart.
I look out the window again. Blue sky, buildings rising to meet us. We're coming down. I collapse against my seat. It's over.
Not quite. Ten minutes later, I'm back in the air. Another storm. This one lasts the whole flight. I run through my bleak assumptions. This time, I answer them for myself. Pilot. Lousy communicator. Plane. Holding together. Made for this. Look out the window. The pulsing clouds remind me of Van Gogh. My hands stay on my lap. I play with my rings. I'll be coming down soon enough. I register between a 3 and a 4. I can do this.
Back at Logan Airport, they're boarding Continental Flight No. 367 to Newark. As I head down the aisle toward seat 8E a window I hear a passenger say, "Did I tell you what a bad flight I had coming up here?" I shut him out. Don't need this. Squeeze into my seat. Look out the window. Beautiful. Clear. Almost no wind. The right engine is just below me. Could keep this plane up by itself, if the other engine quits. It roars to life, and my stomach tightens.
This is real. What do I think can happen? None of my worst-case scenarios seem very likely. And if we do run into trouble, there are tons of airports below for an emergency landing. We'll be O.K. Perfect takeoff to the south over Boston Harbor, and then bank slightly right toward home. Level off at 16,000 ft. I hear the crackle of the intercom. The pilot says it'll be a smooth flight. Safety-belt sign is turned off. I love his voice. I push back my seat and stare out the window.
No miracle cure here, but I do feel a bit calmer, more in control. I think I'm going to take it one flight at a time.