A knot begins to form in my stomach exactly at 8 a.m., when I step into the small Fokker F-28 jet that will take me and 50 other passengers from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. I know what lies ahead: an hour's uneventful flying over unchanging desert, followed by the world's scariest landing--a steep, corkscrewing plunge into what used to be Saddam Hussein International Airport. Then an eight-mile drive into the city along what's known as the Highway of Death. I've made this trip more than 20 times since Royal Jordanian's civilian flights started three years ago, and you'd expect it would get easier. But the knot takes hold in my stomach every time.
I scan the cabin for familiar faces. The 50-odd passengers include the usual suspects--Western "security consultants" in faux fatigues, Iraqi officials in dark suits. And some surprises, like the three women in white Indian saris with blue borders. The nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa's order, are a comforting sight. One of them, Sister Benedetta, kindly gives me a laminated picture of the soon-to-be saint and a genuine relic--a microchip-size piece of Teresa's sari. A lapsed Hindu, I'm nonetheless grateful for any and all gifts that purport to holiness; somewhere in my bags are a tiny sandalwood Ganesha, pages of the New Testament and a string of Islamic prayer beads. In Iraq, you want to have God--anybody's God--within easy reach.
Sister Benedetta smiles politely when I joke that many of our fellow passengers will be calling to their maker when the plane begins its hellish descent. To avoid being shot down by Iraqi insurgents, the pilot must stay at 30,000 ft. until the plane is directly over Baghdad airport, then bank into a spiraling dive, straightening up just yards from the runway. If you're looking out the window, it can feel as if the plane is in a free fall from which it can't possibly pull out. I've learned from experience to ask for an aisle seat.
The only thing worse than the view from the window is being seated next to someone who hasn't taken the flight before. During one especially difficult landing in 2004, a retired American cop wouldn't stop screaming "Oh, God! Oh, God!" I finally had to slap him on the face--on instructions from the flight attendant. Another time the man in the window seat was a muscular, heavily tattooed Polynesian ex-commando who spent an hour telling me of his life as a mercenary in a succession of South Pacific island nations--stories that often ended with his punching, stabbing or shooting somebody. When the Fokker began its steep descent, he began whimpering to Jesus and grabbing my forearm so tight, I felt my palm go cold from lack of circulation.