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Flights of Magical Thinking

After covering a devastating plane crash, a journalist grapples with his newfound fear of flying.

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How I Found My Zen

Flights of Magical Thinking

Zen on the Cheap …

After covering a devastating plane crash, a journalist grapples with his newfound fear of flying.

The author on his way to O'Hare in 1996

In my younger days, my attitude toward flying was always up, up and away, whether my journey called for boarding an aged TWA jet to London or a puddle-jumper departing from a lonely northern Wisconsin airport. Then one day, all of that confidence evaporated. As a young reporter, I covered the 1985 crash of a Delta jet that killed 136 passengers and crew. Flight 191 smashed into pieces while it tried to land at the Dallas-Forth Worth airport amid an unexpected microburst. I interviewed airline sources and crash survivors, as well as kept tabs on the flow of passengers’ families and friends at DFW as they sought information or initiated funeral arrangements. It was distressing, yes. But I did my job and thought I moved on.

Not long after, however, I started to dread flying. My paranoia would kick in at the boarding gate and escalate after I took my seat. I would sweat, fidget, and press an imaginary emergency brake with my leg every time the aircraft tilted. Turbulence? Don’t ask. After years of panic and anxiety attacks, my doctor prescribed Xanax. It calmed my mind — sometimes I’d even nap during liftoff — and made air travel bearable.

Until, that is, I started working for former Governor Pat Quinn. As his communications director, I would occasionally travel on the state’s small, twin-propeller plane from Midway to Springfield and back. During the 45-minute flights, the governor and staff would discuss policies, scheduling, and other matters. We were expected to be engaged — meaning no Xanax.

So I developed this ritual: I thought about the two pilots and eight passengers aboard and rationalized that was a pretty good ratio. In the air, I’d peer down at Illinois’ open fields and tell myself this small plane could glide to a safe landing if the engines cut out. I took comfort knowing these were short flights because that meant less time for something to go blooey.

Yes, it’s nutty. But who cares? After so many years of dealing with airplane anxiety, I’m all for flying in the face of reality.

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