Fear of Flying

cockpit

When a daughter struggles with self-esteem, a dad quietly boosts her out of the nest.

First Flight

Kim & DadWhen the wheels left the runway on my first flying lesson, I felt no fear—only exultation. My hands and feet rested on the yoke and rudder pedals, absorbing my instructor Joe’s control inputs, as we angled into a watercolor-washed blue sky. It was thrilling to watch the pale spring leaves recede into undifferentiated green, far below the tires and struts.

I’d never been happier—until Joe said, “Your plane.” Suddenly, the two-seater Cessna was in my hands. But I had no idea what to do with it.

I’ve never been afraid of flying in the traditional sense. Turbulence makes me grin like a kid on a roller coaster, and I find aerobatic flight exciting and fun (although never right after breakfast). For that, I have Dad to thank. Over the years, he inexorably bequeathed his plane-love to me: My eyes, like his, follow contrails to the corners of the sky; when I was little, we never missed an airshow. And when I was 10 or so, he gave me an Amelia Earhart biography, promising a surprise when I finished. The surprise: a sightseeing flight from John C. Tune airport, in a four-seater Cessna.

Here I was 14 years later, same plane, same airport, same thrill at the moment of liftoff. My dad had surprised me again—this time, with a gift flying lesson. Here I was, getting just what I presumably wanted. But what paralyzed me that beautiful spring morning, when my instructor handed me the yoke, wasn’t terror of falling out of the sky. It was fear of taking control. Of deciding. Of setting a course and following it resolutely.

I’d made it through a good college with no idea of what to do next. I felt lost and anxious. Choosing a life’s work would close the door on so many others, I fretted. And because I struggled with shyness and low confidence, the prospect of being a Real Adult in charge of Real Things filled me with dread: I couldn’t imagine myself before a college classroom, a courtroom, or an operating table.

I’d thought a flying lesson or two would be a welcome distraction from wondering what to do with my life and fearing the responsibilities of adulthood. But once I was in the air, I realized that flying wasn’t a distraction from real life. It was real life, and a life I wanted. I dreamed of having my instructor’s job. But I couldn’t imagine myself piloting an aircraft, and with so much self-assurance.

Still, with an encouraging nod from Joe, I took a deep breath and started flying.

Control Inputs

I didn’t overcome my tentativeness in the cockpit that day, or the week after, or the month after that. I wasn’t a “natural” flyer; I performed every imaginable variety of terrible landing, short of damaging the airplane or my instructor, before my landings finally smoothed out. I soloed that summer and got my private license the following spring. But it wasn’t until I was an instructor myself, with my own little Cessna, that I began to feel in control—of my aircraft and my life.

Turns out, you don’t have to be a natural. You just have to log the time.

My dad vigorously championed my flying adventures, both as tarmac cheerleader and in a much more practical sense. My menial jobs never quite covered living expenses and flight lessons, but somehow, there was always just enough money left at the end of the month to pay the landlord and the flight school. I didn’t realize until much later that Dad was sneaking cash into my account to keep me aloft. We flew all over the Southeast and Midwest together, dodging fog banks and storms. We’d always dreamed of flying; now we were sharing the adventure, Dad and daughter above the cloud deck, prepared for whatever winds and rain might come.

We’d always dreamed of flying; now we were sharing the adventure, Dad and daughter above the cloud deck, prepared for whatever winds and rain might come.

When I got my instructor’s certificate, he and I bought a little green Cessna 172, and I gave lessons in it. (I could never have managed it without him.) Initially, it felt strange to sit in the right seat—the instructor’s side—and even stranger to be on the receiving end of that familiar, hesitant glance, the one students gave me whenever I handed them the controls for the first time.

I still had occasional doubts about whether I belonged in the right seat, teaching people to fly. I was a skilled and knowledgable pilot, but confidence didn’t come easily for me, even after I’d theoretically earned it. I remember one young man asking me a question about an FAA regulation, and I answered in typical fashion, leading with an apology. “Well, I think—“ I began.

“You’re the instructor!” he interrupted. “You’re supposed to know!”

did know, but he needed me to own it. “OK,” I said firmly and told him the answer, minus the “I think.” I realized then that my students needed more than just my knowledge and skill. They also needed my leadership.

They were as nervous as I’d been on my first lesson. And if they were to feel safe with me at 3,000 feet, in wind and rain and turbulence, I had to summon a little resoluteness and self-possession, whether I felt those things or not. It was time for me to stop focusing on my anxieties and consider how my students felt.

In the cockpit, there was no room for imposter syndrome.

First Flight, Part 2

No path to adulthood follows a straight-line course—it’s a zigzag of fits and starts, with lots of weather diversions and emergency landings along the way. But looking back, I’d say the moment I started being a real flight instructor was earlier than I realized at the time. It was during one of my dad’s first flying lessons with me as newbie CFI; after years of taking me to airshows, waving from the tarmac as I practiced touch-and-goes, and riding along on my first flights as a licensed pilot, my dad had become my first student.

That day, I didn’t think he was quite ready to land on his own; and it would be a few months yet before I felt comfortable bailing students out of catastrophic landings at the last possible moment. So as we descended, fifty feet above the runway, I said, “My plane.”

“No!” he exclaimed, excited to try a landing.

“My plane!” I insisted. He let go of the yoke.

I landed, pulled off the runway, and turned to him. “I know you’re the dad,” I said gently. “But in the plane, I’m the instructor.”

“I know,” he grinned. “I’m sorry.”

Aviation map

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8 thoughts on “Fear of Flying

  1. Love this. It reminds me of when my Dad offered to give me flying lessons. I had never even imagined me doing anything so courageous, so daring, so big. And I chickened out. I still don’t have a big urge to fly, even in commercial planes. Somehow the little planes feel so much safer.

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