Fata Morgana: My Fear of Flying

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 over the weekend reminded me of something I wrote years ago about developing and conquering a fear of flying in the aftermath of the November 2001 crash of American Airlines flight 587. A warning: Alongside this beautiful image from Paul Klee, there is some grisly written imagery in this piece.

Image from http://arttattler.com/archivepaulklee.html 

Paul Klee, Fata Morgana at Sea, 1918, 12, Watercolour and pen on paper on cardboard, © VBK Vienna, 2008, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – extended loan and promised gift of the Carl Djerassi Art Trust I.

An image by Paul Klee, Fata Morgana zur See, gave my fear of flying a name. The placard next to the watercolor and ink image hanging in the museum informed me that fata morgana is a type of mirage in which things appear to be suspended above the sea. That was it, exactly how I had felt about planes since 2001.

My fear of flying had been precipitated not by 9/11, but by my sister’s retelling of events that happened two months later. Her story started in an outer room of the Manhattan city morgue on East 30th Street, where she was waiting her turn to go into the examination room to dust human remains for explosives. These were the remains of the passengers of American Airlines Flight 587, a flight that had crashed earlier in the morning into the Belle Harbor area of Queens, New York.

It was by chance that my sister was in the New York area on the day of the crash. She had just returned to her hotel from her midnight to eight AM shift sifting through rubble from Ground Zero at the Fresh Kills landfill in New Jersey when her pager began to beep. She turned on the television before answering the page. News of the crash was on every station.

New York area FBI agents, who had been working seven-day weeks since September 11th, were too overwhelmed to respond to the crash. The burden has fallen to out-of-state FBI teams like hers who had been rotating in every two weeks to assist the local teams in any way they could. My sister, who typically worked white-collar crime, had made her way to New York as a member of an auxiliary emergency response team.

Back at the morgue, members of her California-based team were taking 30-minute turns working in the examination room. In between they give each other pep talks. One woman offered her some mint oil to rub into her mask. "It helps with the smell," she said. My sister accepted the oil, put on her mask, willed her nausea into temporary retreat, and entered the exam room. The mint oil stung her eyes and she choked back tears as she and her teammate removed the seat belt imbedded in the abdomen of the torso on the table and began the evidence collection procedure.

That was the image that changed my relationship to flying, something that, as the daughter of an airline pilot, had long been a routine and often glamorous part of my life. Suddenly the belief that humans could dart across an ocean in a steel sheath attached to neither sky nor sea seemed delusional and arrogant. That terrorists could willfully take down three planes seemed plausible, if horrific, to me. The inhumanity of humans was something I could comprehend. That the planes themselves might disintegrate in mid-air, as Flight 587 did, had never really occurred to me.

Now when I flew I was keenly attuned to changes in the sound of the jet engines, to the feeling of deceleration at 30,000 feet when your torso is pulled ever so slightly forward, to the optical illusion that the plane's nose is plunging when you look down the center aisle of the plane from a row in the back. I noted the exact time of takeoff and when ten minutes had passed because I knew this interval was statistically the most dangerous. I requested aisle seats not only so I could stretch out my legs but also to avoid looking down at the earth beneath me, which would only serve to confirm my suspicion that I was contained in nothing more than a mirage suspended above the sea.

These days when I fly, I still notice all these things, but they don’t bother me as much. The morbid image from my sister’s story has receded over time, replaced by another from an uneventful flight to the UK a year or so after Flight 587 crashed. Somewhere over the North Sea, our captain greeted us with the news that it was morning in England and we were about an hour away from London. I opened the window shade—my husband, more neurotic than me about flying, had forced me to take the window seat in our two-seat row—and looked out at the bright sky. There was another plane flying horizontal to us, close enough for me to tell that it was another United plane but far enough away not to seem dangerous. I woke my husband to show him, and we watched the other plane until it veered off to the east, to Paris our captain told us. I felt an old sense of wonder and excitement about flying. Our twin planes belonged here, suspended above the sea: solid, gleaming, hurtling toward their destinations with the certainty of zealots.

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