The condition has a scientific name, pteromerhanophobia, afflicting the famous from football commentator John Madden to comic Whoopi Goldberg, and bringing back memories of my own struggles with the condition.
Briefly in World War II, when I was doing clerical work on a B-17 bomber base, my best friend was a gunnery instructor who arranged for my first flight ever on a practice run. At the last minute, he took me off one of the four planes and put me on another for a three-hour boring night flight.
The next morning, he shook me awake to tell me the first plane had crashed, killing four. He had taken me off because it didn’t have an instructor pilot aboard.
Such initiation aside, my postwar job as a writer and editor put me in the air often without a qualm (including a flight to Puerto Rico where they weighed me along with my luggage) until one day on a pre-jet trip to Washington I found myself with a tray in my lap and the thought suddenly struck, “What am I doing up here eating?”
Flying was never the same again. My strategies for coping included Scotch before boarding, a flask for the flight and the discovery that anxiety soaks up whiskey like water, leaving me cold sober and ready to work after landing.
During that time, one airline had the brilliant idea of putting monitors next to seats to show takeoffs and landings. I told the flight attendant I wasn’t interested in seeing myself go down in flames, ordered another drink and buried myself in a book.
On a helicopter in California, taking off westward according to standing orders, I told the pilot, “We’re not looking for Amelia Earhart, right? Can we go back?”
Now in an age where almost everyone flies without thinking twice, the mystery of the Malaysian plane’s disappearance brings back those old days and recalls the human mind’s ability to adapt but not without a price.
At 24 days and counting, will a new generation of frequent fliers ever rest easy until an answer is found?
Meanwhile, I’ll be in the back of the bus with Madden and Whoopi.