To escape fear, you have to go through it, not around.

Taking Flight; Again 

January 31, 2013

Here we are. At the gate. Los Angeles International Airport.  Our Round the World  tickets are seconds away from being scanned for the first flight of this uncharted adventure. I can’t believe we are on our way. I can’t believe we made this decision only a few months ago and it all fell into place and led us to this moment. I can’t believe we are about to wave goodbye to our lives as we know them; our families; our familiar territory. 

We are about to fly through the sky crossing countries, continents, and time zones.  We will never be the same again. Our world and perspectives will broaden and we will expand beyond our recognizable selves.  We will be together as a family; alive, free, ready, open. Aware and ready to embrace everything and anything.

I’m looking out the window at the plane we are about to board.  I’m carefully scrutinizing the faces around me as I wonder what kind of quest this plane will take each of them on.  Are they heading out in search of the things I am.  Are they pondering what happiness is and how they may possibly find it if they get on this plane and go. 

Growing up, I always loved flying. I saw it as a means to new discoveries. I craved the stimulation that came from stepping out of the discernible truths and reality I knew. I didn’t fear leaving home.  I didn’t fear crashing.  I didn’t question the lack of control. I often left on a moment’s notice and was up for just about anything. Until one day…

 It was January 25, 1990.  I was on my way to New York to visit my Dad.  He had a business conference and invited me to meet him there.  I was so excited and didn’t think twice about my transportation or my safety. 

Upon take off we were told that the northeastern United States was having bad weather which would worsen throughout the day, affecting every major airport in the region. Several hundred flights were delayed and/or cancelled. I know, in most cases, planes don’t take off unless they have a clearing to do so and we were given that clearing, despite the weather conditions where we were heading. 

Cruising at 37,000 feet approaching New York, neither the crew or any of us,  had any apparent reason at 7:40 P.M.  to worry about reaching our destination safely.

I had just finished dinner and was watching Rain Man. It was a smooth flight and everything was pleasant.

The movie was about to end and the long delays were about to begin. We were only about 40 miles from Kennedy airport, a distance we could have flown in a matter of minutes. To get there however, we would have had to follow the aerial equivalent of a spiral staircase in a grand estate, moving from one floor to another only with the permission of controllers in various rooms of the house. 

The crew made one attempt to land and they were unsuccessful before circling again.  It is easier to envision the plane moving progressively down the spiral staircase of the control system, passing from the control of one station  to another in order to approach the ground floor at JFK’s runway. I’m sure you can imagine the difficulty and the amount of time this would take considering other aircraft, emerging from other corridors in the same estate, were all planning to use the same, single, narrow staircase to the ground. The bad weather, on this particular evening, forced Kennedy airport to have only one runway open. Thirty- three planes were trying to land there each hour. 

The crew members would come on periodically to announce another delay and at around 8 pm they announced another 20 minutes.  We didn’t hear from them again until 9:00 and people began to panic.  We descended several thousand feet into a new holding pattern and I assumed that the lower altitude was a sign that we were approaching the runway for landing.  At that point we were told that the local controllers were overwhelmed by all of the traffic arriving from different directions and they instructed us to continue circling. 

I was still calm.  I don’t know why exactly.  Perhaps it was my youthful innocence.  Perhaps I knew it wasn’t my time.  Perhaps I didn’t know fear.  I do know however, that the rest of the plane was hysterical.  People were moaning, crying, screaming and freaking out.  The constant ascending, descending and uncertainty was making everyone beyond uncomfortable and there I sat.  Alone. Calm. Patient. I just kept focusing and envisioning New York.  I imagined myself walking down 5th avenue with my Dad.  I sang ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables over and over in my head as I pictured myself sitting on Broadway, enjoying my favorite show. “ This plane is going to land. I will see my Dad in just a few minutes.  Everything is going to be okay,” I assured myself.

A few moments later, we were told that we were getting very low on fuel and were 8 minutes away from a state of emergency.  The crew member told us that because of the crowding, we may be diverted to another airport.  He then came back on and said we didn’t have enough fuel to land in Boston and we were not being given a clearing to land. He said that not only was just one runway open, but the winds were tricky and the visibility on the runway was less than half a mile. The cloud ceiling was as low as 200 feet. 

Usually, it is the crew’s responsibility to give the passengers the least amount of information with the least amount of cause for alarm.  I believe they tried to do that initially but at around 9:10 pm, it felt like we were all in it together and no one was keeping any secrets. I’m all about the truth and divulgence of information but let me tell you, at that moment, I was preparing for death.  I felt fear in their voices, I was surrounded by alarm and terror. I overheard crew members whispering about our dwindling fuel supply.  Our plane had been held for almost 2 hours at this point. 

The captain came on and told us we had to attempt to land and to brace ourselves. We were dropping too fast and the crew couldn’t see the runway. At 9:24pm, the pilot decided he was unable to land.  We began to climb again and this maneuver burned fuel fast. I felt like I was in the middle of a nightmare I desperately wanted to wake from.  When and how this was all going to end was not in my hands. 

At around 9:35, soft music came on and the cabin went dark.  We were in silence. Here I go. I will now fade into the darkness of the night never to be seen again.  I will let go of this precious life I’ve been given and barely got to live.  I will say goodbye to my family and to my dreams.  I will cry and close my eyes in preparation.  

Seconds later we began to drop very quickly again and as we jerked from side to side, anything was possible.  We hit the ground with the impact of 100 elephants landing on a feather.  I had no idea if the plane would stop and the anticipation of the end was horrifying. It felt like one of those dreams where you are driving so fast down a hill and you can’t stop. You attempt to push so hard on the brakes and nothing. Then, the cliff comes and I go flying off, without any control. Thankfully, at that moment, I awaken. In this case and at that moment, I was off the cliff and awaiting the outcome.

The plane slowed down, the lights came on and we were safe.  Oh my, dear God.  I couldn’t believe it. I just wanted to jump out the window and run as far away from this plane as I could.  I wanted to see my Dad so I could know for certain that I was still alive.  

As we departed the plane and walked through the airport, I saw crowds of people lying on the ground, hysterically crying and screaming.  I wondered if they knew of the stress we’d all endured and were simply grateful to see their loved ones safe. What was happening? As I stopped and stared at their faces in shock, my Dad found me and grabbed me.  He hugged me like he never had before.  He wouldn’t let go.  He was crying.  I still wondered if I possibly died and this was the aftermath of my awakening on the other side.  I felt numb. 

We began walking and my dad asked me to sit down.  He told me that the reason all of these people were crying was because the plane right  in front of mine, ran out of fuel after circling with us for almost 2 hours, and crashed just minutes ago.  I was still numb.  I began shaking as I imagined the paralyzing fear each of us experienced which led us to two different outcomes.  I was the one still standing here but I was overwhelmed with pain as I continued to watch people perilously crying and screaming on the ground.  

My Dad gently pulled me away from the heartbreaking scene and we headed off.  I wondered if I would ever be the same again.  

Here we are.  Handing our tickets over to the attendant.  We’re about to step on to this plane and I have my eyes wide open.  I never let the incident prevent me from getting on a plane.  I never let it stop me from living. I always welcomed, and still do, the possibilities of experiencing the places and meeting the people meant to cross my path along the way. 

Tonight, we are taking this step to venture out beyond everything familiar and comfortable, as a family.  I am in search of answers which, for me, are often revealed in the stillness of the unexplored and unexpected. I’ve always been in search of something. I don’t know if I’d call it happiness. Love. Purpose.  I suppose it’s all of those and more.  The searching will continue and I look forward to being present to all of the sounds, the carefully placed people and the meaning behind it all exposed to me each day.  I see this adventure as one that will enlighten each of us and carry us further on this less traveled and unmapped path I have already begun to pave.  

The boys are settled in their seats, eager for take off and ready for anything and everything. Dana and I look at each other. Nothing needs to be said.  All of the emotions, the exhilaration and the magnitude of this moment are apparent.  The crew announces we are ready for take off. We all grab hands and prepare to soar beyond what’s imaginable. This year ahead and all that will come, begins now. 

♥️ Sandy