Ten years ago, the first time I went to China, the return flight took something like twenty-four hours. Aside from one slightly-overdone hamburger at the Detroit airport, my journey was more or less worry free: no excessive turbulence, no lost baggage, no half-digested meatloaf deposited in my lap by one of my seatmates.

And then, just as the small prop-plane I was on rose over the last ridge of mountains surrounding the Roanoke Valley–

—it suddenly dropped.

Like thirty feet. Or forty feet. Or a hundred feet. Or whatever. Because to tell you the truth, I couldn’t tell you how far it was, though I can say it was enough that it made the flight attendant scream and grab the arms of her little collapsible seat. And I can tell you that it was far enough that, after we landed, the pilot got on the PA and said, “Well.” Long pause. “THAT doesn’t happen very often.”

I hate flying.

I haven’t always been this way. I was twenty the first time I got on a plane and flew 33 (count ‘em: thirty-three) hours to Tanzania, East Africa. I loved every minute of it. Between then and 1999, I probably took upward of 100 flights, and was pretty much okay with them. Then, that year, coming back into Virginia, that plane flew into the Roanoke Valley, dropped . . . and, well: left most of my guts somewhere at around 3,200 feet.

My wife’s cousin, who’s an aeronautical engineer (like that qualifies him to say anything) just shrugged when I told him my tale of nearly dying in sight of my own threshold after coming halfway around the world. “The wings on those planes can bend thirty feet,” he said, “no problem. It’d take more than that to crash a plane.”

To which I have exactly two responses:

1) Great. I’ll be sure to tell that to my bladder the next time it cuts loose on a plane full of screaming people;

And 2) Bite me.

I’m mean, seriously: there’s what we “know” on an intellectual level—mathematical equations about tension and friction and bolt strength and joint flexibility and air currents and that sort of crap.

And there’s what we KNOW in a gut-level, testicles-climbing-back into the body-cavity, kind of way. You can talk to me all day long about wing warp and how they’ve developed special radar for detecting wing sheer. And I’ll nod and say, “Well, that’s nice to know,” and “Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that.” And then we’ll be flying together, somewhere over, say, northern Missouri, and the plane will start to buck and rattle and there’ll be that little ping! as the Please Fasten Seatbelts sign comes on, and immediately my head will be filled with visions of the front half of the plane being torn off before my very eyes, and of me plummeting toward the earth, along with 237 other people I barely know but who, I’m sure, very much like not dying after seven full minutes of free falling. And my heart will start to race and my palms will become clammy and I’ll not unoccasionally find myself crawling into the lap of the seventy-two-year old retired window salesman in the next seat.

A number of so-called friends have tried to alleviate my dislike of flying in general and turbulence in particular by pointing out that it’s all part of the adventure: “It’s like being on a roller coaster,” someone I know recently told me. “And for no additional fee! WHEEEEE!”

To which I have exactly two responses:

1) I love it when a roller coaster turns me upside down. A plane? Not so much.

And 2) Bite me.

It doesn’t help that I’m a writer and a reader, that I pretty much make my living by allowing my brain to create the most vivid images possible. What this means when I’m on a plane is that I find myself thinking things like, “I wonder if, after the plane goes down, the local paper will refer to me as ‘a beloved professor,’ or if they’ll actually do some research, read the comments on my ratemyprofessor.com page, and skip mentioning me altogether?” And: “I wonder if the female weightlifter next to me will hold my hand as we plummet toward the earth?” And: “This high up, will I pass out when the plane rattles into a thousand pieces, or will I be awake the whole way down?”

It also doesn’t help that the Roanoke Valley, where the nearest airport is located, is a notoriously difficult place to fly. For years I’d heard rumors that Air Force One pilots were taken there to practice taking off and landing in trying circumstances. It’s a valley after all: there are mountains on one side, then a runway, then more mountains. Not much room for error. Or, as I like to think of it: there are mountains on one side, then a runway, then WHAM!

As if that weren’t bad enough, this particular valley in this particular branch of the Blue Ridge Mountains is known for peculiar wind currents—which perhaps explains my post-Beijing drop. Just this morning there was a piece in the Roanoke Times (America’s last, best, independent newspaper) discussing a proposal for wind turbines on one of the mountains on the south side of the Valley. The FAA has yet to approve the plan, and may not, the paper reports, stating that Roanoke’s airport “has long been a nerve-racking place for pilots, who must maneuver the surrounding mountains and tricky weather they can produce.”

At issue is that pilots must fly 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle, which means that putting a 443-foot turbine on top of an already high mountain might expose planes to greater turbulence. “It’s already complicated enough to fly into Roanoke,” Matt Broughton, president of the IFR Pilots Club is quoted as saying. “We don’t want to make it more of a challenge.”

To be honest, I kind of liked it better when I just suspected flying in Roanoke sucked. I didn’t really need to hear that the very people responsible for making sure I don’t end up a mangled and bloody pile of pulp and bone fragments are scared to do it as well.

Now anyone who’s read this blog for more than, say, eleven seconds, knows that if I were any more of a left-wing Chablis sipping liberal I’d be serving caviar in Pyongyang. Gay marriage? All for it. A woman’s right to choose? Damn straight. Tax the rich into oblivion? Now we’re talking! Green technology and renewable resources?

Umm . . . well . . . let’s not be hasty or anything . . .

My father, who also hates flying (thanks, Dad; as if inheriting your hairline wasn’t bad enough) says that sometimes when he gets on a plane, he’ll count babies. The more babies, he figures, the better, because of course God wouldn’t kill a plane-full of innocent little children.

Last night, though, as I climbed onto the little fifteen row, four seats across puddle jumper that makes an almost hourly run from Charlotte, North Carolina to Roanoke, I did a quick count of cherubic beings under the age of twenty-four months, and came up with a nice round number: exactly 0.

Feeling desperate and slightly light headed, I did another scan, looking for priests maybe, or nuns, or Tibetan monks, or anyone with a direct line to whatever higher power controls the fate of three-ton cans of metal roaring through the sky at twenty-seven thousand feet. But I didn’t see a single clerical collar, no orange robes, and nary a wimple in sight. Damn.

Taking my seat, I noticed the elderly, grandmotherly-looking woman sitting across the aisle from me. For a second I considered craning my neck for another glance around the plane, searching out others like her. After all, God wouldn’t kill a sweet little grandmother, would he?

But then it occurred to me that of course he would, that octogenarians and septaugenarians are fair game, that those who’ve lived long and fulfilling lives are probably at the top of the list of folks God is perfectly fine with whacking, second only perhaps to violent dictators and the current governors of Wisconsin and Ohio (and yes, I know those are redundant terms). And thinking of this and my own relatively rich and pleasurable life, I suddenly regretted all the things that I’d been able to do in my forty-five years, a list that is easily long enough to make keeping me around another decade or two sort of negotiable.

It was right about then that I considered climbing out of my seat, strolling down the aisle, reclaiming my suitcase and hopping in a rental car for a four hour drive back to Virginia. But just as I’m about to unbuckle myself, I glance at the seat in front of me and noticed an elderly Indian man with strands of snow-white hair across a brown forehead and a sheaf of papers clutched in one hand. Leaning forward a bit, I can hear him chatting with his seatmate, catching just enough to understand that he’s an environmental engineer and that what he’s holding is a scholarly study of a new method of removing copper from air pollutants.

I lean back in my seat. I take a deep breath and consider. Yes, I eventually conclude. Yes, this may just work. For if God has no qualms about smiting the elderly or Jimmy Hoffa or those with relatively short bucket lists, I’m nevertheless fairly confident that he’s probably got a vested interest in keeping alive as many as possible of those scientists who are seeking to sustain the earth’s fragile eco-system.

Which is good. Seriously good. Because if old baldy save-the-tree-hugging-eagles up there is going to survive, then more than likely so am I, sitting a mere thirty-six inches from his goody-two shoes, copper-straining hide.

Falling back into my seat again, I close my eyes and breath easy.

Only then a thought strikes me. I sit up, think for a minute, then reach between the seats and tap the man on his boney shoulder.

He turns, startled, looks at me with deep brown eyes.

“Do you believe in God?” I ask him.

He stares at me for a long moment, trying to decide if I’m crazy or not. He must figure I am, because he gives a crooked smile and tries a joke: “I’m an engineer,” he says. “I believe in science.”

I consider for a second, then say, “So this plane will stay up? I mean, science dictates that it will, right?”

He pulls a face, his lower lip climbing toward his nose. “You’re asking the wrong man, I’m afraid,” he says. “I hate flying. Every time I get on a plane, I imagine it hurtling into the side of a mountain and bursting into flames.”

I stare at him for a long moment. He returns my gaze, half-smiling, half-apologetic. Finally, I shrug, nod a thank you, and lean back into my seat, feeling oddly satisfied.

At least I won’t die alone.


Paul Hanstedt is an educator, writer, traveler, and father of three. Raised in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, he flew to Africa at the age of 20 to meet a friend and promptly got lost. He’s been getting lost ever since, having visited thirty different countries on four different continents, and living for extensive periods of time in Durham, England, and Hong Kong, where he took his family in 2009 as part of a special Fulbright program looking at general education.
Presently, he lives in Virginia with his wife and family. He is a full professor at Roanoke College in Salem.