The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Fear of Flying
May 15, 1968
I wrote a column the other day about learning to fly and the obvious question from many of my friends was: Why?
I could give the cryptic answer of the guy who climbed Everest because it was there!
But in my case, it was a little different. I am flying because I'm scared to fly. Or, at least, I used to be.
It bugged me for years this problem of being all tense and nervous every time I went up in a plane. My job required me going up in planes more and more often. I've flown coast-to-coast, twice to Europe, once to Africa and back, many times to Washington. And I never really relaxed and enjoyed it until I started learning to fly myself.
Some say ignorance is bliss. But it is the opposite in flying. Once you get rid of your ignorance and learn how the darn thing really works, then you can get rid of your nervousness and really have bliss.
I had the worst indoctrination to flying anyone could imagine. I was a 19-year-old farm boy who had never been higher than the top of a silo when I joined the Marine Corps in 1942. Then, to avoid mess duty, I volunteered for the parachute troops. It also paid $50 a month more which, in those WPA days, the family needed.
They took us up in a rattling old DC5, on what they laughingly called an "indoctrination flight." It was my very first time in the air. I was amazed to find we were off the ground. We all sat on the hard, corrugated floor. As the plane circled our landing field at 1,000 feet, the sergeant called us up to the open door, one at a time, grabbed us by the collar, hung us out over 1,000 feet of space and said: "There, you SOB, there is where you are going to be jumping." It was a great indoctrination.
I made my jumps and became a paratrooper and went overseas where planes were so short that we used to lay in them on the top of oil barrels and toilet paper cartons and crawl on our hands and knees to the door to jump.
When it all ended for me, they flew me from Saipan to Honolulu 4,000 miles in 22 hours in a C54, strapped in a stretcher on the wall of the plane, with a 60-pound plaster cast on my arm, assuring that I would be the first to sink if the plane went down.
I laid there all day and night, watching the flame from the exhaust and listing every time they changed the pitch on the propellers or adjusted the throttle, and expecting any moment to be plunged to my death in the Pacific.
Obviously, I survived.
But that didn't help one bit when I got back in civilian life and in the newspaper business and discovered it involved a great deal of flying.
I despaired every time I had to take an old Constellation to Washington or New York or Chicago. And then the first time I took a jet which was from New York to Amsterdam I kept looking around for someone to give me Extreme Unction.
Of course, obviously I survived all this. But I never thought I would. I got panicky every time they let the flaps down.
Finally, I decided this had gone too far. I realized I was as old fashioned in the air age as my 74-year-old mother who has never learned to drive a car. I decided to get with it.
The amazing thing which has happened, even before I have my license and I am a full-fledged pilot, is that I am not perfectly at ease in any airplane whether it is a small plane charter flight out of Burlington, an Ozark flight to Chicago, or a jet flight to Los Angeles. The thing is that I've learned a little bit about how these planes operate, and I quit worrying.
Actually, I was persuaded to learn to fly by two local ancient pelicans Bert Thomson and Burt Prugh. In the course of my business, I've flown considerably with both of them. I finally decided that if two old, gray codgers like that could do it, I could do it. And doggone it, I was right. So there, Mr. Piper, with all your advertising, you see what really gets you your business.
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