Twenty-two years on the ground and counting…

11 minute read

February 24, 2022, 4:21 PM

Recently, I was thinking about things, and I realized exactly how much time has passed since the last time I went flying: 22 years and eight months.  The last time I was in the air was on August 10, 1999, coming home from my 1999 trip to Toronto.  Photos of this final flight exist:

Flying from Philadelphia to Charlottesville  Landing in Charlottesville

Our plane, viewed from the terminal in Charlottesville

The airplane was N911HA, a Dash 8 turboprop plane, and the flight was with US Airways Express from Philadelphia to Charlottesville.  I have not been up in the air since then.  That’s why I have never commented on all of the TSA‘s rules regarding flights and security and all of that: I have absolutely zero experience in dealing with them from an aviation standpoint.  I’ve dealt with them on rail before back in 2011, where they swabbed the outside of my bags to see if there was explosive residue on any of them, which I thought was kind of ridiculous considering, among other things, that they didn’t change their gloves between people, but I’ve never dealt with them when flying, because I haven’t flown since the agency was formed in 2001.

In any event, I made a Facebook post about it, and said, “I just realized that there are people who have been born, raised, and graduated college, all in the time since I last flew in an airplane (1999).”  It’s weird to put it into that sort of perspective, but it’s true.  It has been more than 22 years since the last time I flew in an airplane.  There are now fully grown adults whose complete existence has been in the period since the last time that I flew in an airplane.  Reactions were mixed.  One person commented that 1999 was only last year.  Another person commented that the people that I refer to have no memory of 9/11.  Some folks questioned why I had not flown in that long.  One person commented that they had me beaten by four years.  One suggested an Alaskan road trip.  One person expressed how much of a bother flying is, especially since the advent of COVID-19, with all of the safety theater that has gone along with that.  Another person suggested that I get out and go explore the world.

I guess you could say that my relationship with air travel is complicated.  My first flight was in 1985, a one-way flight going from Philadelphia to Tulsa on TWA, on the occasion of our moving from New Jersey to Arkansas.  Then I remember a trip back to New Jersey in 1986 where we visited friends and family, also on TWA, where we made a connection through Chicago on the way home.  All of those flights were pretty uneventful.

Then there was the time when I was in kindergarten when they were giving helicopter rides at Dixieland Mall in Rogers.  Mom and I went to that, and I was excited.  After all, I had never ridden in a helicopter before, so this was a new adventure for me.  To call that flight terrifying was an understatement.  The helicopter was noisy, there were no doors on the thing (so the sides were wide open), and we were all secured only by a single large seat belt across the three of us.  The pilot was to my left, Mom was to the right, and I was in the middle.  And this wasn’t exactly a smooth flight, as it was more of a thrill ride than a pleasure trip, as we were tilting and moving all around in ways that I couldn’t anticipate.  I did not have a good time there at all.  I remember looking out the side as we’re high above Rogers and thinking, “Oh, it’s not that far down,” and then reminding myself that I really couldn’t get out of this until it was over.  It’s funny – we have a photo from that event somewhere that they did of us just before we took off, all buckled in and with our headsets on, and I’m over there grinning like an idiot next to Mom.  I can understand why they took it beforehand, because as soon as we landed, I couldn’t get out of that chopper fast enough.  That still stands as my only helicopter ride to date, and up to that point in my life, I don’t think that I had ever been as scared as I was on that helicopter ride.

Over Christmas in 1988, we did a trip on Continental from Kansas City to Newark to see friends and family.  Then in the summer of 1989, we flew American to Florida and back, taking a rather convoluted route, going from Tulsa to Nashville to Tampa to Orlando on the way out, and then going from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas to Tulsa on the way back.  Then we flew again in 1991 for a trip to California, going from Fayetteville to Dallas via American Eagle, and then regular American from Dallas to John Wayne Airport in Orange County.  All of these trips were pretty uneventful as well as far as the travel was concerned.  Get in, sit down, buckle up, take off, eat, and then land.

Then in 1992, when I was 11, we did a weeklong trip to Virginia to go house hunting, in preparation for our move to Virginia the following month.  Our trip took us from Fayetteville to Dallas to Raleigh-Durham to Charlottesville via American and American Eagle.  The first two flights were uneventful.  Then the third flight, from Raleigh to Charlottesville, was a bit more interesting.  There, we were flying on a Short 360, similar to this plane.  This was very different from all of my previous experience with American Eagle, where we had always flown in something more like this, which looked like a regular airliner, but pint-sized.  The Short 360 had a taller ceiling, and felt like a much smaller plane because you could see the pilots up front flying the plane (I imagine that you would never see something like that on any American Airlines plane in a post-9/11 era).  I also remember that there was water coming out of a vent in the front of the plane (the little round things at the front of the plane in this photo).  I realize that this was an air vent and probably was just condensation from the HVAC system that didn’t affect the flight, but it nonetheless didn’t exactly instill confidence with me.  The idea was that if this existed, you started to wonder what else wasn’t exactly right on the plane.  Plus we were traveling through bad weather, with lightning visible during our flight, and it had me a bit on edge.  But we made it in one piece, and the trip was successful, as we ultimately found the house in Stuarts Draft that my parents still live in today.

The trip back to Arkansas, meanwhile, was more eventful than the return trip.  The flight from Charlottesville to Raleigh-Durham was on an even smaller plane than the Short 360 (like one of these), but that was a pretty straightforward trip.  I recall being impressed about how, despite that this was a turboprop plane, it was a very quiet flight without any of the vibration that I had experienced on any of my previous American Eagle flights.  The flight on regular American from Raleigh-Durham to Dallas was pretty uneventful as well.  When we got to Dallas for that last flight to Fayetteville, we made our way to the American Eagle gates, and we had a delay.  As I understand it, the plane that we were supposed to take wasn’t able to go out due to mechanical issues, and so they had to find another plane for us.  After what felt like forever, we finally had a plane and boarded.  As expected, it was one of the bigger turboprops, and not a Short 360 or something really small like we had on our Charlottesville trips.  After boarding, we went to take off, and I remember that we went down the runway a lot further than usual.  Then we slowed down, turned around, and stopped.  I remember my father’s saying that he had never experienced an aborted takeoff before, though he had experienced aborted landings in the past.  The pilot told us over the PA system that they had found a problem with the plane, and that they were going to run a diagnostic to find out what was wrong.  Then the plane started shaking violently, presumably as everything was being checked over by the plane’s systems.  After that stopped, the pilot announced that the problem “had corrected itself”.  That did not instill confidence in me at all.  I wanted off of that plane.  I didn’t care if the problem had fixed itself.  You put me on another plane that, as far as I knew, had no issues of any kind, and you fly me to Fayetteville in that.  Send this plane back to the shop before you fly anyone in it.  But unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice on this matter.  We did another takeoff attempt, got airborne, and we ultimately made it to Fayetteville safely, but with every single bump or other movement that we felt along the way, I was more than a little concerned that we were going to crash.  I’m pretty sure that my carefree enjoyment of air travel died with that flight, because now I had reason to be concerned whenever I was on an airplane.

That was the last time that I flew for about six years, so there were no new airplane experiences coming in to replace the experience of a somewhat traumatic flight, where I genuinely wondered whether or not we were going to make it home.  We did the trip to Virginia for the move by car, and we also stopped taking really touristy vacations where we would fly somewhere and see theme parks and such, instead driving to and from Avon, North Carolina, where we rented a beach house for a week.

The next time that I flew anywhere was in 1998, when we traveled to England for a week when I was 17.  I genuinely did not want to go on that trip because I didn’t want to fly overseas, especially considering my last experience on an airplane, as well as a very notable mid-flight failure that had occurred on an international flight in recent years.  We flew on US Airways Express from Charlottesville to Philadelphia, and then regular US Airways from Philadelphia to London Gatwick.  That first flight on a Dash 8 from Charlottesville to Philadelphia was when I realized that I was no longer as comfortable on an airplane as I used to be.  I had turned into a white-knuckle flyer.  Every time we had any kind of turbulence or felt any kind of bump or move, I was looking out the window and wondering how survivable it would be from that height if we were to go down.  Clearly, my innocence had left me.  I especially felt uncomfortable on a flight on the return trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.  That was an older, long, narrow plane, and I just never felt at ease on that hourlong flight.  I remember nothing else about that flight except for being uncomfortable, and also being glad when it was over.

And then there was the Canada trip in 1999, where I had the same issues with white-knuckle flying, though I was more willing to go along with it all because I was seeing the store from Today’s Special, plus seeing my friend Sarah, so that trip had special meaning to me.  And I haven’t been in the air since that trip.  I’ve been to college, and I’ve had many milestones in my life, but no further flying.  All of my travel since the summer of 1999, including a return trip to Canada in 2019, has been via road or rail.

At some point about ten or so years ago, a coworker, upon learning that I had not been flying in many years, questioned why, and wondered if I was afraid of flying.  I contend that I am not afraid of flying, but at the same time, I will do everything that I can to avoid having to do it, because I really don’t enjoy it.  I consider the whole thing to be an unpleasant experience.  I don’t like going to airports.  I don’t want to deal with security.  I don’t like the way that they nickel and dime you on everything when you fly.  I do not travel light by any means (I am one of those people that will take half the house to go away for the weekend).  And I also don’t like giving up control like you have to do in order to go flying.  After all, in a car, you have full control over your journey.  I’m controlling the car, and commanding the car through all of its movements.  If I want to stop for whatever reason, that’s entirely my prerogative.  If something goes wrong, I’m the one making the decisions on how to deal with it.  On the other hand, once you get in the plane, there is nothing that you, as a passenger, can do if things start to go wrong.  All you can do is hold on and hope for the best.  On various land-based forms of transportation, if all else fails, you can always bail out.  Even if it’s highly inadvisable to do so, with the idea’s falling into the “no, that’s silly” category of thought, at least the option is there, and that provides me some sense of security.  Can’t do that on an airplane, because to bail out would be almost certain death.  And I don’t like that feeling one bit.

Meanwhile, Elyse has no problem flying, and just this year, has flown out of Dulles on Southern Airways Express on a short regional flight to Lancaster (I drove up separately with a friend and picked her up at the airport), and she’s also flown into National Airport from Boston on a trip with some friends of ours (I didn’t go on that trip because I had to work).  She also has a trip planned for this summer out to Nebraska with a friend of ours.

It’s also kind of ironic that for someone who enjoys planespotting, and has researched all of the different kinds of airplanes at various points, and regularly flies a drone, I don’t like to actually fly, myself.  But for all of those activities that I mentioned, I am safely on the ground at all times.  With the drone, if there is ever an accident (and there have been a few, don’t you worry), I’m not going to get hurt, though my wallet might take a bit of a hit for it in order to get the drone repaired.  Similarly, for planespotting, I’m on the ground.  I’m photographing the plane, rather than being in the plane.  On that same note, another reason that I wouldn’t want to participate in my employer’s rail rodeo is because of one of the things that happens should you win: you go on to compete at a national event, and depending on the location of that, you would have to fly out to it, and I don’t want to be faced with the choice between flying and disappointing my employer if I’m supposed to represent them at a competition.

I suspect that one day, there will be an occasion where I have to go flying again.  I am not looking forward to such a day, and I would be perfectly content to put that off forever if possible, but inevitably, that day will come.  If I ever want to go to Europe again, for instance, it’s not likely that I’ll be able to get enough time off of work in order to sail both ways on the Queen Mary 2.  Similarly, Elyse wants me to go on a trip to Japan with her, and I would have to fly in order to do that as well.  Additionally, there are certain destinations within the continental United States that would be impractical to drive or take a train in order to visit.  For instance, if I ever want to go to the west coast again, I would probably need to fly, because driving or Amtrak would each take the better part of a week to go one way, while air travel could accomplish the same thing in a single day.  I suppose that it benefitted me that for many years, I was too broke to travel, so air travel was a moot point.  I became very good at traveling regionally by car, because day trips all over the region were what I could afford.  All it cost me was gas, and maybe a couple of meals.  Now I can afford to travel like I mean it, but find my dislike of flying to be the limiting factor.  I just don’t want to do it, and I will find any way to avoid it.

Categories: Airplanes, Myself, Travel