02/16/2009 06:39 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

On Fear and Flying

My daughter-in-law, whose family is from Buffalo, flew there just two days ago from Newark, so when I heard about the tragic crash of the commuter plane on approach to that Great Lake city, I felt both grateful and awful.

Flying is an incredibly safe means of travel, and Thursday night's tragedy was the first American commercial plane crash with loss of life in years. But after two recent crashes, it doesn't seem so.

As a writer who has traveled extensively throughout the world on assignments for over 30 years, I've had my share of dicey flights, and many in small planes, in bad weather. I've entered some that look like buses with bandaged wings, and DC-3s and other beat up old craft that were so ragged I've debated staying put on a faraway island rather than boarding again. I've been in scenic flights in storms, helicopters over volcanoes, and blimps over the ocean. I've flown close over mountains, pulled up last minute on approach to fogged-in LaGuardia, made an extra stop somewhere in the jungle on Aero Peru.

Near misses are like fish stories in the travel world. Lightening once struck my plane (it does that pretty often, I'm told), and I did fly on TWA 800, Athens to NY, a month before that plane went down in 1996.

I was on a flight in 1987, returning from Europe to New York that had to make an emergency landing in Nova Scotia and then aborted the first take-off. On the second, I held my boyfriend's hand and I'm sure my knuckles on the other were whiter than a model's teeth.

I was on the virgin flight of Virgin Air in 1986 from Gatwick. It was having a delayed take off, and we were apprehensive that something was wrong. The fleet consisted of one old jet from Argentina -- and we were on it. I knew the thing had to go, or it would be a PR nightmare for the fledgling airline. Richard Branson himself was aboard, complete with captain's uniform, and Boy George music filled the air. Later we found out that one that of the engines had conked out over the Atlantic, but we were too filled with copious alcoholic beverages of choice to notice.

Then there was the fire that broke out in the lavatory on a trip from Cleveland to LaGuardia and our jet was met by yellow fire trucks and a foamed runway. The passengers remained calm as we smelled the smoke, and there was only a smattering of clapping when we landed. Mine.

Small planes take extra nerve. I was in a tiny plane on a flight in Patagonia where the constant wind whipped us around like in a carnival ride and I was petrified. On a flight past Angel Falls in Venezuela, the door to the cockpit remained open. Or was there one? You could see the pilots studying a map, shaking their heads, arguing as we meanwhile seemed to be able to reach out and touch the cliffs.

And sometimes, it can be absurd: Take the first flight of my babysitter Lynn. She liked it fine, except when the oxygen masks came down. "You didn't tell me that happens when you fly," she said in all innocence. That, thankfully, has never happened to me.

My brother Stu in California flies a Cessna, (so far I haven't joined him), and he assures me that air travel is exceptionally safe and statistically you have as much chance of crashing as say, being hit by a meteor. He also is a physician who provides mandated physicals to pilots, including, he tells me, Sully Sullenberger, the hero of the US Air Hudson crash.

Stu does admit that pilots often worry when they are about to fly. About the drive to the airport.