I have an intense fear of flying. This is a tad problematic because I fly. A lot. In fact, I am writing these words on a particularly turbulent flight from Miami to Chicago.
My anxiety has been with me since takeoff thanks to Captain Ahab and his smugly menacing announcement that "it might get a little bumpy the next five minutes, so I suggest you remain in your seats and buckle up real tight."
Three 50ml Dewars bottles and four judgmental looks later, I am closer to fine, but not actually there yet.
Not helping are the series of chimes and dings, none of which I ever really gave much thought to. Until now. I commission my own internal pricing study and decide whether my curiosity is worth the $15.00 "Gogo Inflight" wants to charge me for 90 minutes of basic internet browsing.
Turns out it is.
Soon my fingers are left to their own devices with searches ranging from "The Worst Aircraft Disasters in History" to "Decoding Warning Signs on a Commercial Airliner" to "Should I be Worried about beeps and dings on airplanes?"
I focus on the results from that third query. According to a USA Today article varying airlines use the chimes differently. A single chime could be to advise flight attendants of pending choppy air, perhaps serious enough that they should be seated. Or it could mean, "when you have time, could we please have a coffee?"
Two chimes are often used to indicate the aircraft is approaching 10,000 feet in altitude.
A three-plus chime usually means that the flight attendants should be seated NOW, due to reports of immediate turbulence ahead.
Then there's the mother of all chimes, the close-your-eyes-and-kiss-your-ass-goodbye chime, the "triple high low chime." That's the one you never want to hear. That's the captain telling the flight attendants to prepare for an emergency.
Not being able to unknown this fact having just learned it, I unlock myself from my seat cushion (which of course doubles as a flotation device) and make a bee line for the back of the plane. A quiet apology to the sleep-apnea afflicted insurance salesman next to me in 7B as his gigantic thigh takes the brunt of my not-so-gentle right knee. Soon, I am back by the toilets, in that holding area where we all discover that the people charged with our safety some 30,000 feet up read US Weekly and spend their time bitching about "Steve" and "deadheading" back to O'Hare.
ME: "So sorry to interrupt, but I was just wondering if you could tell me what a "triple high low chime" means." That comes out slurred.
ATTENDANT: "What's it to you?"
ME: I'm a journalist writing an article on the fear of flying.
[A double chime sounds]
ATTENDANT: "You're gonna have to call the airline for those kinds of questions. I'm not at liberty to go there with you. Back to your seat, Ma'am."
Also declined is my request for a fourth Dewars on the rocks. Mercifully, the Xanax I also took at takeoff, begins to kick in just as the plane begins to bounce. And it does give the Dewars "that extra kick," as we all learned from the Kristen Wiig character in Bridesmaids.
So it's back to my seat and some more online discovery: "Requirements for getting into Flight Attendant School." Wonder how the over-the-hill, face-cake-powdered platinum blondes and moody men in tight chinos land the coveted gig of fingering the exits and shepherding the Samsonite trolleys down the galley? Well as it turns out, flight attendant school has a lower acceptance rate than Harvard.
I briefly take some comfort in this fact. But there go the chimes again. This time I know exactly what it is all about before I am even told. Time to fasten my seatbelt. I am beaming with pride as I pull up the next article, a nifty little piece on Fodor's website entitled "A Flight Attendant's Cure for Fear of Flying."
In the article, Gillian, a former flight attendant, takes us through the ins and outs of training the humans who attend to us as we sit in those stale-aired aluminum tubes that transport us around the planet:
For four weeks, 10 hours a day, six days a week, our instructors inundated us with gruesome stories of fireballs, decompressions, hijackers, and failing engines. Sure, we spent a few hours on airport codes and beverage carts, but, mostly, it was plane crashes.
Come on Xanax, its time to go full throttle...
Crew members make safety-related errors on 82 percent of all flights, with an average of three mistakes per flight. That means that pilots, flight attendants, and airplanes don't have to perform perfectly to get you to your destination alive and in one piece; after all, 82 percent of flights aren't crashing.
I don't see the glass as 18 percent full.
CAPTAIN: "Sorry folks the thunderstorms appear to be worse than the radar had indicated; prepare yourself for some advanced turbulence."
CAPTAIN: "It's quite the light show on the lefthand side of the plane. Ft. Myers is getting slammed with a storm, but don't worry, I'll avoid the lightning."
Thanks to FaceTime, I have a quick therapy session with my father (a vaginal reconstruction surgeon - more on that in another article.) He advises that I take another half of a Xanax and lay low, a poor choice for a metaphor. I close my eyes and hope for the best.
I dose off and awaken to the thud of wheels hitting the runway followed by a double low high chime indicating that I have survived another flight. Or does it mean that am I supposed to make the pilot two cups of coffee?