This post originally ran on the Actiance blog in February 2013
I’ve been flying my whole life and cannot recall my first experience of boarding or traveling on an airplane. From a young age, I’ve always been a fan of air travel preferring the window seat over an aisle to look out the window and experience the ride. Hell, I even spent nearly 10 years working for United Airlines because I loved airplanes.
As a frequent flier, I’ve had some good flights and some bad flights and it’s only during times of weather or major turbulence that I’m reminded how amazing it is that we have harnessed the skies. Today a person can have breakfast in New York, lunch in Denver and dinner in Los Angeles, all in a single day. Every day 747s cross the Pacific Ocean bridging Asia and North America and all points in between. What used to take months, takes hours today and air travel has become so commonplace that we rarely give it a second thought. That is unless something goes wrong, or it’s your first time flying. Last year on a short flight from Salt Lake City to San Jose I re-experienced the wonder of air travel with a first time flyer.
Sitting in the window seat of an 737 I knew the ride home was going to be interesting when the person sitting behind me announced to those sitting in her row next to her that it was her first time flying and that she may have some questions as she was feeling quite nervous. The girl was about 20 years old, and we were all silently shocked that at her age this would be her first flight. The kind woman in the middle seat next to her said she had nothing to worry about and reminded our first time flyer that air travel continues to be the safest form of transportation. As reassuring as that thought is, and I remind myself of this fact each time I fly, it’s the lack of control that makes this harder to digest. We all assume that the pilots in the front know what they are doing and that they’ll get us safely from point A to point B. Our experience without incident continues to add to our reassurance and given the number of flights that take off and land each day, it is a miracle that the incident count is so low. Back to the story.
As the plane pushed back, the first time flyer began her series of questions, asking her seat mate what we can expect to feel once the plane takes off. The lady, a saint in my opinion, explained that the plane would taxi to the runway, accelerate, and at the right time pull up into flight. The plane would continue its ascent until reaching a safe cruising altitude where it would remain until it was time to land. Satisfied with this explanation, she sat motionless asking if she should keep the window shade open or closed? The middle seat woman said she prefers it open to see what is going on.
The plane taxied to the runway as expected and revved up its engines. Before long we were gaining speed, picking up momentum and the plane began to fly into the wild blue yonder. The girl behind me started to freak out!
“Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!” She kept saying with a few shrieks thrown in between.
Meanwhile the woman in the middle seat consoled her telling her it would be OK.
As soon as the plane went into the air the girl exclaimed “WE ARE FLYING!” She was amazed. Her amazement was quickly followed by fear when there was a loud sound below our feet. Without missing a beat, the woman in the middle said “landing gear” sharing that the landing gear was being brought in and there was nothing to be afraid of.
With each bump, there was a small shriek from her and an short explanation from her seat mate. Once we leveled off, the girl behind me apologized for her behavior, a little embarrassed with the shrieks and minor freak out at take off. EVERYONE was very understanding and reassuring her not to worry- we had all been first time flyers at one time too. The fact that so many had flown before and were freely providing support made her feel a little silly for her behavior. For me, it was very heartening to see a community of travelers come together for the aid of one.
The flight, like most,was uneventful and she actually enjoyed looking out the window, especially as we flew over the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains and Lake Tahoe. As we approached San Jose, the woman in the middle began to prep our nervous flyer explaining each step of the descent, including the flaps on the wings, the return of the landing gear, and the bump on impact as the landing gear hit ground. It was amazing how calm and reassuring she was and the girl closely listened, asking a few questions along the way. As a result the remainder of the flight was a series of validating what the woman in the middle had shared and before long we were on the ground again, safe and sound at the gate.
The poor girl had been through a life changing ordeal and although she was traveling alone, she was not alone. As we deplaned I turned to congratulate her on her first flight and shared that it gets easier with each flight. She thanked me, but was in no hurry to relive the experience anytime soon. In the end, I think she kept it together quite well.
Witnessing the fears of a first time flyer was quite an experience, especially since all those elements that were terrifying her have become so second nature for those of us who travel regularly. It also brought to light the importance and value of having someone with experience guide you and provide you with the reassurance one needs when faced with uncertainty. There are a number of lessons here, and I walked away with a renewed sense of wonder and desire to approach each new task with the same level of curiosity and to seek out the experience of others to make the journey more manageable.
How do you approach new experiences, and what can we learn from those that take the plunge?