Fear of Flying

Key West, Florida
November 1988

The travel agent in town assured me it was safe, but I was beginning to doubt her. It was nine o’clock in the morning at the small airstrip just off the main airport. It was a beautiful day, the sun high in a blue sky, not a cloud in sight, just a little breeze. I was standing on the tarmac with two college boys, looking down on a wobbly seaplane sitting in the water at the end of a dock, while a burly, silver-haired man in a Hawaiian shirt went through our paperwork, collected our money, and showed us where to stow our gear. Flying is the only way to see the Dry Tortugas. About an hour away in the Caribbean there’s an island that held Confederate prisoners during the Civil War, but now has the best snorkeling in the Keys.

The man in the Hawaiian shirt directed the college boys to the backseat. “You take the front,” he told me, “Next to Walker.” “You mean you’re not the pilot?” I wanted to say, and that’s when I saw Walker slouching toward the plane, a gangly, freckled-faced Spicoli with shaggy, red hair, clad in a t-shirt and flip-flops. “These boys were about to leave without you,” the man called out to him. “Nah, no worries,” Walker replied, his eyelids half-closed as if he’d just awakened from a righteous buzz. “Can’t go nowhere without me.”

Only one propeller. This was not good. This was not safe.As Walker climbed inside the plane beside me and strapped into his seat, I felt a lump in my throat and a terrible sense of dread. I started noticing things. Like the gauges on the dashboard: There weren’t that many, and what did they do? And the flimsy windshield and the paper-thin doors. And when he started the engine, the one propeller sputtered for a moment, almost stalling out, then it started to whirl. Only one propeller. This was not good. This was not safe. The guys in the backseat were talking. They hadn’t noticed anything. They were probably working off whatever they drank last night at Sloppy Joe’s. “Relax,” Walker assured me. “It’s a great day for flying.”

Until that morning, I’d only been on four airplanes in my life. Back and forth to Washington D.C. on an eighth-grade class trip, and two flights down to Key West the day before, the last one from Miami on some relic from the fifties. Now I was sailing over the Caribbean in a clunky half-boat with what I was certain was an outboard motor for an engine. I could barely look down, but Walker insisted on pointing out the sights. It was over before I knew it, though. The plane glided down like a seagull over the water and skimmed once, twice onto the surface until the pontoons splashed down. We taxied to the beach, and Walker let us out with instructions to meet him at four o’clock for the return trip.

The day was idyllic. The college boys doffed their shirts, rented some gear, and headed off to snorkel. I wandered around the old fort, walked along the ramparts and battlements, inspected the prisoners’ cells, the cannons at the ready. For the rest of the afternoon I vegged on the beach, took a swim in the clear water. Late in the day, though, I noticed clouds gathering.

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida Keys, U.S.

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida Keys, U.S.

Walker wasn’t late this time. In fact, he was eager to get away. The clouds had darkened, covering the sky to the west, and a strong wind was blowing. “How about we take the scenic route?” he suggested, firing up the engine.

Churning as fast as it could across the water, the plane hurled itself into the sky like a frail kite tied to a football. We could feel the wind swirl and wrap around us like a swarm of flying banshees. Even the college boys were silent now. Walker banked the plane toward the east, just ahead of the encroaching black sky. We were racing the storm, could feel the wind and rain at our backs as the plane tumbled and recovered and lurched from side to side. Walker flew low to avoid the worst of it. Beneath us were dozens of tiny islands, nearly all uninhabited. If we crashed there, no one would find us. My stomach heaved each time the plane nearly stalled from the turbulence. Rounding a turn in the chain of islands, Walker glanced at me and over the seat at the college boys. “You want to see where Jimmy Buffett lives?” he asked, smiling.

Walker said Jimmy Buffett has a private island, just beyond Key West. He’s got a vacation house there, with a pool and tennis court all to himself. I was sure it was very nice, but the black Goliath cloud was gaining on us, the banshee wails were growing shriller, whipping hard against the metal wings and plastic windows. “There,” Walker pointed ahead, then he dove the plane down, down, down, zooming just over the tallest palm tree, over the pool, the thatched-roof cabana, and large main house. He pulled back on the stick to take us airborne again, then circled slowly around the island for another view.

After that, I was no longer afraid of flying.

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