Flush Away the Fear of Flying

My great-great uncle, Joe Reed, was a wing walker in the 1920s. He also did loop-the-loops, barrel rolls and hung from planes' axles. Uncle Joe was clearly insane. It’s ironic to have an ancestor whose bravery sent him walking on the wings of planes while I’ve been held hostage to a lifelong fear of flying.

I have flown, though never comfortably—and for work only. Last winter, I actually bailed (not literally) out of an overseas flight the day before takeoff, overcome with anxiety-induced, full-bodied hives and vomiting. I let folks down. I let myself down. But I have faced this fear head-on ever since.

Last fall, on a work trip, I mustered enough courage to stand from my seat while in-flight, which was unprecedented for me, calls of nature be damned. I had always been certain that I was the only thing providing proper balance to the plane, remaining rigid in my seat, in full clinch mode, squeezing anything anatomically designed to tighten: hands, jaws, etc. I became a human bolt, as if put there by Boeing.

At 34,000 feet, between San Francisco and Seattle, I somehow wobbled my way to the rear restroom, careening off aisle seats like a pinball. Airlines do a great job of warning passengers what to do during emergencies. They do not, however, warn first-time restroom users about the startling sound an airplane toilet makes. I was not prepared for the sudden violence of a flushed vacuum toilet. It was like another jet engine had fired up. Surely, this wicked whoosh is the first noise one hears before plummeting into the throes of hell.

I braced my hands against the walls of the restroom to secure myself against the powerful suction. I expected the door to burst inward and to be sucked down the toilet, followed by a beverage cart, and the calm-faced stewardess gripping the cart, and a passenger clinging to the stewardess’ ankles, and another passenger gripping that person’s ankles, and so and so on, a human chain like a Barrel of Monkeys, until the last thing I would see is the captain’s cap pause in midair over the bowl, do a perfect pirouette and disappear with a blur into the doomed plane’s bowels. The only people not flushed away would be the folks in first class, for they had already been launched to safety in their personal escape pods, nibbling on beluga bits and sipping Antech Blanquette de Limoux Grande Reserve 2003, never thinking twice about the flush that brought down their plane.

When the toilet silenced and I unsecured my palms from the walls, I returned to my seat with a bit more confidence in my stride. I wanted to shout, “I’m the king of the world” after achieving the personal goal of walking on a moving plane and going to the bathroom in the bathroom.


Scott Saalman’s stories have appeared in literary journals, other publications and books. His essays air on public radio’s WNIN in Evansville, Indiana. His “Will Read For Food” stage show mixes essays and music to benefit the local food bank. He has landed in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok, Poznan and Rome.

Category: Airplanes

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