I’m sure there’s a clinical condition that defines my relationship with flying. I’m so certain that I’ve never looked it up and have instead ironically dubbed it, “The Murtough Syndrome.” Symptoms may include but are not limited to the following: anxiety, insomnia, compulsive praying, stating “I’m too old for this shit,” and comical hijinks with your new partner Riggs. Most importantly all of these symptoms will come about near the end of a job you’ve done for a number of years. You may be approaching retirement or in my case… six months before taking the job at Woolly.
In my job prior to Woolly I used to travel a lot for work. No…that’s an understatement. I flew so much that I knew the flight attendants by name. I developed a system for packing my bags to ensure a speedy passage through the TSA security gauntlet. I collected enough frequent flier miles to join NASA on their next Moon mission. I didn’t buy first class tickets I got upgraded—for free. You know that guy from “Up In The Air“…amateur.
I used to travel a lot for work.
You tend to remember when you have bad experiences during a flight. I can attest to this personally. I’ve probably told this story more than a hundred times but it’s just as clear in my mind now as the day it happened. Spoiler alert: I almost died.
It was like any other flight in all the same boring ways. I was selected by TSA in Los Angeles for special search. (1) I got through security after a friendly encounter with a man wearing latex gloves, then proceeded to my gate to check the flight status. My red-eye flight from LA to DC was on time so I checked in at the counter (2) to see if there was any chance of being upgraded. First class was already checked in full and I was now at the top of the waiting list. I headed to the nearest Hudson News and bought my usual compliment of cross country beverages. (3)
When the time finally came for passengers to board the plane I took my place in the business class elite boarding line. (4) After a week in LA for work it was nice to have the opportunity to jump the line, put away my bags and relax while the rest of the passengers boarded the plane after me. A short time later the plane slowly made it’s ascent into the heavens and we were on our way home.
The drama took place 35,000 feet off the ground flying east over the Rocky Mountains. We had been in the air for almost two hours when the captain turned on the seat belts light and the flight attendant’s voice came over the intercom, “The pilot has asked that all passengers return to their seats.”
“Attention passengers this is your captain speaking. We’re currently over the great state of Colorado on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. We may experience some turbulence for the next few minutes. Flight attendants will continue to serve beverages but please remain in your seat.” The shaking started half way through his speech. His confident baritone reassured passengers that everything was fine and that he and the flight crew had everything under control.
The flight attendants proceeded down the aisles serving drinks to passengers as we were shaken side to side, jolting up and down, and generally getting tossed about in the fashion one might expect in an industrial grade washing machine on spin cycle. It was unnerving but not unusual. I’d been through worse turbulence and was the picture of serenity. I had a bottle of Diet Coke in my hand, and was reading a book when the woman sitting to my right looked at me and said, “I’ve never been through anything like this! This is crazy!”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” I said. “It’s actually pretty common flying over the Rockies. I’ve done this flight a few times with turbulence worse than this—it should be over in a few.”
The Captain abruptly came over the intercom, “Flight attendants take your seats.”
“That’s not good,” I said.
“What’s not good?” The woman was looking at me with a panicked look in her eyes. She was holding on to her drink with both hands
“It usually means it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” I said calmly.
Sometimes I really hate it when I’m right. The Captain came back over the intercom as the plane continued from spin cycle to agitate. “Attention passengers this is the pilot. You may have noticed we’ve been experiencing a bit of turbulence but it looks like… HOLY SHIT!”
I am not substituting words or taking any liberties with what came out of the pilot’s mouth. I remember everything in perfect clarity given what happened next. We starting falling out of the sky.
Now you’re probably thinking… not another “My plane fell out of the sky” story! Trust me when I say that what I’m describing is not an exagerration of the facts. We were flying at 35,000 feet. The pilot screamed “Holy Shit” over the intercom then the plane started to drop like it had a date with destiny.
What happened in that moment is one of the most surreal and memorable experiences of my entire life.
I experienced weightlessness.
Something about an immediate drop in altitude resulted in everyone in that plane experiencing a brief moment of zero gravity (5), then we began to plummit towards the earth. As a child I always wondered what it would be like to be an astronaut, I saw Space Camp… it looked pretty rad.
In that fleeting moment I thought of Ron Evans, an astronaut who grew up in my home town of Topeka, Kansas; graduated from a high school not far from mine; and orbitted the moon in a lunar module more than any other human being. He had done something with his life. We were both from the same town, we had both experienced weightlessness, but he had seen the Moon up close and personal. What a waste…what have I done with my life?
Everybody on the plane started to scream. The drinks that had recently been served by the flight attendants were thrown into the air as people reached out desperately to grab on to anything they could get their hands around. The woman next to me grabbed my arm so tightly that later I found bruises in the shape of her hands where they had clenched my fore arm.
This is where the whole “life flashing before my eyes” thing was supposed to happen, right? Wrong. I’ve heard all the things that supposedly go through your mind when you’re about to die but all I could think about was my wife and how much I had been looking forward to seeing her. I know… I’m a romantic. It’s pathetically charming. Deal with it.
The sounds are nearly impossible to describe but amidst the cacophony of screaming, bags falling out of over-head compartments, and drink glasses filled with a bevvy of beverages splashing on every surface in the plane you could also hear the sound of air screaming past the windows. It reminded me of an old World War II movie where dive bombers drop out of the sky towards their target before dropping their payload. (6) What I heard was an unmistakable horrible howl that immediately made me think that in this plane I was the payload… and I didn’t like where that line of thinking was taking me so I started praying.
It’s important to point out that I don’t pray. I’m not what you would call religious. I do my best to believe in God, and I even capitalize “God” out of respect for a supreme being that I choose to believe exists despite a lack of hard evidence.
“Dear God, please protect us on this flight to Washington, DC. Dear God, please protect us on this flight. Please protect us on this flight.” Over and over and over and over again until the plane—stopped—dropping.
“Attention passengers and flight crew. We passed through a pocket of dead air that caused the plane to experience a rapid loss of altitude. We are now at 17,000 feet and climbing back up to our standard cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. Everything is under control and we appear to have passed out of the turbulence now. I apologize for any discomfort this may have caused. The flight crew will be serving complimentary beverages for the remainder of the flight. Please sit back, relax, and enjoy the remainder of our flight to DCA.” The intercom clicked off. The whole plane was silent.
The woman released my arm. She was crying. I looked around at my fellow passengers and saw tear stained faces all around me. I also saw a horror show of air masks deployed and fallen from their compartments in front of every passenger. Passengers were covered in an assortment of fluids, drinks and other less appealing substances. We were all a mess…but we were alive.
Before I fully understood what was happening the woman next to me was hugging me. “My name is Eileen. I work for a magazine that does video game reviews. I just came from a meeting with the people at EA Sports. I was playing the new Madden like three hours ago. It was amazing. I didn’t even ask what you do. You look like you’re traveling for work. I’m so sorry about your suit! You’re covered in bloody mary. Let me see if I can help you with that… I don’t think this is coming out. (7) I’ll see if I can wave down the stewardess for some extra napkins.”
I learned her entire life story over the next two hours. Everyone around me was talking to each other for the remainder of the flight. It was the most alert flight I’ve ever been on with the most conversational passengers. We had survived something terrible together. It’s amazing how those harrowing experiences form instant connections between people.
We talked, we laughed, we cried. We all got complimentary beverages. (Some of us more than others.) All the while in the back of my head there was a single line that continued to run on repeat until the wheels touched down in DC, the pilot navigated the plane to the gate and the seat belt light went dark.
“Dear God, please protect us on this our flight to Washington, DC.”
I literally kissed the ground when I got off the plane and reached the terminal. I wasn’t the only one. We were all grateful to be on solid ground. There were a lot of us thanking God.
The Murtough Syndrome started immediately following this flight. I still find that now, years later, I say that little prayer right before take off and landing. Flying means putting your faith in other people. We put our lives in the hands of the men and woman who steer those crafts through the sky. I wouldn’t say I have deblitating anxiety about flying. I just flew home to Kansas for Thanksgiving… but I am accutely aware of what I have to do in order to be comfortable with flying. Ironically my iron-clad routines developed during my business travel years help overcome that discomfort but it doesn’t eliminate it entirely. That’s life… every day you have to chose to either avoid a problem or face it.
I’m flying to Chicago for a wedding this coming weekend and I’ll be back home again to visit family for the holidays. I’ve always figured that when it’s my time to go I won’t get to choose how it happens. So I just keep living my life.
~Zacory Boatright, Director of Business Development
*You may have noticed the numbered links in the above paragraphs. Click on them to read Zac’s Pro-Tips from a Seasoned Traveler.