IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Violated a Stranger On A Plane During A Terrifying Bout Of Turbulence

“I’m soooo sorry,” I whisper, never letting go of his legs. He’s shocked. Completely. He’s scared. Of me? Of the falling plane?
Publish date:
November 7, 2013
It Happened To Me, strangers, fear of flying, turbulence

The engine revs up and my heart starts to race. My stomach clenches. I’m taking quick, short breaths and then stop breathing altogether. I hold on tight. My heart rate increases with the speeding plane on the tarmac. It slows with the smooth lift of the front wheel. “Up, up, up, up” I chant the plane into the air. Almost there. Come on. Come on.

The engine transitions from a ferocious growl to a hum. We climb. Ding. We’re safe to use all approved electronic devices. I coach myself to breathe. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. My eyes shift to the window. I turn away quickly then I look again--I can’t seem to help myself. I’m caught between captivated and terrified. I long to make it above the clouds all while remaining closer to the ground. I’m overwhelmed. I’m regretful. I’m hopeless. I’m flying.

See, I’m terrified of flying--always have been. And no, this isn’t one of those “I once had this bad experience, and I’ve been afraid to fly ever since” kind of things. This is much more like a “despite technological advances I simply do not trust metal tubes soaring through the sky with no cords,” sort of thing. Not only do I not trust the cordless tube, but I have little to no trust for the tube navigator: the pilot.

Pilots are human beings. Let’s just start there. Pilots are walking, talking, living, feeling animals and though I respect them--I don’t trust them. Let’s say the pilot’s having a bad day. Let’s say things at home have been shaky for a while, work sucks, and he’s lonely, suffering from depression, bad news or what have you. His depression could potentially lead to my demise. Irrational? Perhaps. Some would argue that most fears are. I respond to that argument with an unmoved shrug. I’m still afraid to fly.

Rain poured on a late night in November as I headed to LAX anxious about taking a trip back home to Miami. Several days before my night of travel, I was already beginning to accumulate the bricks that I would eventually shit during the flight. Something just didn’t feel right. Each day I grew more and more wary. By the time I was scheduled to board the plane I'd dissolved into the mere shell of a woman--a complete wreck. I quickly down two glasses of Pinot for liquid courage to board this flight.

I stepped into the plane.

A delightful greeting from the flight crew when entering the aircraft does nothing to ease my tensions. Nice try. I find my seat--23F, right side of plane. I’m the first to arrive in my row. I scoot all the way in to the window seat. I let the window shade up, fasten my seat belt, lean back and close my eyes. I hear shuffling near my row and open my eyes in hopes of being greeted by a friendly face.

I always pray for the friendly row; the rare row of pleasant passengers who smile and say hello before taking their seats next to you. I keep my fingers crossed for that. Moments later a very petite, stern, older, presumably Middle Eastern man finds his middle seat next to me. He does not speak. He doesn’t smile. He fastens his seat belt and closes his eyes. An older African-American woman takes the aisle seat next him. She also says nothing. So much for in-flight friends. I close my eyes.

It begins.

After a nerve-shattering take off, we level at about 33,000 feet. I take my first full, deep breath. My heart rate won’t slow until the fasten seat belt sign goes off. After about an hour in flight we’re cleared to move about the aircraft. This, I despise. I simply cannot stand anyone aside from flight attendants moving around the plane. With slight exception for the most extreme bathroom emergency, I’d rather everyone remain seated at all times in flight.

Suddenly, the 757 is sucked into a downward vacuum.

The plane catches, my stomach follows. My eyes jolt around the plane calmly--okay frantically. I check for a co-sign. You feel that? Ya'll scared too? Anybody? No one reacts. That's the tell-all sign that I’m overreacting. Still, I can’t let my firm grip of the arm rest go just yet. My hands are always the last to relax.

My stomach growls. I sit back but never close the window. I want to see. Whatever it is. However it goes. I want to see. My view is interrupted by a sharp, bright, flashing light at the far left corner of my eye. Was that? It strikes again. Lightning?

An hour and a half into the flight, the plane shakes violently. Trays rattle, I gasp loudly. I clutch the arm rests tighter. I stiffen every muscle in my legs--in my body. Lightning strikes. Closer. I open my eyes, body still fully tightened, and I stare out of the window. We’re flying toward the lightning. We’re entering the storm.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have to ask you all to please take your seats and fasten your seat belts. We’re coming into a rough patch of weather.” Lord, maybe this won’t be so bad. “Flight attendants please take your seats.” My God, this is awful.

There is an eerie, silent calm in the sky. Then the lightning strikes closer. Shake. Rumble. Bump. Dip.

Suddenly the aircraft loses all sky support and is being tossed around violently. It’s frantic. I’m frantic. I yelp, twist, and climb my seat. I hate this feeling. Dip! There it is again!--That roller coaster drop that causes your stomach to rise and fill up with aggressive butterflies. I clench my abs to combat the feeling. I search for a co-sign. There are too many co-signors. They feel it. They’re scared. I am not overreacting.

The plane falls.

I’m going to die. This is it. The end. We free-fall for what feels like 1000 feet and within a moment my instinct to survive kicks in.

Before I could gather my motion, my right arm lunged out toward the middle seat scooping both legs of the petite, silent, stern, neighboring passenger fully into my lap. I pulled him to my chest and squeezed.

Shake. Bump. Dip! Lord, let us get past these moments. I look sharply to my left into the eyes of the passenger I’m now holding. “I’m soooo sorry,” I whisper, never letting go of his legs. He’s shocked. Completely. He’s scared. Of me? Of the falling plane?

I look out of the window. I have to see. We’re smothered in dark clouds being ripped by the wings of the plane. Lightning strikes. Shake. Bump. Drop. Is this what it all amounts to? I plead. He cautiously reaches out and cups my left bicep. To comfort? To restrain? I continue to hold on.

One long minute passes. The plane fights for an incline. I’m nervous. I’m terrified. I’m praying. I’m embarrassed. I’m sorry. I keep holding on to this stranger.

The storm hawks and spits us out into the calm sky. It’s too calm--as if nothing ever happened. I’m still holding on to the guy next to me. Is it over? I wonder as I search for ease in the face of passengers? So, we survived?

Then there’s that moment:

That moment when the life or death coin lands on life, and the events leading up to that deciding moment are counted at face value. I had a perfect stranger’s legs gripped tightly in my lap. I release slowly; one leg, then the other. He lets go of my bicep and shyly turns to sit straight ahead--never saying a word. Slightly ashamed I shift forward and exhale.

There are 3 hours remaining in the flight. We don’t look at each other. We don’t speak. We’ve grown too intimate too soon and now there’s nothing left.

The flight lands in Miami. I have to say something to him. Anything. The seat belt sign goes off and passengers rise to gather their things. I sit there thinking of what to say. He won’t look at me. He steps into the aisle to leave. I mumble something-- a cross between “I’m sorry” and “thank you”. My eyes shift downward. He almost smiles, turns and exits the plane. I stand there sheepish but safe.