you can buy helicopters in kits.

I decided to buy a helicopter.

I guess when you look back at your life and try to figure out exactly when you went insane, the day you decided to buy a helicopter is probably the most likely day.

Fred was pressuring me to move closer to Westchester.  And that was something that Sandy and I had initially discussed, and even agreed to do at some point.  Commuting from Morris County, NJ to Westchester every day was too expensive, and was a huge source of frustration for me.

But the longer I worked for Fred, the more I began to realize that I couldn’t possibly make any long-term commitments to being at that company.  He was unpredictable, he was erratic, he was borderline abusive.  And I wasn’t about to sell my house for him.

At the same time, the company was a relatively small company.  That meant that, for business travel, they required a Saturday night stayover – airfare was much less expensive if you stayed at your location on Saturday night, and flew home on Sunday.  The problem with this was, of course, that you missed an entire weekend with your family.  And by the spring of 1996, I was leaving work in the morning and not getting home until after 9:00 (when the baby was sleeping), and traveling two weeks each month.  With the Saturday night stayover rule, I was seeing my newborn son four days out of the average month.

On top of that, I was absolutely scared half to death to fly.  And my fear began the moment I found out I had to go somewhere, so I was constantly freaking out about my next trip.

One day I got a catalog in the mail for kit helicopters. That’s right – they came in kits.  They were little two-seaters, and you built them yourself.  And although I have never been mechanically inclined, there was one model that you could buy and then pay them to assemble it for you.  It was $20,000.

“What do you think about the idea of me buying a helicopter and taking flying lessons?” I asked Fred.

“You’re afraid to fly,” he said.

“Well, yeah, but I think if I was actually doing the flying, I’d feel a little more comfortable.”

“Tell you what,” he said.  “If you buy a helicopter, I’ll clear a big space in the woods behind the building and build you a helipad, so that you have a place to land.  You could fly to work every day.  I’ll do that if you’ll fly me places when I need to go on business trips.  Baltimore, Cleveland – that sort of thing.”

I told him I’d think about it and let him know.

I mentioned it to Sandy.

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” she asked.  “You can’t even get on an airplane with an experienced pilot, without flipping out.  You’re going to fly your own helicopter?”

“I could fly to work,” I reasoned.  “There’s an airfield right in Lincoln Park.  I could drive ten minutes to Lincoln Park and fly right to my office.  Fred said he’d build a helipad.  I could be to work in half an hour, be home before 8:00 every night.”

“No.”

“But…”

“No.”

I never brought it up again.  Even then, I realized the ridiculousness of the idea that somehow I could fly an aircraft better than a person who had hundreds or thousands of hours in the air.  In a kit helicopter.

But the air travel was really starting to get to me, so I finally went to see a psychiatrist about it.  He was an older guy who ran his practice out of his house in Morris County.  I’d leave work at 4:00 on the afternoons of my appointment and drive to his house, which smelled like mothballs.  Then I’d sit for an hour and try and make sense of why I suddenly became petrified to get on an airplane.

Ultimately he felt that it was some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by Ryan’s birth.  He seemed to feel that it was my inability to control the situation, manifesting itself as a crippling fear.

I would leave his office convinced I had it nailed, and feeling like I could, at that very minute, hop on an airplane and fly anywhere in the world.  And by the next morning, I’d be dreading my next flight again.

Meanwhile, to help me get through my trips, I started installing some coping mechanisms.

The first one was a simple rubber band around my wrist.  Whenever I’d start to panic on the plane, I’d simply snap the rubber band.  The little pain in my wrist was supposed to remind me that my fear was irrational, and that chances were that I was going to be just fine.

Problem was, I already knew that.  I knew my fear was irrational.  It didn’t matter.

The second coping mechanism was for me to purchase a couple of books about flying without fear, and to learn as much as I could – statistically – about air travel, how it worked, what all the different noises meant, and what was happening during my flight.

Didn’t matter.

The third coping mechanism was to speak with actual pilots.  I knew three.  The first was Neil – the guy who came in to interview with Fred and got into an argument.  Neil was a commercial pilot who flew combat missions in Viet Nam.  I asked him about the safety of commercial air travel.

“Well, the first thing I do when I get on the plane,” he explained, “is I look at the people who are sitting around me.  Because if the plane goes down, my parts are going to be all mixed up with theirs.  If I’m not happy about the idea that the fat guy next to me might have my liver in his coffin with him, then I ask if I can move my seat.”

He continued.  “If they won’t let me move my seat, I just keep my seat belt unfastened.  I mean, they tell you to fasten your seat belt when the flight gets dangerous, but that’s not because it’s going to help you, it’s because it’ll make your body easier to identify if it’s tied into a seat.”

He wasn’t helping me.

The second pilot I knew was a guy named Gil – a vendor who had just gotten his private pilot license and bought his own airplane.  I asked him why he decided to get his pilot’s license.  “I don’t ever want to get on a commercial plane again,” he said.  “Those things are deathtraps.”

My third pilot friend, a guy named Robert, told me a story of how safe it was to fly, explaining that the only time his engine failed on him, he was able to glide to safety by landing on railroad tracks.  “Commercial pilots can land anywhere,” he explained.  “the whole American highway system was designed during the Eisenhower administration so that airplanes in trouble could land on interstate highways.  For every five miles of windy highway road, there’s a mile of straightaway – that’s so that planes can land.”

So basically, talking to my pilot friends made it worse.

The fourth coping mechanism was more basic – sleep deprivation.  The day before a trip to San Diego, I stayed up all night.  I figured if I was completely exhausted, I’d simply fall asleep on the plane.  Unfortunately, my nerves kept me awake on the plane as well, and by the time I touched down in California I had gone two days without sleep.  At my business meeting the following day, I was like a zombie, and it took me a good week or two to recover.

The fifth coping mechanism was alcohol.  I simply drank myself into a stupor, waiting in the airport.  The result of that was an irrational fear that the plane was going to crash, coupled with my knowledge that I would be too drunk to effectively get off the plane in an emergency situation.  I hyperventilated the whole flight, and then was too drunk to rent a car when I landed.  The next day I had a monstrous hangover.

Finally, I started taking xanax.  And the xanax was awesome.

The problem was that my stress over flying would begin as soon as I knew I had to go somewhere.  I’d book a flight for two weeks into the future, and immediately start to stress about the trip.  I refused to take xanax for two weeks straight, so I’d still be stressed out for the two weeks leading up to the flight.  On the day of the flight, I’d pop a pill before I got in the car, and pop another one just before I got on the plane, and I’d usually remain calm enough not to freak out on the plane.

Once I started taking the xanax, I fired the shrink.  I hate mothballs.

~ by Al on November 3, 2009.

One Response to “you can buy helicopters in kits.”

  1. I really thought you meant model helicopters, until I read further. You really were grasping for a solution there, and I commend your boldness – as well as the sense you had not to actually go through with it.

    Someday teleportation will be invented and we’ll all laugh at the idea of flying through the air in metal tubes.

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