Armorial Bearings granted to Robert Lord alias
Laward of London in 1510; College of Arms MS L10 folio 105b;
copyright of the College of Arms, London. Used by permission.

Fear of Flying

A modern aircraft.

I lived in dread of my first flight, back in 1957, and probably never really looked forward to flying ever since. But one can not deny that the nature of the experience has certainly evolved!

I first left the surface of the earth, by mechanical means, in the autumn of 1956. I was going to Stony Brook Prep School on Long Island, and having taken the Long Island Railroad to New York City, and the Pine-Hill Kingston Bus to Upstate New York to get home on one of the breaks - maybe it was Thanksgiving - I had the opportunity to go back with a school chum from a nearby town.

Well, somehow it turned out that we would fly back this time - out of the Broome County Airport, in Binghamton. I had never flown before, and I was petrified! I imagined it was pretty much like being suspended in mid-air in your easy chair, looking straight down through endless miles of thin air.

When we got there, it was just a plain old airliner that we walked out to. And it was just a routine flight that lifted off at last, with the earth dropping away abruptly at the edge of the runway, for the Broome County airport was situated on the top of a hill, and as soon as you ran out of pavement, you ran out of hill.

A DC3 airliner, circa 1956.

But what an unappreciated experience I was having, without knowing it. As I sat in my cramped little seat inside that little aircraft; and as I looked forward nervously at the rattling and vibrating racks of equipment that hung on either side of the narrow passage between me and the cockpit, past the flimsy little curtain, barely drawn to separate the passengers from the two men who were keeping us aloft - as I sat there, little did I realise I was taking my first trip into the atmosphere aboard the most important aircraft of the 20th century - the historic DC3!

A DC3 airliner at the airport.

It was a three-wheeler, and as it sat on the runway, the tail sat down on the ground. It didn't come off the ground until the great machine was already roaring down the runway, and a little after that, the whole thing lifted up into the invisible substance that somehow kept it afloat. I remember looking out my window - I think every seat was a window seat - and seeing a cable that ran around the engine cowling. It was held in place by something that looked like an oversized diaper pin! I guess I thought a craft that could carry you into space should be special, and this seeming connection with the mundane and commonplace disturbed me.

I have since been inside DC3s in aircraft museums, and I can't believe I ever flew in one! It just seems so improbable, in this day and age... but back then, in 1956, it was just flying.

A Convair airliner, circa 1956.

I guess that flight was a chance of a lifetime, in more ways that one. For the next time we had to fly back to Stony Brook, via Newark Airport and the Long Island Railroad, it was on a great new-fangled Convair airliner.

How modern! Its tail did not drag on the ground, like the DC3, but it sat up and level on its nose wheel. It was probably the same year, or maybe it was 1957, but it was like we had left the ancient history of flight behind and now were truly on an airliner!

Convair interior.

And the luxurious interior! So much room compared to the DC3, and a lot less rattling and shaking. I still did not look forward to flying, but I began to feel I was inside something that was meant to fly.

A SuperConstellation airliner, circa 1962.

So by the time I climbed aboard that gigantic trans-atlantic airliner - the SuperConstellation Loftlieder in New York City in 1962 - I felt like I was stepping into a giant ship of the sky. Four engines, instead of two, and such seating!

A SuperConstellation airliner, circa 1962.

A 747 airliner, circa 1993.

And who could imagine back in 1962 what aircraft would evolve into in the next thirty years; but then in technology, thirty years is a very long time.

A 747.

I really have lost my fear of flying now, and am more than happy to sit in one of these gigantic, humming, masterpieces of human engineering and float across the Atlantic at 35,000 feet, making a passage in 7 hours that 35 years ago took 17 hours and two stops along the way!

But I will always remember the terror, and the wonder, of that first time, when I lifted off the earth in a museum piece - a DC3.

E-mail me