Those of you that know me are aware of the fact that I'm terrified of flying. As in panic attack, hyperventillating, heart palpitating terror that even Ativan can't control.
Yes, yes, I know the stats--you're more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than to ever be involved in a plane crash, blah, blah. This doesn't sway me at all. At least in a car crash I have a better chance of surviving than if I'm in a plane crash, and emergency personnel would have an easier time getting to me on a road than if I was lying amongst the wreckage of an aircraft on a mountaintop someplace. Ever since one of my high school classmates was in a crash that killed her family, leaving the ground is a major problem for me.
So when my father bought himself a helicopter (if you knew him you'd understand) and asked me to go up with him and his pilot, of course my gut reaction was "no way!". I mean, I've passed up trips all over the world because I can't bring myself to get on a plane. But strangely enough, as I started to research helos for my next couple of books, I realized that being closer to the ground and able to land pretty much anywhere were major pluses about being in a helo. Military personnel do it all the time, right? And all of my heroes are big bad special ops soldiers, so they would be disgusted to know their inventor was too chicken to go up in a chopper.
I couldn't have my characters disrespecting me (I've told you before, it's normal for authors to hear voices in their heads), so that settled it. I went with my almost five-year-old son (who loved it, by the way) on a glorious sunny clear day just before New Years last year. Over the steady hum of the engine the pilot kept in contact with the control towers in the area over the headset, and we toured over the beautiful city of Vancouver, then out over the sparkling blue water into the suburbs near the US border and hovered above our house. My son couldn't see over the windowframe, so the pilot suddenly tilted us sideways until I was staring directly at the ground. After swallowing my heart back down my esophagus and uncurling my fingers from the seat, I stared down at my yard and the skiff of snow from a recent storm covering the roof. After he righted us, the pilot just grinned at me.
I have to admit I enjoyed myslef once I was reasonably sure we were going to stay in the air. After all, I'd put my son in the thing with me, so if anything happened it would be my fault he was on board. That didn't help the initial nerves any, but I was up front with the pilot and made sure to appear like I was ecstatic about being airborne so the little guy wouldn't inherit his mom's phobia of flying. These things can be contagious, you know. My husband, who wasn't a great flyer before we started dating, is almost as bad as me now. It's not something we want our kids to be crippled by.
The pilot and I chatted for over an hour about types of choppers and some technical things about flight, specifically how high altitudes and thin air would affect lift of the rotors so I could get it right when I wrote No Turning Back, which is set in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan. See? There's a method to my madness, and watching the pilot was fascinating. Now there's somebody who can pat his head, rub his stomach and chew gum at the same time. His feet and hands were never still throughout the entire flight, and he maneuvered the controls effortlessly.
After more than ninety minutes we landed without incident, and my little guy's eyes were sparkling with excitement, so it was well worth the effort it took me to go up. I felt safer in that helo than I have in a commercial jet in over fifteen years, simply because I felt we could put down easily if we needed to. I'm so glad I went, and will definitely go up again. I may even get my own license someday if time permits. My hope is that I'll be able to better portray how pilots operate choppers in my books, especially when I tackle my next series for which I'm researching the famous Night Stalkers of Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Moral of the story: I felt the fear and did it anyway, and lived to tell about it!