What I Learned About Myself at 10,000 Feet

In the mid 1980’s, I developed a fear of flying when I worked for the airlines that would last over 30 years. I had always been excited about travelling and flying and I flew often with my job as an Area Manager for Jazz Aviation. Around 1987, I was on a flight that had a landing gear issue so passengers were advised that we would need to take a pass in front of the air traffic control tower to check if the aircraft landing gear was down. This really unsettled me but it turned out the landing gear was down and we made a safe landing.  A short time later I was on another flight that had a near-miss with a single-engine aircraft that appeared out of nowhere just as our flight was leaving Vancouver. Our captain and first officer followed standard operating procedures and got us out of harm's way in a matter of seconds.  Still, I felt frightened by what had happened.  

My last fearful flying episode was on take-off when there was a loud metallic screeching sound in the cabin and the aircraft sounded like it was stalling out and not gaining altitude. The captain came on over the public address system to say there was an issue with retracting the landing gear but reassured us we were all fine.  I instantly became very disoriented, I couldn’t hear anything and I was holding on to my seat rests in a death grip.  I looked at the passengers in front of me and somehow thought I was responsible for all of them, which in fact I was not. We made a safe landing but I knew that something had happened to me on that flight. It didn't matter that I knew that air travel is one of the safest modes of transportation and that my company had the highest safety and operational ratings. It was like a switch had tripped in my brain.   

In the months that followed, anytime I had to fly for my job, I felt apprehensive and anxious to a point of feeling ill. I would check to see who was operating the aircraft, I was obsessed with the weather and I had all kinds of other irrational fears. I would purposely seat myself in the back of the aircraft and when possible leave the seat beside me open so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone.  Truth is, I was so panicked, I couldn’t talk or focus on anything other than getting the flight over.  My fear did not abate and for a couple of years, I could only fly in the cockpit with the captain and first officer.  I somehow felt more in control when I could see what was in front of us especially when it was turbulent.

Over many more months, I researched fearful flying and read everything I could find on the subject. None of it seemed to help and I wasn’t getting better, I was getting worse.  A few years later and after a staggering number of difficult flights, I found a fearful flyer program with American Airlines in Dallas, Texas. I decided right away I needed to sign up as I was borderline desperate by then. I did not want to have to give up my airline job. I made it to Dallas by the grace of God and with several glasses of wine. The course was 3 days long and it was facilitated by a retired American Airlines captain, a recovered fearful flyer flight attendant, a maintenance person and a psychologist. The class was full of fearful flyers and surprisingly or not, many of them were airline employees like myself.  During the 3 days, we learned and worked through all the segments involved with a flight from take-off to cruise to landing and dealing with turbulence. 

The course culminated with participants taking a flight from Dallas to Shreveport Louisiana, sort of a graduation ceremony. Our class members had been given elastic bands to put on our wrists so that we could remind ourselves when we were having fearful or negative thoughts. On the morning of the flight, as we went down the departure jetway, you could hear elastic bands snapping all over the place. hree  people in our class were unfortunately unable to board the flight but the rest of us managed to get on.  I was seated in a middle row with passengers on either side of me which made me extremely anxious and claustrophobic.

I wanted to run down the aisle and disembark just as the crew was closing the aircraft door, I couldn’t breathe and I was feeling very nauseous. I stayed in my seat and closed my eyes on take-off. I opened the pamphlet they had given us in class to break down the flight segments and read it 20 times during the short flight to Shreveport and back to Dallas. When we were back on the ground in Dallas, I felt better and nearly like I had conquered my fear of flying. My victorious feeling was short-lived as it was only a few days later that I knew I still wasn’t cured completely. I continued to fly for the rest of my airline career but I was never comfortable and certainly did not fly with the same abandon and joy that I had previous to my phobia. I retired from my airline career when I turned  60 in 2015 and launched my own business Jennifer Grant International a month later. I am a certified image consultant, personal brand expert, professional development coach and a motivational speaker. 

It has been five years since I boarded an aircraft and the longer I have left it, the more uncertain I have felt that I will be able to fly again. I have learned a lot about myself since launching my business and I have certainly hit some high and low points as most entrepreneurs do. I have however remained very determined and disciplined about making my business a success and I feel very passionate about what I do. 

A few weeks before my 65th birthday on August 25th, 2020 I started to think about what I could do to celebrate my milestone birthday.  I thought about all of the things I had accomplished in my life, my airline career and with my business. One of the things I am most proud about in my business was starting a group for women over 50. The name of my group is Fearless at 50, Fabulous at 60. The group is all about telling our stories, sharing our aging journey as women, working on our confidence and overcoming any obstacles to make our next chapter our best chapter.https://get.jennifergrantinter... 

I have met so many strong, talented  and brilliant women in this group who inspire me and reward me for starting this group. I feel like we are all stronger together. With this in mind, I thought  I should do something for my birthday that signified some of the obstacles and fears that we face as we get older. 

A week before my birthday, I decided I would challenge my fear of flying head-on by booking a skydive. You might be saying, 'you are afraid of flying and you are going to jump out of a plane? that’s just 'crazy' why would you ever do that?  Those thoughts definitely went through my mind too and I don’t have a good answer for that.

 I booked my skydive with www.okanaganskydive.com  in Vernon and paid my deposit on Aug.20th. I noticed that my breathing felt a little shallow after making my booking and I started to wonder if I could really go through with my plan. On Aug.23rd, the day of my skydive, I got out of bed, felt a slight tremble go through my body and thought this is the day I will find out what I am really made of.

I was accompanied to Vernon  by my husband Grant, our daughter Vanessa and our 6-year-old grandson Dax.  We also had our friends Melody Geddes and Byron Kane with us. I was so grateful to have my family and friends there as my support crew.  I was calmer than I thought I would be and felt quite excited when I put on my skydiving harness and did my pre-flight orientation. The team at Okanagan Skydive were amazing, safety is their absolute priority.  My tandem master Bret Chalmers was very kind and reassuring throughout the entire process. 

Photo Credit https://www.legendphotographyk...

When it came time to board the airplane, I could feel a knot in the pit of my stomach and my legs felt a little shaky. I said my goodbyes and hugs to my family and friends and felt like I was in a trance the closer we got to the airplane. There was another person, a young man doing his first skydive as well.  We boarded the aircraft (a single-engine Cessna) and sat on the floor facing the rear of the aircraft with our tandem masters sitting directly behind us with their legs open and adjacent to our outstreteched  legs. I looked out the window on our takeoff roll and saw my family and friends waving to me. I had a lump in my throat by then and hoped that I would see them again on our landing.

My tandem master explained that we would be going to 10,000 feet when we would prepare to leave the aircraft.  He buckled himself to my hips and to my shoulders and pointed out some landmarks as we were making our way to altitude.  I kept nodding my head but no words would come out of my mouth. As we got higher, I started to look more at my legs and feet than out the window.  By then, everything below us looked extremely small and very far away.  The next time he spoke to me he said “We are at 10,000 feet, so I am going to explain how we will depart the airplane” He told me that when the aircraft door would open, it would be very noisy, very windy and a little colder. 

Photo Credit https://www.okanaganskydive.co...

He was so right! When the aircraft door opened, it felt like we were in a tempest. The wind was howling and the aircraft engine seemed deafening. Bret told me to cross my arms over my chest and to keep them there until he tapped me on the shoulder.  He put one leg out on the narrow step then told me to put both feet on it. If I felt any terror, it was at that exact moment, my heart was beating wildly in my chest and I felt like I was having an out of body experience. 

When I had both feet out on the step, he swung his other leg around me and we sat there for a few seconds staring down. I stopped breathing for a moment because I knew he was going to give me a nudge and we would both leave the aircraft in a free fall travelling 120kmp straight down. I felt so exposed and so out of control, I shut my eyes and crossed my hands over my chest. There was nothing else I could do but surrender to my tandem master, the sky around us and the ground so far below us.   

The plunge from the aircraft was indescribable, I felt like we were travelling a million miles an hour.  The sheer force of the wind nearly blew my goggles off and I would have screamed but I was too terrified to open my mouth. Bret had to tap me twice on the shoulder before I remembered that I was supposed to extend my arms and my hands in a flying position.  We were hurtling through the air when he deployed our  chute and it felt like we had just landed on a trampoline shooting back up by 50 feet.

The next thing I became acutely aware of was the pure silence and the sensation of floating above the earth. I was overcome by a sense of joy and peace I cannot describe. I marvelled at all of the colours from the deep purple mountains, the golden sun peeking  through the clouds, the green and brown earth below and the brilliant blue lakes surrounding us. It was all so surreal and I never wanted it to end.  I felt like I was one with the universe and my whole life passed before me in a way that made me more grateful and serene than I have ever felt before. Bret let me control the parachute for a couple of minutes and that was a total rush. I felt like we were a giant hawk turning and swooping with enormous wings. 

At around 200 feet, Bret reminded me to keep my legs up and in front of me for our landing.  The ground seemed to be coming up to meet us very quickly and I felt a bit frightened that we would careen into the ground breaking every bone in our bodies.  I was utterly amazed when we touched the ground and Bret braced and pulled us back into a sitting position.  All I could see was a cloud of dust settling around us.  We were back on earth and we were still very much alive. I saw my family and friends waving and cheering on the other side of the fence, I couldn’t get to them fast enough.  My friend Byron Kane is a professional photographer and he took several photos that captured the raw emotion I was feeling on my arrival back to the airport.

Photo Credit https://www.legendphotographyk...

It’s true that a picture can say a thousand words and I will treasure the photos Byron took for all of my days.  My husband Grant and I shared a happy and loving embrace followed by more hugs with my daughter Vanessa, grandson Dax and my 2 friends Melody and Byron.  It felt like a victory party and I think in a way it was. I had faced one of my biggest fears and I would live to tell the story. I would also recall this day as one that took great courage and a willingness to put my life in someone else’s hands. I learned that I am stronger and braver than I ever thought, that I have so much to be grateful for, that I have a husband, family and friends who truly love me. 

I also learned there is nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it. I don’t know yet if my skydive experience will reduce or eliminate my fear of flying the next time I have to board a commercial aircraft. What I do know, is that I have an extra layer of courage and mental fortitude that tells me I will fly again.  


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