I have been relatively behind on several things in my lifetime. I didn’t get my ears pierced until I was almost 18. Thus far in my almost 22 years of living, I have never left the United States. And up until last week, I’d never flown in an airplane.
I was really excited for my first flight, which would be the first leg of my first ever trip to New York City. The flight was a short one, so that was nice — only an hour and 45 minutes. But I wasn’t sure how I would react in the moment, once I was actually on the plane. Would I freak out? Would I hyperventilate? Pass out? I had no way of knowing how my nerves might choose to act against me come takeoff.
Plus, I booked my first flight completely alone; unless the stranger seated beside me turned out to be unusually friendly, it’s not like I’d have somebody to hold hands with for comfort.
My first flight was from Raleigh-Durham airport on a Thursday morning at 10:40. I was perhaps overly concerned with the whole security and TSA process, refraining from packing any sort of Tylenol or even my face wash, because the LAST thing I wanted was to get detained by airport security. That would mortify me.
I arrived at the airport a little after 9:00 a.m., looking like a true Travel Mom with all my itineraries and forms printed out, expertly fastened together with a bright pink paperclip. I strode confidently through the airport, excited to tackle this whole thing and prove that I could navigate it for the first time all by myself.
This probably sounds silly to someone who’s used to flying all the time, but my primary source of help and support for these things is my mom — who hasn’t flown since the early 90s, which was both pre-Internet and pre-9/11. So I felt very in the dark about airport protocol, despite doing plenty of research online before showing up.
Once I got upstairs at RDU, I paused and looked around. Hm. After a moment of realizing I wasn’t sure where anything was, or even what my first step might be, I decided to take a quick bathroom break. After that brief detour, I found myself no more enlightened as to my ideal course of action, and froze.
Standing in the middle of the huge RDU lobby, pretending to scrutinize over my itinerary while sneaking glances over my shoulder to see which direction other people were heading, I became acutely aware of just how obvious it was I’d never set foot in an airport before. Nice. I decided to ask for help.
After seeking counsel with an RDU employee, I got through security without a hitch and arrived at my terminal about an hour early. Walking on the moving conveyer-belt style walkways at what felt like LIGHTSPEED was basically the thrill of my life, and made me feel like Sonic the Hedgehog.
Once seated in the terminal, I called my dad at work to chat with him for a bit, and found that I was really at ease about my upcoming flight. Actually, I was flat out excited! And not nervous at all!
The Delta attendant came over the loudspeaker to tell us to start boarding, and then my nerves flared up a bit. I moved to stand with the other passengers who were about to board the first plane I would ever set foot in.
A man standing nearby asked me what zone I was seated in, and it turned out my seat was directly behind his. I guessed this man was about 30 years old, and he had a smooth British accent, dark sandy blonde hair, and glasses. He introduced himself as Tom.
Tom and I boarded the plane together and took our seats. I was shocked by how small the plane was — only two seats per row on each side?! And yet, I somehow still managed to not get a window seat. Of course.
I settled into my seat, and realized I was still a bit nervous. When the plane began to move slowly across the tarmac, I decided the best mental course of action would be to pretend I was on a giant bus with wings. That’s what driving on the ground in this giant thing felt like. We were just a class going on a field trip to New York through the sky. So basically I mentally placed myself on the Magic School Bus.
My nerves were only exacerbated by the fact that several planes were lined up on the runway, waiting to take off. So we sat there for nearly 10 minutes. Tom peeked around the edge of his seat and smiled at me comfortingly. I’d told him this was my first time flying.
“It normally doesn’t take this long to get going and off the ground,” he said.
“Yeah,” I laughed. “This is worse than Chapel Hill traffic.”
Then we were rolling. I was caught somewhere between thrill and terror as the plane rounded the corner and righted itself on the runway.
Suddenly we were moving. I don’t know why the sudden speed of the plane took me so by surprise, because I understand physics; I know planes have to go extremely fast to make it off the ground. But we were really hurtling, and I was amazed. The only point of reference I had to call to mind for the feelings I was experiencing was the Mission Space ride at Disney World. Only I hadn’t had Gary Sinise’s pep talk beforehand to give me strength for this flight.
Then I felt my head being pushed down and back, into the cushion on my headrest. And before I knew what was happening, the scenery outside the plane, which had mere moments ago been whooshing by at eye level, was cutting a diagonal line across my window. We were in the air.
At this point I was FLIPPING OUT, but not in a bad way. I honestly just couldn’t believe I was airborne. Off the ground. FLYING. You hear about people flying and you know all about the Wright Brothers and everything, especially growing up in North Carolina, but you can’t really believe and understand it until you actually do it.
Even while riding in that plane, the world outside, smeared across the window in blurry streaks of color and flashes of light, seemed like a moving screen. A simulation. It didn’t seem real.
I got really emotional when the plane tilted, one wing angled towards the ground, the other clipping through the sky, and I saw through the window how far away all the buildings below were. Make no mistake, I cry over just about everything, but flying was a particularly moving experience.
I felt really powerful, like I’d broken loose and rocketed out of my earthly bubble. But I also felt really small and insignificant. At any given moment of any given day, I am one of those mere, microscopic dots I was seeing out my window.
Then suddenly, because my brain is a weird place, the music from the Great Glass Elevator scene in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory— when Charlie is looking out over his town from the sky, much like I was doing in this moment — became stuck in my head, and reverberated inside my brain for the rest of the ride. So that was the soundtrack of my first flight, which was all at once beautiful, hilariously absurd, and infuriating.
I chatted with Tom a bit once we became stable in the air — 27,000 feet above the people below us — but I spent most of my flight staring out the window. I brought my book along, but I was so captivated by the way the clouds looked from above that I couldn’t focus on the pages in front of me for any given stretch of time.
I knew it wouldn’t do much good to take a photo, because it would be impossible for a camera to capture how beautiful this was. But I did anyways.
The flight into New York City was incredible, and I had a great time exploring Manhattan and Brooklyn (I will probably write another blog to detail my first NYC trip). But even though I was very sad to be leaving the city on my last day there, I was also really excited to embark on my second flight — my first flight home.