Heights, flights and all other things that go “bump” in the night

I was climbing a very narrow metal stairway up to the bridge on the USS Midway, the aircraft carrier turned museum permanently docked in the San Diego Harbor. ( yes, it would seem I maneuvered another sabbatical to escape the last few weeks of Oklahoma heat)

After reaching the top of the first of four flights of stairs, I walked along a corridor on the perimeter of the ship. I noticed my fellow tour takers approaching the metal railing that protected us from a 50′ free-fall into the drink.

Still hugging the interior wall, I watched as they slung themselves over the guard rail and dangled over the side. What was so interesting?

I needed to know.

I edged my way over to the side, stood arm’s length away and tightly gripped the rail with both hands. Ever so slowly, I stretched my neck out like a flamingo and glanced down at the water.

Less than one second. That’s all it took for me to get dizzy and feel like I was about to tumble to an untimely death. I quickly pushed of the rail and jogged backwards until my shoulders rested comfortably against the carrier’s steel wall.

Within a second, my mind cleared and I was completely fine.

As you’ve figured by now, I’m not very comfortable with heights. (if you are scrolling back through my previous postings to check to make sure you remembered right, just go ahead and stop. There aren’t any typos, I’m really a pilot)

A pilot afraid of heights you say? What in the ho-ha?

Before I explain, let me just tell you that all my friends and acquaintances that fly professionally have copped to the same disposition. (safety in numbers, so it seems) Although completely illogical as most fears are, it is the fact of the matter.

Now I can fly aerobatics immediately after eating a gigantic soft serve cone without puking, frantically spin around forever in a Vertigon (a training device used to test pilot’s/astronaut’s reactions to spacial disorientation-think Clint Eastwood in “Space Cowboys” or the smiling monkey in “The Right Stuff”) and even fly in the clouds and ice at night, in Chicago, in the winter (uphill in the snow, shoes, but no gloves…) But please don’t ask me to go to the second level of the mall and look over the side.

At my last annual physical, I asked the flight surgeon for a technical explanation. He swirled his index finger around his temple and made the universal crazy person sound. (not so helpful, and besides, this was the guy who was going to decide if I was fit for flight) So as you can imagine, I decided to put the kibosh on any more probing questions until he signed off on my medical certificate. (the optometrist was next, I figured I had a better shot with him.)

While I waited for Dr. Eye-Socket, I conjured up my own hypothesis. When he finally came in the room and was assembling his head gear, I ran my explanation by him.

“Dr. Z (aka eye-socket) is it possible that my discomfort with heights has something to do with the peripheral muscles in my eyes?”

He adjusted his headlamp and shrugged. “Alright, I’ll bite. Lay it on me.”

“Some people (pilots) say that when you fly airplanes the exterior muscles in your eyes actually get exercised more and increase your field of view as a result of watching the ground rise on landings.

At this point I really wished I had a camera on my phone to capture a snapshot of my mad optometrist’s mortified look.” (do think that stopped me-not a chance)

“And what if this expanded peripheral view makes us feel like we are tumbling anytime we are above the ground without an enclosure surrounding us? (sounded logical enough in the pilot’s lounge)

Eye-Socket sat down, exhaled deeply and turned off his headlamp. “I don’t even know where to begin to tell you what is wrong with your train of thought. The short answer is no, not even close.”

So much for explaining away my hang-up.

But I do know one thing for sure. We all have something odd, unexplainable even, that knocks us out of our comfort zone, scaring us just a little.

So as it relates to my phobia, I will keep searching for the root of my “height inhibition”. Until then, you can catch me glued to nearest sturdy structure.

P.S. I’m a ESTJ (extrovert, sensing, thinking, judgement-I suspect I may be a closet “I” doing a very good impression of an “E”) FYI…

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