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When Dreams Take Flight

A brave group of strangers taught her to fly into—and through—her fears.

I once took an American Airlines fear-of-flying class for a "Fortune" story I was writing on executives who are afraid to fly. (I personally don't have a fear of flying—but, rather, of crashing.) It was a scene out of "The Bob Newhart Show": envision 24 of us, crammed into the Holiday Inn in Newark for two days, sharing our neurotic fears.

One man I remember in particular—Al, 64, a comptroller with a fear of heights, who had never been on a plane. Longing to travel, Al had decided it was time to confront his lifelong phobia. This class would force him to do it: on the afternoon of the second day, we would fly to Raleigh, North Carolina, and receive our wings. For many in that class it would be the scariest two days of their life. 

On the first day of the AAir Born class we shared our stories. A frequent flier, I had been landing at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on May 25, 1979, when American Airlines Flight 191 took off on a parallel runway, lost an engine, and nosedived, killing 273 people—to this day, the deadliest air disaster on U.S. soil. Two others in our class had been in airplane accidents. Some suffered from claustrophobia. For Phyllis, whose husband had died of leukemia three years earlier, flying was the last of a long list of fears she was "shucking off."

After two days of lessons on how airplanes stay in the air, practice with deep breathing, and a trip to the cockpit to meet Captain George, it was time for our flight. As we rode in tense silence to the airport, one woman turned to her mother and said, "I feel like I'm going to my death today."

"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth / And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.''

—John Gillespie Magee Jr., a 19-year-old volunteer with the Royal Canadian Air Force who was killed in 1941

Once we were seated on the MD-80, the frightened young woman next to me began to weep. That's when I realized the magnitude of what I was witnessing: a group of incredibly brave people facing their very worst fear.

You know by now that we all made it to Raleigh—and back. Al's family was waiting for him at the Newark airport, colored balloons celebrating his jubilant return. But what I remember most was the look of joy on Al's face as we soared above the clouds—and it dawned on him that his dreams of visiting San Francisco, New Orleans, and Rome were suddenly within reach. "This has been one of the greatest experiences of my life," he later told me. "I'm angry at myself for not doing it a long time ago."

Several years ago I read the book Who Moved My Cheese? A line from it has become my guiding principle: "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" In answering that question, I found the courage to adopt our third child, Taylor, when I was 50. And I thought back to Al and my flying buddies, whose courage had let their dreams take flight.

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