Imagine, for a moment, that Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, had a fear of flying.
The story would write itself: Elon Musk was terrified of flying, but he didn’t let that stop him from going to Mars. He could have chosen to never set foot on a plane, but instead he confronted this fear, overcame it, and used it to create greatness. We would read this story and, as we are accustomed to doing with stories of great men, we would accept and celebrate it.
This was not the case for Christine Blasey Ford as she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27. Though the matter at hand was Ford’s allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school, Ford’s fear of flying, somehow, became a focus.
“May I ask, Dr. Ford, how did you get to Washington?” sex-crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell inquired, shortly before the hearing broke for lunch.
“In an airplane,” Ford said, smiling. The questioning continued:
Mitchell: I ask that because it’s been reported by the press that you would not submit to an interview with the committee because of your fear of flying. Is that true?
Ford: Well, I was willing—I was hoping that they would come to me. But then realized that was an unrealistic request.
Mitchell: It would have been a quicker trip for me.
Ford: Yes. So, that was certainly what I was hoping, was to avoid having to get on an airplane. But I eventually was able to get up the gumption with the help of some friends, and get on the plane.
Mitchell pressed. Ford had to fly “fairly frequently” for hobbies and work, was that right? Yes, unfortunately, Ford said. The interests listed on Ford’s CV include “surf travel” in Hawaii, Costa Rica, South Pacific islands, and French Polynesia. Had she been to all those places? By airplane? Her listed interests also included oceanography and Hawaiian and Tahitian culture. Did she travel by air for those interests? Ford said yes to all of it.
Fear of flying, or clinical aviophobia, reportedly affects 2% to 3% of people in developed countries. The share of people in the US who report some anxiety about flight is much higher. In a 2010 survey conducted by Boeing, 17% of Americans said they were afraid to fly. Another estimate puts it at up to 25%. Of course, that doesn’t mean that none of these people get on planes, especially in the US, where the number of people traveling by air is at record highs.
What point was Mitchell trying to make as she pressed Ford about her air travel? That Ford fabricated or embellished her fear of flying to derail a committee inquiry? That someone truly afraid of flight would not get on an airplane for any reason? That they would allow that fear to dictate their interests, career, and life? That Ford was inconsistent in her actions? That she is just another anxious, unreliable woman, in a world of anxious, unreliable women?
In January 2014, survivors of US Airways Flight 1549 gathered in New York to celebrate the so-called Miracle on the Hudson. Among the attendees was Clay Presley, a businessman who “decided to conquer that fear by getting a pilot’s license,” the New York Post wrote. Presley was celebrated for facing his fear and getting out of his comfort zone. Ford, pushing past hers, was essentially asked why she didn’t stay home.