Why Aretha Franklin Never Conquered Her Fear of Flying: ‘Who Cares?’
After a turbulent plane ride in 1984, the legendary ‘Queen of Soul,’ who died Thursday of pancreatic cancer, refused to fly for over three decades. That didn’t much bother her.
At around 1:20 a.m. on July 6, 2015, a long, luxury bus broke down on a stretch of highway just outside Chicago. The vehicle’s transmission had given out, all local car services were closed, and the bus’ occupants—a squadron of assistants, a sleepy entourage, and America’s then-73-year-old Queen of Soul, whose impossible vocal range seemed to capture the full breadth of human feeling, Aretha Franklin—were stranded by the road.
But the police were awake. And it wasn’t long before three state squad cars, three units from the Illinois Department of Transportation, and a tow truck descended on the scene to rescue the global soul star from the freeway. The officers escorted Franklin and her crew to their hotel as the truck followed with the bus. “God was right on time,” Franklin’s spokesperson Clarence Waldron later told Billboard on the singer’s behalf. “Hallelujah.”
For a woman well into her seventies with 112 singles charted on Billboard, 18 Grammy Awards, and over $75 million in records sold across the globe, coach bus might seem like an odd choice of transit—one prone to long travel times, cramped on-board bathrooms, and the occasional, midnight transmission failure.
But Franklin, who died Thursday morning of pancreatic cancer, took buses by choice. She hadn’t flown in 31 years. The icon had an Achilles-like weakness: a crippling phobia of planes.
In 1984, shortly after moving back to her hometown of Detroit, Franklin took a trip on a tiny, twin-engine plane. Mid-flight, the passengers encountered a bout of turbulence, an incident Franklin would later laughingly call a “dipsy doodle,” but which ensured she stayed grounded for the rest of her life.
The plane incident was so traumatizing that, even years later, a simple spell of bad weather could make her nervous. “Encountering lightning and thunder during travel, even on the ground, triggered tremendous fear,” Franklin’s biographer, David Ritz, wrote in a recent article for Rolling Stone. Once, to brave a particularly aggressive downpour, Ritz saw Franklin cuddle up in the corner of her bus, clasp her hands, close her eyes, and listen to Frank Sinatra’s “Glad To Be Unhappy.”
Things hadn’t always been this way. Franklin’s fear “came overnight,” she told The Belfast Telegraph in 2014. Before the incident, she had been a frequent flier. As a young up-and-coming act, the singer traveled across continents, playing shows in dozens of major concert halls abroad.
Likewise, Franklin didn’t expect her fear would last forever. She very much planned to fly again, once enrolling in a course called “Fearless Flyers.” After missing two weeks of class time, she flunked, a loss she weathered with the dry candor the singer often brought to interviews. In a 1994 profile in Vanity Fair, for example, Franklin had the following exchange with her interviewer, James T. Jones IV:
“You were always working, gigging? Did you fly much back then?”
“Yeah, I flew for 20 or 25 years.”
“Do you think you’ll fly again?”
“Are there fear-of-flying classes?”
“Uh-huh. USAir. . . . I’ve taken that. Now I have other things to work with.”
At one point in 2016, while a guest on The Meredith Vieira Show, Franklin announced plans to take her first flight in 33 years. “It’s a short trip to Chicago and back. From Detroit to Chicago is nowhere,” she told Vieira. “I can walk home if I’m not comfortable.” She intended to take her neighbor and the “First Lady of Gospel” Shirley Caesar, a few security guards, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson—but it does not appear the trip ever took place.
While waiting decades to pass her anxious-flyer class, Franklin chose to travel in a luxury custom-made bus. As far as buses go, it wasn’t a bad way to get around—Franklin often fit a whole entourage of friends and family on board. In a 1989 biography, Franklin told the writer Mark Bego she once “got twenty-two people with us on the bus, plus all of the new exquisite, lavish gowns” she’d be wearing to a show.
Franklin’s preference for ground transportation occasionally held her back. In 2012, her phobia forced the singer to forgo a job opportunity: joining Randy Jackson on the 12th season of American Idol, a gig which, despite the show’s plummeting ratings, would have shelled out several million dollars. One of Franklin’s close friends said she was “seriously gunning for” the job, according to The Daily News. But shooting the series required a lot of travel at a pace too fast for her custom bus. (Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, and Keith Urban served as judges in her stead).
Still, the singer didn’t seem to mind. For a relative geographic recluse, she traveled a lot in other ways. After recording an album in 2014 called Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics, which featured covers of other female greats—Etta James, Alicia Keys, Gladys Knight, to name only a few—Franklin told The Belfast Telegraph that the songs brought her back to certain places and moments in her life. “Music is transporting,” she said.