FLY ALI !
It Seems that the “Louisville Lip”, is still having the last say. Muhammad Ali boasted that he was the “Greatest of All Time”. And now that claim has been parlayed into Louisville, Kentucky’s decision to rename its airport after the late boxer and international humanitarian. The new name will be Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, although the current airport code SDF will remain the same. Current Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the name change reflects the city’s pride in a local son who has “left a legacy of athleticism, of humanitarianism that has literally inspired billions of people.” Despite the fact that the Louisville International Airport is already planning to spend $100,000 to promote the new name, the Federal Aviation Administration has to first approve of the name change.
How ironic that a major airport is being renamed after a man that had an intense loathing of flying. Before his death in 2016, Muhammad Ali had become the most recognized face in the world. He was recognized, not just as a prized fighter, but outspoken social critic on race relations and race matters, but a global humanitarian during the latter decades of his life. His epic bouts from “The Rumble In The Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire to the “Thrilla in Manila (Philippines) will be talked about for many more decades to come as they have already been depicted in motion pictures and film. So why did he have such a phobia of flying despite his many international flights ?
Many will trace it back to a rough flight from Louisville to Chicago in which the turbulence was so bad that it tore airplane several seats from the bolts in the floor. Watching the plane undergo such intense turbulence provoked hysterical shouts and prayer from Ali according to a former one time coach that travelled with him on the flight in question. When interviewed by a reporter, Ali expressed that he was never afraid of a fight, only bad airplane flights. “the only thing that scares me is when I’m on a jet and the lady comes in and says, ladies and gentlemen we’ve just been informed by the pilot that we’re coming into a thunderstorm. We tried to get around it but we can’t. It might get a little choppy, so fasten your seat belts and we’re resume serving dinner in 5 minutes.” Given his first bad experience with flight, from that point on he always took a parachute onboard with him.
So petrified of plane travel he was that he had to be counseled by the US Air Force prior to his trip to compete in Rome during the 1960 Olympics. “What I was afraid of most was the plane crashing, and nothing would satisfy me until I called the Air Force and asked them to give me a record of plane flights between Rome and America,” he wrote in his autobiography. “They said they couldn’t even remember the last time one had crashed. That calmed me down enough to take the flight to Rome.”, Ali wrote in his 1975 autobiography.
In May of 1960, Clay had to go to San Francisco to qualify for the U.S. Olympic boxing team. If he wanted to accomplish his goal of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world, he had to immediately overcome his aviophobia. Dick Sadler, the man who inspired Ali as a child to go into boxing after someone stole his bike told him, “You’re going to have to fly, son, if you want to be a fighter, fly to places all over the world,” according to
Ali’s autobiography. Some who were close to Ali over the course of his life will claim that after his conversion to Islam and along the course of his maturity in that faith, his fears diminished. He reportedly told someone that Allah would not allow him to die in a plane crash. He often flew without wearing his seat belt. So goes a story that while on a flight, the flight attendant advised Ali to put on his seat belt. He responded, “Superman don’t need no seat belt”. The attendant shot back, “Superman don’t need a plane either”.
During the time of Muhammad Ali entering into the boxing world, aviation was still a mystery to many and most importantly, a luxury for the affluent. For most blacks, public transportation was a burden given the Jim Crow laws in place at the time. Many blacks at the time didn’t travel too far outside of their immediate realms of existence. Therefore air travel was frightening due to the mystery surrounding it. This was captured in the 2000 motion picture, “Ali”, starring actor Will Smith in which he has a cautionary experience while flying to Africa. Muhammad Ali was shocked to see African men flying the plane. “What did you all do with the real pilots?”. The men responded Mr. Ali, we’re the pilots. Ali then replied, “In my country, they barely let negroes drive buses”. Continue to float lie a butterfly and enjoy your flight, Mr. Ali, wherever you are…..