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Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:50 am
Fear of flying

Although the disappearance of Air France flight 477 over the Atlantic is a rare and anomalous event, it confirms what people afraid of flying -- people like me -- have felt all along; for us, every flight which somehow reaches its destination intact is the anomaly. Here are my notes on fear of flying.



* I flew happily in my childhood, often as an unaccompanied minor on the airline then known as BEA. In fact, I was a bit of a plane-spotter, awed by Concorde and the Boeing 747. I also loved cars. Something happened in my 20s, though. My attitude to both cars and planes changed.

* I'm pretty sure I took no flights at all between 1975 (when my family flew back to Scotland from Montreal via Air Canada) and 1988, when I flew with Alan McGee and his band Biff Bang Pow to Spain on a dodgy charter flight operated by a company called Spantax. At 15, on the Air Canada flight, I wasn't nervous at all. But 28 year-old me flying to Spain was terrified. For the return flight, I wandered off alone in Madrid airport (flying always makes me broody and solitary), bought wax ear-plugs, and sat watching the planes taking off and landing, amazed that each of them succeeded. On the flight I had ear plugs stuffed into my ears and tissue filling my concave sunglasses. It was the next best thing to general anaesthetic. I vaguely heard McGee tell someone: "It's no great loss; he's not a big talker anyway." At one point I peeped out of the window and got an incredibly beautiful view of provincial France. Not a cloud was in the sky, and the plane was perfectly smooth.

* There's a scene in the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth where Newton is being tested by doctors in a spinning chair. He's telling them they can't take his lenses out, but they force him in an adamant, patronising "experts know best" way. This is how I feel about experts who tell me flying is perfectly safe. It may be safe for you, but it's not safe for me.

* My fear of flying is a combination of vertigo, claustrophobia and technological skepticism. Last week, when I had to check in at the Delta terminal at JFK to fly the Atlantic, I could only pray that the people flying the plane were more competent than the person checking me in, who asked me several times if I had luggage to check, denied for a while that my flight even existed, and failed to pose any security questions. I also prayed that the flying apparatus would be in better condition than the terminal, with its shabby carpets, malfunctioning computers, and haphazard queuing system.

* When I fly, I usually take a window seat at the rear of the economy cabin. I'm happy if nobody is sitting anywhere near. I never read or listen to music or watch the movie. All I do is gaze out of the window -- I find the landscapes, even the blandest ones, incredibly beautiful. This annoys people who want the cabin darkened, but I need to be completely aware of where I am and what I'm doing. I'm in this metal device, 35,000 feet above an amazingly desolate landscape I'll never see at ground level. I need to imagine myself into that landscape, intensely.

* I also need to monitor very, very closely all the sounds, motions and changes of the process of flying itself. The thing I'm always braced for is worsening turbulence. "Oh God, here it comes!" I usually say to myself as the plane begins to judder and bounce. "It" is generally some kind of catastrophic change in altitude, a plunge, an "event".



* Before a long flight (to Japan, or over the Atlantic) I often search Google News for "turbulence". The word usually appears in press reports in a metaphorical sense (there's "turbulence" in the financial markets, for instance), but there are also tales of injuries sustained on planes during rough weather. Last Thursday I read up about a woman who was recently paralyzed when her plane hit turbulence, throwing her against the roof of the bathroom. "You shouldn't be reading this before you fly," said my New York host. But somehow, knowing and believing the worst is obscurely comforting for me.

* One pilot describing the typical flight: "Two moments of panic with several hours of boredom in between".

* When I had to fly to Japan in 1992 -- my first trip on a 747, and my first long-haul flight of over ten hours -- I went to my doctor and asked for valium. He refused, saying that if I could conquer my fear of flying without drugs I'd be a stronger person. I actually think he was wise and right. In the event, the flight was fine, and I felt like I'd tamed the scared part of my brain by will power.

* The following year I flew again to Japan. This time I was helped by flying Hellcats Over The Pacific, a flying simulation game on my Apple Duo 230 laptop. Learning "how to fly" (the effect of flaps, the possibilities of landing when your engine is on fire) made flying feel more controllable, more survivable. I could see how things still worked even when they only half worked.

* I'm an avid consumer of YouTube videos of air disasters. I need to know the circumstances and actions which lead to air catastrophes: banking too steeply, "smoke in the cockpit", being too Swiss to dump fuel over land. I reconstruct the last moments of terrified passengers as if I'm really there with them: the Air France Concorde disaster is something I can replay as if I was aboard, and I know "subjectively" the sequence of events that brought AF477 down: the glimpse of the nocturnal tropical storm, the worsening, unbelievably severe turbulence, the sudden darkness, the oxygen masks dropping, the sinus-crushing descent, the screaming...

* I read Ask The Pilot on Salon.com, or browse sites which say things like "aircraft can suffer structural damage as a result of encountering severe clear air turbulence. In extreme cases this can lead to the break up of the aircraft."



* I can totally understand David Bowie's fear of flying. After an exceptionally stormy flight from Cyprus in the early 70s, he took boats and trains everywhere (including the Trans-Siberian Express to Japan). In the 80s he flew again, but after his heart attack and the birth of his daughter Lexi he's reportedly stopped flying again.

* I do know people who've died in aviation accidents. A kid at my school was killed in a helicopter crash. I've also witnessed a plane crash at first hand: I was watching from my roof when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Like all New Yorkers who were there, I know what a plane crash smells like. I breathed that acrid smoke for weeks.

* The worst flight of my life: on a late-90s US tour, a late-night flight from Atlanta to Houston, after a gig. We encounter a storm in Texas and make three wind- and rain-lashed attempts to land, two of them aborted at the last moment by the nervous captain. Expecting to die, we eventually touch down. At the airport I snap at Matt, who's organised the tour: "Don't you think this schedule is a bit arduous?" The weather isn't his fault, but I need someone to blame.

* Flying would be more dangerous if I were in control of the plane, but I'd assume the risks more happily. I'd rather die by my own mistake than someone else's.

* In some ways, I have become a calm and experienced "frequent flyer". But I can never find flying banal and bus-like, no matter how banal and bus-like it becomes. Being up there at the top of the climb is confronting mortality, facing God, or God's traumatic absence, and dicing with mankind's idiotic technological arrogance, his hollow assurances that "nothing can go wrong". Of course it can.

* My last flight: Sunday, London to Berlin. My next flight: a week on Wednesday, Berlin to Athens. Departure may be scheduled, but I never take arrival for granted.

74CommentReplyFlag


(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 07:00 am (UTC)

How do you feel about airships?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 07:06 am (UTC)

Calmer and more stately than jets, but always just one lit match away from a gigantic fireball.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 07:30 am (UTC)

You're 50 aren't you? You're about a thousand times more likely to drop dead of a heart attack than die in a plane crash.


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bugpowered
bugpowered
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 10:33 am (UTC)

Statistics are hardly any consolation for those who *do* crash.

So, why should they be any consolation before the crash?


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 07:38 am (UTC)

A very interesting entry, a lot of it chiming with my own flight plight.

My fear also began in my twenties, induced by, or at least coinciding with, the onset of Ménière's disease, and I have rarely flown since.

For me the equation is vertigo, agoraphobia and technological skepticism.

It is unsual for you to discuss your vulnerable side. I find it charming - don't know why.

Almost uncannily, the captcha at the bottom of this comment is "steeper and".


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 07:55 am (UTC)

I wouldn't have put you down as someone who's paranoid about flying, Momus. The wall-to-wall news coverage when a plane does go down obscures the fact that you've only a 1 in 9 million chance of being killed on a commercial flight. Why worry about that? I guess it's a question of temperament. Flying doesn't bother me at all, not even long-haul flights.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:03 am (UTC)

Two thoughts on that:

1. A worry which can be controlled rationally (by statistics, for instance) is not really a worry worth worrying about.

2. Statistics vary according to context; a person on a stricken, doomed flight has a 1-in-1 chance of dying.


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lapsedmodernist
lapsedmodernist
trust the hours
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:09 am (UTC)

Departure may be scheduled, but I never take arrival for granted.

I have a similar cluster of anxiety and fear. I generally think of them as originating in what I call the "medieval" part of my brain. I understand the physics which keep the plane in the air, but on some level, when I see an airplane, especially one that is taking off, my thought process is: "big metal thing in the sky! surely it will fall!" And that visceral perception is also belied by the sort of technological skepticism that you mention. What Giddens described as "trust" in expertise in "Consequences of Modernity" I generally experience as suspicion and paranoia.


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lapsedmodernist
lapsedmodernist
trust the hours
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:13 am (UTC)

also, the way I "rationally" explain (excuse?) my fear of flying to well-meaning, statistics-wielding friends and family: I am aware that I have a greater chance of dying in a car crash than in a plane crash (although probably less now that I live in Holland and bike everywhere). But I have a greater chance of surviving any one particular car crash than any one particular plane crash. Or perhaps this is just more of my medieval logic...


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:29 am (UTC)
and also

Add me to the list of happy adolescent flier, transformed into paranoid and reluctant adult passenger.

The one worry I would add to your list is the fear of airlines skimping on safety. I'm convinced some accountant has worked out a cost/benefit ratio for how much the airline would need to pay in order to make the plane TRULY safe vs. how much it would need to pay to my next of kin in the event of my death.

Plus, a colleague's brother works on airline engines here in Nevada and, cheerfully, loves to torment me with stories of how he "can't believe some of those planes are still in the sky based on the conditions of the engines" that come in for repair.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:42 am (UTC)

Chillax, Momus. If you go down on the Athens plane, you'll have left a healthy, diverse body of work, and your death will be quick and painless compared to, say, bowel cancer. In any case you're getting pretty long in the tooth and we all have to go sometime, don't we?

Bon voyage


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:55 am (UTC)

You've well and truly jinxed yourself now, Momus. I await with foreboding a shower of Momus obituaries a week on Wednesday, replete with myriad references to the "tragic irony" of this entry.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:56 am (UTC)

I've got lots of flight stories (though I don't think I've flown more than 15 times in my life). I'm sure a lot of people have. It's nice to read similar thoughts on this to my own. I also go into this 'broody and solitary' state, usually from the moment of booking until the flight itself, and lose a lot of sleep during this period too, however long. In the days before and at the airport whoever I'm with has to put up with it. I'm likewise obsessed by the sounds, every change could be the signal that the disaster is beginning. If it's a night flight and I'm in the aisle, it's maddening, though like a car it can be down to changing gears and so on, but the imagination goes off. I'm also fascinated by crashes, each one seems to have it's own unique scenario. Did you read the Guardian thing a while back about various things you can do in a crash situation/when going down that might help in some way? I can't remember much except keep your shoes on and put something over your face/hood up, make sure you know where the doors are. It had some high statistic of survival- that a lot of accidents are not of the nosedive-and-everyone-dies-screaming type. But people who aren't afraid -to some degree- of flying just lack imagination (I don't get the reading the newspaper or falling asleep as the plane prepares for takeoff thing). Though there is the thrill and excitement too- I still think flying is exceptional and worthy of champagne bottles cracked on the plane's chin with a cheer.

I remember a flight to Canada I was supposed to take, where the combination of the flight with emotional gongs-on meant i had a mini breakdown at the check in. I was able to put my flight back a day, and they said if I'm really worried about it I can come early and the captain will show me round the cockpit- to see how it works. This was of course before 9.11. Oh, and what about Bryan Ferry- he was on that flight from Greece where a guy tried to take control and the plane turned over not once but twice, coming within seconds of burning up. Again, just before 9.11, when cockpits were unlocked.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:58 am (UTC)

My career of fear of flying has a few similarities with yours, but the differences are greater in amount. As a kid, I was so terrified of flying that I let my whole family go on a holiday while I decided to stay at home alone. To board a plane was synonymous with certain death for me, and it still is.
When I board an airplane these days, I am certain that I will not arrive. However, over the years since my childhood phobia, I managed to be contempt with this "fact". I am incredibly calm. I have made my peace with the world and now expect to die in the most horrible airborne way (some weird error kicking in mid-air, followed by a minute-long descent, all the time knowing you will die and can't escape).
I have to fly a few times a year to visit my father and brother, who relocated to Spain. Taking the train or even a car is not an option, since that takes about two days and costs multiple times more. Sigh.

I'm quite surprised at the methods you employ to fight your fear. I try to ignore catastrophe reports and don't want to know any detail (your article is already too graphic, with it's descriptions of when a plane can break in two mid-air). Also, I can't sit in a window seat. Things are easier when I'm in an aisle seat and can pretend I'm in an ICE train while watching Miyazaki anime movies on my laptop.


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rhodri
rhodri
Rhodri Marsden
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:13 am (UTC)

I used to make a return BUS journey to Hungary from London twice a year in order to avoid flying. 28 hours on a bus vs 90 minutes in the air. It's still a close-run thing, with me.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:07 am (UTC)

Turbulence doesn't really bring planes down. It's more things like pilot error (no.1 cause) and mechanical failure. And the seconds of terror followed by hours of boredom is how flying is defined in general.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:14 am (UTC)

It's how life is defined in general too.


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rhodri
rhodri
Rhodri Marsden
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:08 am (UTC)

I could have written this. Well, most of it.

I'm terrible to fly with. Appalling. Well, I say that, I'm terrible to fly with if you know me and are prepared to put up with my whining, anxious behaviour. If you tell me to fucking shut up, I'll behave myself.

I once (in desparation) read Allen Carr's book about How To Enjoy Flying, or similar. Apart from the predictable parallels to stopping smoking, the bit that chimed with me the most was a chapter called "Don't Try To Fly The Plane". Which I try and do. From my seat. As do you - your paragraph above, "I also need to monitor very, very closely all the sounds..."

But one of my favourite things in the world is the Japan Airlines video that they play you in the morning, showing you various stretching exercises. That's the most powerful sedative I know. If they played that constantly on every flight I ever took, I wouldn't even need diazepam. I'd pay good money for it on DVD, even.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:13 am (UTC)
how to overcome your fear of flying

I used to be scared of flying and obsessed with plane crashes. of course there are as many reasons for flight phobia as there are plane models. but I have overcome my fear by firmly believing in these two words of wisdom I picked up over the years:

1. most plane accidents happen while taking off or landing a plane. a lot of people experience a turbulence midair and although it is scary its not actually that dangerous. I have learned to focus my worry on the relative short time of landing and taking off. which makes long haul more bearable.

2. if there is a turbulence or any noises which disturbs you - observe the stewards/stewardesses. as long as they remain calm there is no need to worry. they might have been trained to behave like this but then they're only human... if there was any serious shit going on they would freak out like anyone else.


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rhodri
rhodri
Rhodri Marsden
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:15 am (UTC)
Re: how to overcome your fear of flying

Sorry, I'm commenting far too much on this entry.

I keep my eyes glued to the smiliest-looking flight attendant throughout the flight. It's the only real reassurance I can get. She probably thinks I'm a pervert, and she's probably right, but that's another issue.


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:16 am (UTC)

I enjoy flying as an experience in and of itself, although I rarely have cause to fly anywhere. The whole process has gotten so much stupider and bothersome since 9/11, but the moment of take-off always makes up for it. It's an experience of magic, in the sense of what sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from.

So far, accepting the risk of a crash has been easier for me than accepting the prospect of never flying again.


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