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February 2010
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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.


Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC)

did the shibuya-kei airliner imagery ever give you a twinge of apprehension, or is it too far removed from the actual experience of flying for that?

Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:01 pm (UTC)

The Shibuya-Kei references to airports (which you correctly identify) are tamed by being essentially references to a time when flying was the romantic preserve of the "jet set" (I also contributed to a compilation on el Records called "Songs for the Jet Set"!). It didn't make me anxious; I understood it as a reference to the optimism about flight I felt myself in the 1960s, when I'd fly regularly to Athens.

ReplyThread Parent
Tue, Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)

Coming across the Jet Set compilation while housesitting for my Visual Anthropology professors was actually the first time I heard your music, though I didn't make the connection until after I'd heard a couple Momus albums. Just a few days ago the local record shop gave me a big box of CDs they had run out of space for and inside I found another copy of this same CD...

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sleepy chan
Wed, Jun. 3rd, 2009 01:27 am (UTC)
You'll be ok.

If I can help it, I always try to get seats towards the rear as well.

Wed, Jun. 3rd, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
Re: You'll be ok.

ReplyThread Parent

Wed, Jun. 3rd, 2009 02:10 am (UTC)

you really dont like alan do you?i found the" It's no great loss; he's not a big talker anyway."comment so funny.with your observational skills and comic timing you really could do stand up.
i agree with every fear you have of flying.the nail was hit squarely on the head.

Wed, Jun. 3rd, 2009 08:53 am (UTC)
Re: mcgee

For the record (and the records), I do like Alan! He just has a talent for saying blunt things that you tend to remember.

ReplyThread Parent
Wed, Jun. 3rd, 2009 04:53 am (UTC)
Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y

You absolutely must check out the movie/video-art-piece Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0367655/).

It's composed entirely of recontextualized (hijacked) archival footage, mostly covering terrorist chic in 1960s-80s, mostly European. It was made before 9-11. It has lots of footage of hijackings, airline crashes, mayhem in airports, and the media reactions to such. There is occasional voice-over narration of passages from Don Delillo (Mao 2 and White Noise).

Wed, Jun. 3rd, 2009 01:31 pm (UTC)

I have seen a couple of series of programmes on air crashes. The first , 'black box', was transmitted in about 1996. I taped some by accident, having set the video for something else whilst I was away in Germany. AFAICR, that show featured a spine-chilling sequnce of a new Air france jet whose pilots had mistaken feet for meters or something, and you saw this thing literally doing a loop-the loop, flying almost vertically! to their credit, they actually managed to land the thing.
The other, which I saw 2 years ago, is national geographic's 'Seconds from disaster', this was quite sensationalist but went into immense detail in the reconstuctions of the technical side of the failures and recovery of the bits....

I'm sure I still have both tapes, so let me know if you'd like a copy for your 'therapy'!

Personally i'm not as bad a flier as I used to be; after all the absurd (moneymaking) baggage restrictions, security scan hassle and moronic regulations in the terminal, actually flying has lost its stress for me!


Wed, Jun. 3rd, 2009 05:37 pm (UTC)
london to berlin

it's mildly uncanny to read this having sat immediately in front of you on your last journey from london, maybe could've offered some well-meaning support, but hey.

I'm the complete opposite on flying, I'd quite happily die if it was someone else's fault and I had absolutely no control over the events - its a big responsibility to keep yourself alive and when you fly it kind of lets you off the hook for a couple of hours.

I was feeling too groggy to say hi (was very early) but will next time - particularly as I'm a fellow Neukollner

better living
Wed, Jun. 3rd, 2009 11:04 pm (UTC)

My dad toured the world with his band for years, and the flying stories are the most entertaining (pilot gunning down cows with a machine gun - things like that). I'm glad he made it through all that safely.

For me, I just consider that I have a choice of whether I will fly or not, and when I choose flight I then accept that I'm relinquishing power. So, like you, I sit there and stare out the window and pretend I'm bounding across the landscape below (while at the same time remaining very aware of everything going on within the plane). But I have it set in my mind that if anything goes wrong, I will be powerless to affect the situation. Of course, if something actually does go wrong, maybe I will still freak out (fight or flight mechanism! ha). But so far I've managed to remain balanced and calm during jolts and stuff.

The sensation of flying is usually limited to my dreams, so I try to appreciate how it feels in real life. I also have a lot of sympathy for flight attendants (brought on by Hochschild's The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling) - since their role essentially denies them a fear of death. If my plane goes down, I should like to see all the flight attendants freaking out; not reassuring passengers.

Bonsai Human
Thu, Jun. 4th, 2009 01:15 am (UTC)

After flying quite regularly, I am now at the point where I am not sure if I can ever do it again, so great is my anxiety. Also, if you think the flight to Japan is bad, try the 24 hour flight (with two hour stop over in LA) from London to Auckland and you'll never complain again.

Sun, Jun. 7th, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)

first off, i'd like to say that i agree with everything written in this entry, word for word.
the fear that i feel and have felt for the past decade on airplanes has only grown with age, and came around the time i entered my twenties as well. never before that did i ever feel any fear in a plane, and my first trip was at the age of four- a long haul flight from india to chicago. after that i'd been on planes numerous times back and forth from the u.s. to india and within the u.s. itself. but something happened after age 21, everything started to feel more deadly. i was in a horrific car accident in 1997 and ever since, i've just been afraid of small cramped places where i am not in control of what is going on. the only form of transport that i've never felt scared of is train travel. unfortunately, i can't really travel to overseas destinations in trains :[.
the last trip i took was from berlin, where i had been living for a year, to atlanta. i couldn't get medication from a doctor even though i had severe problems with planes ( i had a panic attack up in the air once, and had to be given a pill by the stewardess) so i asked a friend to help out and she gave me some of her personal medication for anxiety, a dangerous thing to do but i was desperate. the pills worked wonders, i was calm for the whole trip and it also helped that i had a friendly older man next to me that kept up a conversation and it helped keep my mind busy from worrying about every single tiny bit of turbulence or noise in the air. when i lived in berlin i took trips to other countries and only flew once because of my fear, all other times i chose to take 12 hour bus or train rides. though it took almost five times as long, i felt a million times safer.
despite all the people saying 'man up' and 'blah blah blah statistics' on here, all i can say to that is this: screw statistics. you can yell them over and over in my face as much as you want and it still won't make me feel better. its going to get to the point one day that i will never be able to set foot on a plane again, which is so unfortunate because i love traveling (just not the getting to a destination part).
i know that what happened to this air france flight is an anomaly, but i think of it as this- any one of us could be that anomaly, any one of us could be on the one tragic disaster of a flight.


Sun, Jun. 20th, 2010 02:35 pm (UTC)

I completely agree with a lot of things on here. My first flight was when I was 2 years old and I had no problems. Afterwards, I've flown a lot compared with people my age (I'm 26). However, beginning when I was about 20, I started to develop a fear of flying. Since that development, I have been to Hawaii twice, Rome, Dallas several times, New York, etc. (all flying out of North Carolina so some of these are long flights). The fear has developed and I have had panic attacks on planes multiple times, namely on the trips to Hawaii which are 10 hour flights. Yet, before this week I was always able TOO fly. My mother bought be a ticket to Hawaii again several months ago as part of my brother's graduation and I usually start worrying about a flight weeks before it happens with the final days being worse and worse. This time, however, was much worse than usual. I literally felt that I COULD NOT make that flight and made the embarrassing, disappointing and defeated decision to not go on the vacation and pay my mother back for the ticket. No matter how many statistics I looked at, how much people told me to be a man, how safe it is - I couldn't do it. My fear is so intense that I feel it is a physiological response and I felt that I could possibly have a major panic attack this time. I don't know where it all developed from, but I worry about everything - take off, turbulence, not being in control, mechanical failures, the unnatural phenomena of flying and I have motion sickness regularly on flights to compound the problem. Has anyone on here gone through any programs or counseling for this fear? I know I need to because I don't want to live the rest of my life limited to what I see and do, but this is a very real fear for me, one which I think only other people who have it can truly understand. I could be sitting on Waikiki Beach right now with my family, but instead I'm sitting at home - defeated by my fears...

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