imomus (imomus) wrote,

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, 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.
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