AS a self-confessed nervous flyer, I always ask the same question of anyone who professes not to be fearful of planes: Why on earth aren’t you scared?
You should be. You really should be. You’re trapped inside a large metal tube with two or three relatively small exits at either end – which could easily be blocked by other people – and you are travelling at around 500 mph, several miles above the ground. Oh, and the vessel is filled with lots of other passengers, some of whom are drunk or asleep, and you’re not even wearing a crash helmet, let alone a parachute. Oh, the wings contain thousands of litres of combustible liquid, just in case you thought they couldn’t make the scenario any more terrifying.
So, I ask again – why aren’t you scared?
In recent years, I have definitely conquered my phobia (though that’s probably too strong a word in the first place. Being scared of dying is human. Being scared of spiders or the dark is just silly.) I’ve enjoyed many flights to London, endured a bouncy landing at Bristol, managed to smile through one of those aborted landings (when the plane suddenly accelerates moments after touching down on the tarmac and re-circles for the pilots to have another go) and even managed to grin and bear it while negotiating huge mountains in Geneva and Innsbruck during a descent – a necessary evil for anyone who likes skiing. (And yes, I know that zooming down an icy mountain at 30 mph is much more likely to kill me than being in a plane, but at least on a pair of skis I’m the pilot and am responsible for any bad decisions. And I’m wearing a helmet.)
But even if you learn to cope with it, a fear of flying never quite goes away. There will always be that tiny voice in your head that reminds you of how ridiculously perilous your current situation is, gently telling you that you remain thousands of metres above the lovely, firm earth. You can keep that voice quiet when the flight is going well – when the ride is smooth and all you can see from your window is a clear vista – but it doesn’t take much for things to take a turn for the worse. It could be something innocuous, such as noticing an air steward rushing back to her seat, instantly making you wonder if she’s just been told that the wings are about to fall off. Or it might be something superstitious – maybe your mother idly told you about a recent dream she’d had where she attended your funeral wearing a dress made out of a burning parachute. Maybe the shuffle function on your music player has thrown up a song that you can’t help but feel is a worrying portent, such as The End, by The Doors, or anything by John Denver.
Bad turbulence is always a trigger, too, especially when it’s bumpy enough so that everyone starts nervously looking around at each other with strained grins, hoping that no one else is scared. It’s usually at this point that some hilarious bloke tries to lighten the mood by saying ‘we’re all going to die!’ to his terrified wife or children.
It’s why I always prefer flying in the summer – the weather is usually much better.
We flew to Scotland last weekend to visit my wife’s relatives, Now, if I know that I’m flying in a few days, I always keep a close eye on the forecast. Anything other than clear sunshine and a light breeze can start making me feel a bit nervous. Bearing in mind that we were going to Scotland, a place where it rains around 340 days of the year and where they consider a force eight storm to be sunbathing weather, I had prepared myself for the worst.
I mentioned to a Scot that I was heading to his home town in the next 48 hours.
‘Ya seen the wither up thar?’ he asked in a rasping Glaswegian brogue.
I nodded, and he broke into a grin.
‘Pish,’ he said. ‘I mean, it’s always pish, but it’s propah pish reet noo.’
He was right. We left Jersey on a glorious day and within an hour were making our bumpy descent into Glasgow in thick cloud and rain. I was beginning to get nervous, but then I realised that the poor woman in the seat next to me was even more scared than me. Every judder of the plane made her shiver in terror and she was gripping her magazine so hard that it was squeaking.
This instantly relaxed me. The best thing for getting over one’s fears is seeing someone acting even more irrationally. I tried to calm her down a bit, which also calmed me down, and suddenly the rest of the flight was a doddle. Talking about the fear just dissolved it, somehow, and made me realise that we were perfectly safe.
So now I know how to cope with bad flights. I don’t need alcohol, valium or a good book – just make sure that I’m sitting next to someone who’s even more scared than me. (Just as long as it’s not the pilot.)