Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A Fear of Flying

Aeroplanes. Flying. The elephant in the room. The unavoidable factor that has progressively burdened my poor mind space these past few years; occasionally  hiding away in a dark corner as if it never existed like some ungainly house spider, before inevitable manifesting itself once again like the malevolent spirit it is and always has been.

And yet it hasn't always been like this. My first flight was a trans-Atlantic trip to the Caribbean as a blissfully unaware infant. The next batch were as a child and I have almost no recollection of the experience. The first flight I actively recall acknowledging the potential perils at stake was a school trip to Italy during which the rugged terrain of the Swiss Alps presented themselves to me below with sneering distant. "We're going to be in a bit of trouble if we have to crash land now" I recall thinking. Still not active fear though.

Then a pause of a few years during which time my mortality seemed to grow as a tangible entity. During my time at university I had the experience of super-long haul to South America, followed by an 8 hour return to Antigua before embarking upon a round the world trip spanning over three months to South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. 

Now, you would think that such an intense succession of flights would appease my apprehension, add steel to my veins, turn my sinew to grit and whatever other bulldog-spirit cliche you wish to add in. But no, far from it. Each one became exponentially worse; almost a battle for survival, with a continual intake of whiskey becoming the only weapon I possessed to combat the growing unease by numbing my senses.

The final journey was from Los Angeles to London and it was at this point that my resolve was truly put to the test. The morning of our departure, I reached inside my bag for a small Buddha figurine that I had obtained in Thailand. This object had been purchased on recommendation from one of our guides in Bangkok, who had reliably (it seemed) informed me that to rub its belly prior to travelling would bring the owner luck. Having done this routinely for every subsequent flight since, you can imagine my look of horror when I plucked the item from my bag only to find that it's head had fallen off. I must admit, I can't now accurately recall if, having been left with a headless torso, I still bothered with the token rub or whether I simply tossed it back into the bag, but on arriving at LAX later that day the omen seemed to take stock. Our flight had been delayed for several hours, causing untold administrative problems too dull to draw upon here. When (finally) the time came to board the plane, the explanation came through that our plane had suffered a broken windscreen and another one had had to be flown in from San Francisco as an emergency.
"So we're sorry for that ladies and gentlemen," the pilot explained as we approached take off, in his warm and reassuring tone. "But I am assured that the windscreen has now been adequately fixed on and should be safe enough for us to take flight. We are, as you are aware, delayed by eight hours... This flight was due to take ten hours but I feel confident that I can reduce that down to around six or seven if we get a good start." 

The obvious question is why have I acquired this untold fear of flying at all? I wasn't born with it, nor did I acknowledge it during childhood. The increasing frequency with which I boarded flights should if anything have made it easy to deal with the concept of being on a plane, not made it worse. My personal thoughts are that the graphic images of 9/11 were probably the catalyst as that was the first time that something so appalling had taken place in such a transparent and almost casual (in broadcasting terms) manner. It didn't stop there of course - in the decade that followed a succession of "deep dive" documentaries spotlighting the macabre and terrible experiences of the passengers and victims of that terrorist atrocity caused the mental stimulation of all viewers to go overboard. Once these sorts of thoughts are in your head, they unfurl, they take shape, they grow. Most of my fears are based upon the possibility of an engine failure or other such non-deliberate act and yet the key contribution from that event was simply to place the imagery of carnage into my head and let it do its damage. Perhaps my one inherent belief is that fundamentally we don't really belong up there in the sky, otherwise we'd have wings instead of arms. Anything that has subsequently added fuel to that sentiment has simply opened the door further to that doubt.

And to the present day. In the past ten years, I have got away with about three or four flights - with gaps of several years in between a couple. In metaphorical terms I have simply kicked the can down the road until such point as the road stopped and an enormous wall loomed with a sign stating "board a plane you cowardly wretch or else." My job now dictates that I must travel part of the time and the nature of the role together with the global organisation structure means that this will enviably at times involve flying. Just the other day in fact I had a short flight to take within Europe and managed to cope adequately. But the thing is, for as much as I can  arrange my music, prepare e-books on my iPad, talk to those around me and indulge in whatever other distractions are on offer, I am not in control of a plane as I am with, say, a car. And perhaps that, above all other things, is where I struggle with flying.