You would have thought that the wiser you get, the less jittery you become while flying. I used to think you were supposed to get calmer in your old age, take things with a pinch of salt, and worry less about flying at 51,000 feet and getting attacked by kamikaze eagles. It seems that in my silly case, the opposite stands.
When I was a kid I never had a problem getting on a plane and flying abroad. I thought those rumbling take offs and bumpy landings were hilarious. As a young lad I travelled the world and never got phased out by flying (apart from two dodgy landings: one in Quito, where the runway was neatly positioned in the middle of the Andes, and another in Laos, where we had to do an emergency stop for fuel right next to the Mekong river. When I woke up, I thought we were heading straight for the murky water). I wasn’t that affected though. I even did a bloody parachute jump in Australia, and loved the buzz of free fall.
So why has a fear of flying crept up on me slowly like a dodgy runner’s knee? It’s not that I won’t get on a plane. When I book tickets home I don’t hover over the ‘reserve’ button for ages worrying about the flight. Even on the way to the airport I’m pretty relaxed, excited even. It’s when I climb those unstable rocky aluminium stairs to enter the plane when the pulsations in my wrist make my watch jingle.
This new, awkward, and anxious feeling started a couple of years ago while flying from New York to Madrid, after a wonderful honeymoon. We were on a downer as it was, obviously after having such a great time. Anyway, as we were in the air we toasted our final toast with a bottle of white wine and shortly my wife was asleep. I can’t sleep on flights, I like to use the time to read or just think. But when the turbulence started my imagination started going beyond the control of my rational self.
The rocking began smoothly, just the odd shudder or quiver of the plane. I stayed calm and tried not to think about the fact that we were flying over the Atlantic Ocean. But the seat belt light pinged on and the commotion started getting feisty, vicious even, and the plane was wobbling more than a diving board at the Olympics. I sat up straight and held tight to the armrests, worrying that our honeymoon trip was going to end with some deep sea diving. After 40 minutes of rocking I’d worried myself into a right old state. I was convinced something terrible was going to happen. Would we ever see our families again? Would I ever get to bore people with the honeymoon snaps? Would I not get to wear my new levis to work? Then an announcement came on and the pilot said something in Spanish. I was too worked up to understand, so I just presumed we were making an emergency landing as the plane started dipping.
“Wake up, wake up,” I said to my wife, while shaking her arm. “We are going down.” It was no use though; she was in a deep sleep, oblivious to the pulsating jolts. Fortunately, after another twenty minutes or so the turbulence began to calm, the seatbelt sign pinged off, and I released my tense hands from the dented armrests. It seemed I would get to wear those levis after all, but I’d been scarred.
“Are you all right?” asked my wife as we landed in Madrid. “You look a bit white.”
“I’m all right now,” I said, slightly angry at her for sleeping through it all, unreasonably of course.
“Why, what happened?”
“Oh, not much, just one of the worse few hours of my life. I thought we were going to crash, didn’t you feel the turbulence?”
“No?” she said, laughing, which she often does when I’m in a state. Probably just as well because usually I see the funny side quicker.
Since then though, my brain seems to have developed this uniquely weird photographic memory. There’s an annoying memory card in there which takes snaps of any plane crashes that I see on the TV or the internet, and records any conversations about flying accidents, people plummeting to their deaths, or pilots being done for drunk driving. The frustrating battle I have is that as soon as I step on the plane the images start to play back in my mind: planes swerving past buildings or over bridges, pilots crying in the court stands as they get convicted of manslaughter, or images of me desperately trying to scramble out of a packed plane as it darts to the ground. I also have a fear of sharks, so if we’re flying over the sea it’s a double whammy if the turbulence starts, not that we’d be likely to survive to let the sharks have a feast anyway.
The last time I flew, back in February, I did a class with two adult students the week before flying.
“Have you got any scary flight stories?” I asked, stupidly.
“Yes, the other week I was flying to Barcelona and we couldn’t land, we had to do circles and circles around the airport.”
“Me too, I heard the other week that a lot of accidents happen in Spain because of the eagles.”
“Yes, sometimes they fly into plane window, and distract pilots.”
“Yes, this happens a lot in Spain.”
The problem is that the older I get, the more responsibilities I have, and the more I worry about the consequences if my plane does get attacked by kamikaze eagles. It’s worse in winter, especially flying back at Christmas when the wind tends to pick up. That’s when the fear kicks in most.
So when I fly now I make sure I can see the wing. It’s a control thing; I need to know where we are, and whether or not we are about to do a loop the loop, not unknown on Ryanair flights. If turbulence starts I sit upright, with my head high and grab the armrests. I can’t talk either, my wife often tries to make me laugh, or just laugh at me, when the planes starts rocking, but I don’t respond. I keep a special eye on the flight attendants too, in case they show any signs of panic because I’m convinced they’ll know if we are heading for a crash first. It’s worse flying with my son in my arms too. I don’t want him to know that I’m scared, he’s too young to realise I guess, but when he’s older he’s going to think I’m a right loser if I don’t get to grips. I’m hoping I’ll grow out of it though, or just move to Santander where we can get a ferry to England.
What about you? How do you battle your fears of flying? Any tips for a nervy flyer?