Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Fright or Flight

The meal was served in plastic, containers wrapped in foil
A special pack contains salt, vinegar and oil
To add to my discomfort, lightning hits the deck.
Down the aisle they venture, pouring cups of tea
To gentlemen of business and ladies of the scene
They crave for the interior a
s lightning strikes again...
Gruff Rhys, Skylon - Candylion (2007)

Living 10,000 miles away from where I was born, I’ve spent a few hours of my life in aeroplanes. Distracted by the thrill of foreign travel, an endless supply of Hollywood blockbusters and free gin, I had always rather enjoyed criss-crossing the planet amongst the clouds. There was a certain level of surprise then, when I discovered during a recent jaunt around the world that I’ve developed a fear of flying.

For context, I have in the past flown a small plane, been in several helicopters, done a tandem freefall parachute jump, bungeed off a bridge and jumped off a mountain attached to a crazy Frenchman and a hang glider. All of these acts were undertaken with a bit of youthful zest and healthy sense of what-the-hell. And yet, during what could reasonably be called a successful circumnavigation of the globe (I didn’t die in a horrific fireball at 30,000 feet) every safe landing started to feel like an 11th hour reprieve from the President from some unseen firing squad.

That our journey (eight separate flights with their own individual take-offs, landings and please-pay-attention-sir safety demonstrations) was further coloured by two different volcanic ash clouds, a mid-flight tropical storm that added 8 hours to a 6 hour journey, four constant hours of North American turbulence and a drug-addled Irishman returning from Amsterdam is just extra detail. The rot had set in long before.

It’s probably no coincidence that my fear of flying has developed during a lull in overseas flights. Not having been overseas for almost four years, I had come to associate flying with Jetstar and Tiger Airways, two cheap and cheerless local carriers, the latter of which has now been grounded due to safety concerns. Their joyless no-frills approaches and up-and-down intercity flights had robbed me of any thrills that air travel might once have had. I would spend flights to Sydney mentally drafting dramatic news headlines and radio bulletins about our imminent crash and thinking about who will look after my dog.

Subsequently my levels of in-flight angst are now influenced by two important factors; the size of the plane and the staff-to-Muppet ratio.

It makes no sense that significantly increasing the size of the thing that shouldn’t be in the air in the first place somehow makes it less scary but there’s no denying the bigger the plane, the less is my terror. Take off is smoother, cabins and seats are roomier, TV screens are individualised, drinks are much freer. When planes are big I can adjust my optimism from the opening scene from the Lost pilot to ‘hey, maybe someone will hear that little whistle across the water before the sharks get me…’

As for staff, I used to think that friendly professionalism ranked highest on my list of cabin crew qualities. I now appreciate what I’m really looking for is a door bitch (male or female) who will come down like a prison warden on even the most minor acts of lawlessness. If someone is unbuckling their seatbelt when the light is on, using ‘electronic devices’ during take-off or turning on their mobile phone before we’ve reached the terminal I want them SLAPPED DOWN.

What I don’t want, Ryan Air, is a situation where a crazy walking stereotype of a mentalist is allowed to get on my plane when he has lost his boarding pass (probably used as a roach), who ignores you (the people in charge of all our safety, lest we forget) when you repeatedly tell him to turn his iPod off until YOU give up, who asks people around him “why have we just taken off and landed again?” before we have even reached the runway, and who gets up out of his seat the second the seatbelt sign goes off, leaving his shoes, bag and coat behind and is NEVER SEEN AGAIN FOR THE REST OF THE FLIGHT…

If that does happen, Ryan Air, I would like you to take control of the situation and make us all feel at ease. What I do not want you to do is try and sell me multi-packs of duty-free cigarettes and/or scratch card lottery tickets.

The other cabin crew quality that ranks above professionalism is calmness. Wings could literally be falling off, but if I can see the benign smile of a non-plussed air-steward I’ll always feel much better about the situation. I learned this when our flight from Dublin to New York was interrupted one hour from landing by news that every airport on the eastern seaboard of the US had been closed down due to violent storms.

After an hour looping around Nova Scotia we then headed north to Montreal because (and these are the reassuring words of the Captain) ‘we are running low on fuel’. Although convinced this was leading to the death that I’d been anticipating since leaving Melbourne, and slightly aggrieved that having planned our holiday for so long, we were going to die without even seeing New York, my terror was eased by watching the seemingly unconcerned Irish crew stop working, kick their shoes off and have a bitch about some of the passengers who were less gracious about our situation. I particularly enjoyed seeing one obnoxious passenger being torn a new anus by a small red head for switching on his mobile phone. You can be my wingman anytime, Maverick.

My panic may have been lessened by the crew’s apparent insouciance, but I still spent the rest of the flight wondering how a pilot planning for a 7 hour flight was able to fly a plane after 14 hours at the helm. All mitigating factors aside my presiding in-flight emotion is still uneasy panic rising to hopeless wreck. It may be safer to travel by plane than to catch a bus or whatever that statistic is, but give me the bus any day.

I’m not as bad as some. Such is my friend’s fear of aviation that she refers to planes as ‘flying coffins of death.’ She is incapable of setting foot on a plane unless she has rendered herself comatose with all manner of long lasting little white pills. Another friend has good reason to be afraid of flying after she was involved in a major incident which saw her flight plummet 20,000 feet (that’s almost four miles) for over five minutes. As a keen traveller she has had to literally force herself to get back on the horse using counselling, noise-cancelling headphones, more little white pills and whole heap of scientific and statistical reasoning to counter the fear.

Logic should suggest that if she can get back on a plane then I should stop fannying about, sit back and enjoy the drinks trolley. If only my brain was wired up that way. Instead, the fact that I know someone who has experienced exactly what I fear goes to show that it could happen anywhere, anytime.

For now I’m just grateful my secular prayers were answered. I’m home, back with my feet and all my other bits firmly on the ground and no plans to travel until my Grandma’s 80th birthday in February next year. If I set off now, walking non-stop I should have those 10,000 miles covered just in time.

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