As a chunk of barnacle-covered debris provides the latest twist in the mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, few could argue that it hasn't been a profoundly doom-laden 17 months in air travel.
In hindsight, that moment in March last year when MH370's green radar-blip vanished over the Andaman Sea marked the start of aviation's annus horribilis. Six months later, in an event that might have smacked of farce had it not been so sad, another Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down by a surface-to-air-missile over eastern Ukraine. Fast forward another six months, and a clinically depressed first officer ploughed his Germanwings plane into an Alpine mountainside. Three disasters with different causes, but each sharing a common outcome: zero survivors.
And right now, as I sit in The Flying Horse in Gatwick's South Terminal, a blister-pack of diazepam lying next to a half-finished pint (my third) on the table in front of me, this trio of tragedies is bubbling away in my mind. Once again—and I have to do this a lot, being primarily a travel writer by trade—I'm in a departures lounge, preparing to board.
For me, the question has never been why some people are scared of flying, but rather how anyone in their right mind manages not to be. In just under an hour, my fellow passengers and I will step into an aluminium tube, strap ourselves into our seats and rocket up to 36,000 feet. For the next few hours, our fragile bags of flesh will be barreling through the upper-troposphere at 550 miles per hour. Outside it will be minus 60 degrees centigrade. The jet-stream will be caressing the wobbling wingtips at a brisk 100mph. And there will be people asleep. Asleep. Meanwhile, I'll be sat rigid, clammy palms gripping the arm-rests in anticipation of the first ripple of in-flight turbulence. And I'll be thinking: 'What is wrong with you people? We're all about to die!'
For aviophobics like me, take-off plunges you into a world of pessimistic hypotheticals. Of bird strike, lightning bolts. Of "Catastrophic Electronic Failure." Every mechanical noise presages imminent cataclysm. The sudden screech of hydraulics? That's the landing gear falling off. A sudden bank? Almost certainly the start of a graveyard spiral that will only end when the plane's nose crumples crepe-paper-like into some foreign field. That urgent zip of engine noise? Probably an evasive maneuver—any second another plane will shear through the fuselage. And there'll be just enough time to think, I knew this would happen before a shard of ruptured aluminium decapitates your row.
"It's estimated that around 9 million people in the UK and 500 million people worldwide have a fear of flying," says Elaine Iljon Foreman, a clinical psychologist whose "Freedom to Fly" program has helped over 300 people tackle their aviation anxieties in the last two decades. "People often say it's a fear that creeps up on them as they get older. Perhaps that's because the youthful illusion that death is something that only happens to old people starts to fade. Sometimes it starts after a particularly scary experience."
I can trace my own fears back to 2007 and two flights that were memorable, in different ways. On both, by coincidence, I was traveling with a friend who works for Airbus. His job is to buy wings, a very important component of an airplane, from some clever manufacturers in China.
Flight one: a night-flight somewhere over the same French Alps that recently engulfed Germanwings flight 9525 in a ball of flame, and a storm grabbed hold of our Ryanair A320 and shook it for one seemingly interminable half-hour. The archetypal turbulence nightmare.
As the plane strained against the buffeting, prompting a mixture of whimpering and self-denying hilarity from the passengers, my friend spun round in his seat and, seeing me near-hysterical, endeavored to explain the mechanics and the back-up systems—the meticulously engineered unlikelihood that it could all go wrong. Those violent judders urging me to puke my heart out of my mouth, he explained, were merely the plane's many computers compensating for the fickle whirligig of gale-force winds.
Such technical counsel is supposed to help the fearful. Yet, as he blithered happily away about the dozens of advanced processors parrying each gust with unerring efficiency, all my brain offered were images of gray dialogue boxes spouting error messages.
Then, a few months later, we were on a flight back from Morocco when a dazzling white flash lit up the starboard windows.
"Um, we think that was a bolt of lightning," an uncharacteristically tremulous pilot's voice announced over the PA system ten minutes later. "Very common… [pause] … Everything seems to be fine." And there, sitting next to me, was the wing-seller, preparing to accept Christ, just as pallid as I was.
READ: Pilots Explain Why We Shouldn't Worry About Turbulence
To mitigate such primal fears, the aeronautics industry's main recourse is to talk about the odds—the serendipitous death tombola. You're more likely to be stabbed in the face by a random kitchen utensil than you are to be thrown into a mountain in a jumbo-jet. You're certainly more likely to die on the roads—2,000 times more likely, according to a cursory internet search. Thing is, peril feels more easily dodged when your feet are stuck to the ground. If your car is about to smash into a jack-knifing 18-wheeler on the highway, you could hurriedly fling open the door and commando-roll onto the grass median, like in a film.
The idea of the plane crash is so uniquely terrifying because all human agency (however illusory) is eradicated. Psychologists like Iljon Foreman will tell you that it's all about control. "It's often the fear of something terrible happening to the plane, and knowing there's nothing you can do about it," she explains. "Think of all the things like structural failure, pilot error, air traffic control issues, extreme weather—all of the potential catastrophes that can befall a plane." (And I am thinking about those Elaine; I really am.) "They're all to do with a loss of external control."
It's this abject helplessness, amid a disorienting facade of movie-watching, mini Merlot-sipping gentility that sets us aquiver. It's the thought of those passengers on the horrifying headline-makers of recent months—the vanished, the shot down, the intentionally crashed—knowing there was nothing they could do to halt the plunge. Up in the air, Death doesn't need to outwit you. You're a sitting duck.
Meanwhile, somewhere in a bland cubicle, a cold-hearted risk analyst with a little model plane on his desk has calculated that the one-in-a-million "hull loss" (the industry's dispassionate terminology for what most of us know as "a fucking awful plane crash") is an acceptable threat to the balance sheet. His answer to George Carlin's oft-quoted wisecrack "If black boxes survive air crashes, why don't they make the whole plane out of that stuff?" would simply be that it would cost too much money. Surely, if our safety were their paramount concern, as they're so keen on telling us during pre-flight safety briefings as they explain the various pointless things we should do before our compromised plane splats into the ground, they'd invest in parachutes and ejector seats for all.
All this, of course, is to say nothing of the preamble, for you've already forfeited control from the second you check-in. From the moment we pass through the opaque screens of the security gate we are no more precious than animated cargo—everyone a suspected terrorist with nitro-glycerin in their water bottles and detonators in their boot-heels.
I'm inclined to believe Morrissey when he says that he was groped by an airport security guard in San Francisco. A burly customs official in Helsinki International once cupped my testicles while staring me straight in the eye for a full five seconds. Under ordinary circumstances, it was the sort of violation that might have incited a head-butt, or at least some high-pitched protest. Instead, on the conveyor of humiliation that is the airport security process, I stood and meekly accepted the tea-bagging, then simply shuffled off. Such dehumanizing treatment helps to ensure that most of us are in thrall to a sort of passive fatalism even before we've entered the departures lounge, where the overwhelming sense of powerlessness is reinforced by the cosmic joke of airport prices.
For the airlines, of course, this is just dandy. It makes financial sense for them to turn flying into a trauma. Long-haul operators have weaponized discomfort by turning the surcharge into an art-form, offering everything from speedy boarding to extra leg-room, all at a price. How else could you convince the prodigiously well-off to part with the $45-a-minute it costs to fly from Abu Dhabi to London in Etihad's "Residence Class," complete with double bed, butler service, and 27-inch TV?
For the rest of us, somewhat comforted by the knowledge that "Residence Class" is located in the aircraft's nose, offering the prospect that the bed's double mattress might cushion the impact for us plebes, flying is a war of attrition: us vs. the slow march of time.
We all have our coping strategies. I don't watch whole films. I watch snippets of every single film on the menu. Sometimes, I get up to go to the toilet when I don't need to, just to kill another two minutes —two minutes out of ten purgatorial hours.
"Have you considered going on a course?" my GP enquired recently, as I implored him to print off a prescription for my latest batch of benzodiazepines. Ignoring my disinterest, he ran through the options: hypnotherapy, aversion therapy, CBT…
"I'll certainly look into it," I replied, while giving him a look that said: "Please give me the fucking pills."
Because, for now, my best technique by far—think of it as my travel writer's top tip of the week—is three pints of beer and 20 milligrams of valium. By employing this simple narcotic combo, I can just about survive the ride.
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