Ready for takeoff
Suzanne Moore tackles her fear of flying
‘What sort of person gets leathered in a Wetherspoons in Gatwick at 10am?” I saw someone tweet this recently and I’m afraid I took it personally. I mean, I obviously don’t quite do that. But when I turn up at an airport I do always have a sudden urge to go to one of those weird seafood bars and neck as much fizzy wine as possible. I have not got on a plane without booze and usually drugs inside me for a very long time.
The reason? I am frightened.
I love travelling, I just fear flying. People don’t get this, although my old doctor understood: “Australia is only three Valium away,” she used to say. Nowadays doctors are much more stingy.
This is why I find myself in a bleak but wonderfully Ballardian hotel in Stansted. The view from my room is of Ryanair planes. On the wall is a picture of the sky. As I check in, a man is being escorted out by two armed police; he appears to have drunk himself into a stupor and they tell him he will not be getting on a flight any time soon. I feel for him, as I have come for an easyJet Fearless Flyer course. The first day will be the course and the second the “Experience Flight”. I have chosen easyJet because it’s not too expensive and because, snottily, I think that if any plane goes down, it’s likely to be one of the budget airlines. In another life I would fly first class and my fear would be massaged away by lackeys as I lay in a seat more like a bed, but for some reason I don’t have that life. The flights I get on seem to get turned around for the next flight pretty damn quick. Does the crew ever have time to check the engines?
The other reason I chose this course is because I have heard about others where you are divided into the dread “small groups” to discuss your fears. When one woman said she feared plummeting to her death she was asked to leave. It’s fashionable these days to divide up one’s fears to make them sound more interesting or manageable – “claustrophobia, fear of heights, lack of control” – but surely what underpins them all is the crashing and dying bit?
It’s hard, sweaty work being fearful. You have to concentrate hard just to keep the plane in the air, and like many nervous flyers I read every mawkish detail about every plane crash that happens: 2017 was a safe year, but recently a plane went down in Moscow and then everyone was sick on a flight into Washington, including the pilots. No one died, but still, public vomiting at 35,000ft, in an enclosed space, is never good.
In the olden days, in South America, I boarded planes held together with sticky tape. One of my exes had a pilot’s licence, so I’ve flown a lot in small planes and never used to be that afraid. But many years ago, when I was out of the country, I got a call telling me my daughter had had a serious bike accident, possibly fatal. The police told me not to get on a plane on my own; that I needed someone with me. Has this trauma manifested now in a fear of flying? Have some wires crossed in my brain? Can they get uncrossed?
There was an unfortunate incident last year when I had to get on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Armenia and they served only soft drinks. It was very turbulent and I had to sit next to an actual giant. The air crew had their pictures taken with him while I sat paralysed with fear, pretending he was not 9ft tall. I didn’t even dare put my tray table down.
Everyone I meet on the course has some reason to be afraid, and everyone seems slightly ashamed. There are more than 150 people here, men and women of all ages, because fear is equal opportunity. Some fly regularly for work but hate it, like me; others have not flown for 10 years; some have never flown. Many claim to have had bad experiences. Estimates vary, but as many as one in six of us are afraid of the safest form of travel. A couple of people start crying at a film we’re shown of a takeoff.
The course starts with Lawrence Leyton, a motivational speaker, bouncing on stage with some corny jokes and that awful “give yourselves a round of applause” vibe – but I have not come here to be cynical. My cynicism is no match for my anxiety, so I listen and put up with the tricks.
It’s hard, sweaty work being fearful. You have to concentrate hard just to keep the plane in the air
When your senses are deprived – as they are when you fly – your mind fills in the gaps. The advice, counterintuitively, is to choose a window seat; the more you see, the better. If possible, choose a window seat on the wing (apparently aeroplane wings can’t just drop off ). The anxiety you feel because you don’t know what’s happening can be put down to imagination – almost as if only creative, clever people’s minds foster this fear. Yet rerunning a loop of your own death is not a particularly useful ability. That loop, those images, need recoding. Your software has become corrupted. New stuff must be installed. Much of the day is about techniques to do that.
People ask questions and voice fears that I have never even considered. There is fear around the age of the pilots, for instance. What if they are too young? Or inexperienced? After the Germanwings incident, a crash thought to have been intentionally caused by the plane’s co-pilot, mental health checks are, we are assured, carried out regularly. Pilots may be young, we’re told, but “These boys have lived aviation for two years”. A calming female pilot chats to us about the reality of the job. Apparently emergency descents are actually easy enough.
There are an awful lot of questions about turbulence, all answered by Captain Chris Foster. He appears to have been selected for this role as he has one of those “nothing could ever possibly go wrong” voices.
If I had to be involved in a crash, I would want him there, talking me through it. He explains that hot and cold air cause turbulence, and molecules are involved. He talks about thrust, lift and drag in a way I begin to understand. The engine noises are often the plane levelling out. The chimes – which I believed to be secret code for “we are all going to die” – are not actually saying that. There are backup systems for everything that can go wrong. It’s all marvellous and terrorists now have to find other forms of terrorism, as the aviation industry is so safe.
The next part of the course is about changing our internal monologue, breathing and visualisation. Classic cognitive behavioural therapy stuff, with bits of relaxation and the tapping of meridians – pressure points on your body (under your nose, under your eyes, and the side of your hand, among others) that you tap while saying to yourself that, even though you’re afraid, you know flying is safe. Some of this is vaguely interesting. Whatever works, works; but I am not sure. I am bemused by the idea that phobias could be interchangeable.
In the morning I text my three confused daughters: “I am at Stansted getting on plane”. They ask where I am going. “Stansted,” I reply. One of my daughters texts another one: “Mum is learning to fly”.
The reply is sceptical. “Yeah, like when she wouldn’t get on that flight in Greece, and all those miniatures fell out of her sleeves”. They can laugh at me; I don’t care. I am on a flight to nowhere with a lot of terrified people.
Going through security is horrendous. I beep, as usual. Captain Chris is here, and Lawrence. They insist security makes us feel safe. I insist it doesn’t – just more anxious. We gather to board. Some people already look half dead, clammy, shaking and doing the tapping. Some are crying. Most have brought companions to help them through it. Nonetheless, there are still a couple of bolters.
Lawrence starts some relaxation and breathing exercises. Captain Chris talks us through everything: “Feel how bumpy this taxi out to the runway is,” he says, “and this is a flat surface. When people think they are dropping through the air as a result of turbulence, it is usually no more than a few feet.” As we take off, people look absolutely terrified, but as we start to climb, cheering breaks out. Every engine noise is explained; every flicker of every light. Next to me a woman grips a man, and I assume she’s terrified, but it turns out it’s him, and they have not been on holiday for years. I think of the correspondent I used to work with who thrived in a war zone, but could not get on a plane to Tenerife for a family holiday. Across the aisle a woman weeps. They are happy tears, she tells me. It’s the first time she has ever flown.
We land in one piece. Everyone feels elated. Lawrence reminds us that this is the safest form of transport we’ll experience all day.
On the train back from Stansted something happens to the train doors. They won’t open. We are trapped, but I don’t panic at all. I have my Fearless Flyer certificate and yes, I do feel like I have achieved something: a small step for most people, but a big step for me.
The test will be how I feel the next time I have to go on a plane. I hope I feel this relaxed.
Winging it … Suzanne Moore with her Fearless Flyer certificate; top: cockpit view