Ready for take­off

Suzanne Moore tack­les her fear of fly­ing

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page -

‘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

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