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abruptly, space and time concertinaed, making the unveil more exciting. To go full pelt down what looks like a super-sized road, then cantilever into the sky in a softer float is a wonder.
Writers seem to note this potential for profundity at 39,000 feet. Elijah Wolfson writing for the Atlantic noted heightened emotions induced by oxygen deprivation, or hypoxia, at high altitude. “We cry happily when we recognise, deep down, that every connection we make in life could end up severed.” Nathan Heller, writing in the New Yorker, observed: “A part of me is sure I’ll die at every take-off, yet I need to feel that panic and lift or I’m hopeless. Flight is the best metaphor for writing that I know.”
When I think this way, I instantly feel better. I think of the A380 as a big cruise ship in the sky. It also helps to know that aviation is on our side in improving how we experience flight. Lasers that detect clear air turbulence (CAT), the type that tips over drinks, are being developed by Boeing to scan 17.5 kilometres ahead of the aircraft. Qantas, in an unprecedented partnership between airline and science, is working with the Charles Perkins Centre to monitor passenger responses to long hauls on the route between Perth and London, including measuring blood pressure, cardio-metabolic states and cognitive function.
While not directly aimed at curbing the fear of flying, for me, it means the physical factors that contribute to a decreased ability to deal with anxiety are minimised. Leading the research, Professor Stephen Simpson, says Qantas has worked with the University of Sydney’s research institute to see if changes in diet, regulation in temperature and meal service times can encourage better sleep patterns. “Body clocks are critical in coordinating physiology, and that includes our mental state,” he says. “We’ve worked on the timing of when people are fed, the cabin lighting shifting throughout the flight in wavelength, temperatures going down when we’re trying to encourage people to go to sleep, and then rising again to wake people up.”
With results pending, a better shot at sleep still means a better chance at a calm flight when you wake. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that a night of sleeplessness compromises the ability of the amygdala, the brain’s emotion-processing centre, to determine what is important to worry about and what is not. Researchers found the amygdala saw everything as important, which can trigger the adrenaline-fuelled physical stress response.
So, those sweaty hands. Now when I feel them coming on I think about the miraculous ability to take to the skies. How journalist Laura Smith said that flying was “to insist on the ethereal in the weighted world”. Like anything worth doing, flying rewards those who challenge their limits. Now, where once I would refuse food for 24 hours and arrive drawn and emotionally spent, I order up big. On the way home from Europe last month I ordered an overdone dessert. It was on a white tablecloth served by a lovely flight attendant. I ate the whole thing with tea as the plane softly dipped and lifted on the airflows and the sun slung itself lazily over the horizon five kilometres above a boundless Indian Ocean.