Up, Tiddly, Up, Up

What bothers me is the “Down, Tiddly, Down, Down”. Flying and I have never been fast friends, or even distant acquaintances. No matter how many times I fly, and I do fly a lot, I cannot come to grips with it.

Whenever I book a flight I spend days, if not weeks, beforehand consulting the weather forecast hoping there will be clear cloudless skies for my next adventure into the heavens. I try not to think about clear air turbulence. Once aboard I do all the usual superstitious things. I actually pay attention to the safety briefing, read the card in the seat back, and count the seats to the nearest exit, which is always behind me as I always get a seat as close to the rear of the plane as possible because that is the safest place to be (69% survival rate compared with 56% over or ahead of the wing and only 49% in first class: http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/aviation/safety/4219452. Makes you feel better about those cheap seats, doesn’t it?). Ironically it is also meant to be the bumpiest. I reassure myself with the Mythbusters episode demonstrating that the brace position is more effective than jumping up and down, screaming or standing on the seat.

I always prefer a window seat as I like to see what is happening if I am going to die, and I have to admit that the scenery does look pretty spectacular from up there, especially if we are bouncing over the mountains. And that is the stupid thing. My rational brain tells me that this is fun and exciting and that we are exceedingly unlikely to crash. Apparently I would need to fly every day of my life for nineteen thousand years to be sure of dying in a plane crash (http://anxieties.com/flying-howsafe.php). This represents odds of 1 in 1.3 million up to 1 in 29.4 million (http://planecrashinfo.com/cause.htm), depending on whether I am on one of those dreadful Russian or Chinese things or a lovely QANTAS jet that only occasionally drops bits of its engine on Singapore.

Those weird noises the engine makes, the strange whirring sounds, the way I can feel the plane slowing down: all that happens every time I fly. They are all normal. When I am really concerned I try and find a flight attendant to stare at. If they appear unconcerned then whatever noise or focus of turbulence we have just hit is probably nothing to worry about. Years ago I was flying over mountains in Alaska in an ancient jalopy that had an image of a dancing chorus girl painted on its tail, wishing very much that I was in the saloon she came from. Every time we hit a seat jolting bump one of our group would whoop and cheer and think it was great fun. Oddly enough it made me feel quite a bit better about it all.

Travelling with my kids has always been a mixed experience. At least when I travel alone I am the only one who will die if the plane goes down. Now my entire family’s lives will be extinguished as well. However, when the kids were younger, they at least gave me something to do to take my mind off the flight. A particularly memorable trip found us island hopping over Vanuatu when my son was two. As he had a history of earaches and travel sickness my wife expected the worst and made sure to pack a change of clothes for him. Sure enough, when things got rough he lived up to expectations and vomited profusely, all over her. Unfortunately she had neglected to pack clothes for herself. This little drama did, however, keep me quite occupied and I barely noticed the way we jiggled all over the sky.

Most of my flights are like monitoring anaesthesia: 90% boredom and 10% total panic. If the weather is unfavourable this ratio quickly reverses, at least until I get some alcohol, valium or preferably both in me. Then I can die in peace. I generally avoid taking sleeping pills. After all I want to be awake when I die.

I understand the physics of flying, Bernoulli’s principle, the safety record of planes and have flown without dying in everything from helicopters to Cessnas to A380s. Unfortunately, no matter what I do, I cannot get the rational part of my brain to override the emotional side that gives me sweaty palms, a racing heart, a pounding in my head and a grip so strong it threatened to break my daughter’s hand on one flight. At least that’s what she told me after she was able to extract it from my vice-like grasp.

I tried my own version of exposure therapy. This is the treatment where the person with the bird phobia is shown a picture of a bird. When they can cope with that, without screaming and running from the room, they might be shown a real bird that is a safe distance away. Slowly the bird is brought closer until it is within touching distance. Eventually the person becomes desensitised to the point where they can pick it, put it on their shoulder and teach it to speak. The same principle should apply to flying. Right? In an attempt to desensitise myself I took 33 flights the year before last, mostly work related. All that happened was that the increased anticipation of what I knew was to come made each flight worse than the one before. In the end I think I must have exhausted my body’s adrenalin supply as each plane became harder and harder to board until I finally quit the job.

I was on a plane again last week and nothing had changed. I talked to myself and told myself it would be fine but, as soon as we hit a bump, I still went completely to pieces. At least on the inside. I pride myself on having a fantastic poker face. I am sure the other passengers had no idea that the figure slumped in the chair beside them gazing fixedly out at the clouds, and leaving clench marks in the seat had the slightest concern about flying.

I have thought about taking a fear of flying course and even filled in the enrolment form, once. What stopped me from sending it in was the fact that I would have to take a flight at the end of the course.

Perversely I actually feel quite proud of myself because I have travelled the world and have refused to allow the terror of flying to stop me from doing the things I enjoy. Until the day it all gets to be too much for me I guess I will continue to force myself into these metal tubes and count the nanoseconds until I am on solid ground again. Looking back on it I don’t think I have regretted any of these flights or the destinations they have taken me to, or the things they have allowed me to do, even that one in Fiji where we flew under a thunder cloud that dropped torrential amounts of rain on the plane, rain that somehow managed to pour down the INSIDE of the plane’s wall next to my seat.

And don’t get me started on public speaking.

Dr. F. Bunny

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