Three weeks ago I was on an overnight, long-haul Emirates flight that hit turbulence somewhere over the Indian Ocean. Even the crew were told to strap in.
After repeating my usual mantra of “cobbled street, cobbled street” for a bit, I realised that this was going to go on a while. I was shivering uncontrollably and feeling a rising anxiety. It didn’t help that I was in a seat on my own, away from the family.
Then I remembered how tired the captain had sounded when he made his pre-take off announcements. This wasn’t good.
Time to go to Defcon 3 – Meditation. I’ve often found a good tactic is to take long, very slow breaths and count them in rounds of ten. I counted four lots of ten, and another five, before the worst of it was over. About 20-30 minutes in total. (The counting is a distraction from thinking about either the imminent crash dive or the sharks circling in the water below.)
After the turbulence started to ease off, I looked around me to share the relief only to find everyone around me fast asleep.
This is what is so utterly annoying about fear of flying. It’s a private hell.
Still, there and then, I decided I’d never fly again.
It’s three weeks later. I’m at Gate 52 at Manchester Airport. It’s 6.20am and I’m about to board the flight I promised myself I would never get on.
Because although during that seemingly endless half an hour of turbulence, I was ready to cough up for a Eurostar ticket and a TGV down to the south of France to visit family, once my feet were on firm ground, my irrational fears seemed ridiculous and laughable.
Besides, how cowardly would I be to back out now? For the rest of my days, I would be forced to look back at this moment and see it as a yellow-bellied turning point in my life when I finally gave in to my fears. Worse than that, I could pretty much say goodbye to my travel adventures and writing work.
There was another factor. Bmibaby were offering to fly us anywhere on their network for free. How churlish would it be to turn that down? Especially when all they were asking was that we went and had a great time and blogged a bit about the trip.
It’s hard to explain fear of flying to anyone who doesn’t have it.
The anticipation of flying can be crippling, wiping out all enjoyment until you land. There are crash dreams ahead of time and imaginary or media images of crash sites that pop into your head mid-flight.
But that’s just the start of it. I personally check the plane’s exterior for cracks in the fuselage before boarding. I also run-through all members of my family as the plane powers up down the runway to the point of no return – just in case.
Uncalled for, I remember Concorde, Lockerbie, 9-11, last month’s plane crash in Nepal.
I cross my fingers, fidget and say a prayer to the Catholic god of my childhood.
After take-off, I count 22 minutes until I feel safe – the time of a crash I once heard about on the news.
I uncross my fingers, and have to sit straight up in my seat, while simultaneously craning my neck out of the window to see that we are actually moving forward. My ears are on animal alert for changes in engine noise.
Talking with other passengers or even my own co-travellers is an annoying distraction as it breaks my concentration. But books and magazines aren’t engaging enough for my crash-focused brain. I remember Red Dwarf’s emergency procedures of taking out airline magazines and intently reading features on, for example, Turkey’s blossoming wine industry.
Since 2001 and a bereavement, I’ve also taken Valium to get me on the plane.
It’s horrible the emotional wringer flying puts me through. And it’s exhausting.
Fortunately, there is a ‘but’…
I think it is important to keep facing this phobia and not to let it shut me down. So despite everything I still get on the plane.
I do this knowing the fear will be gone once I’m there. And the nausea will be forgotten – at least until next time. I’ve probably failed in explaining how debilitating it can be, but it is what it is, and I have to deal with it.
So here I go again. A travel journalist with a phobia of flying.
Ironic, isn’t it.
Kiss the captain! A big, big thankyou to Captain Mark Dixon of BMIbaby, who navigated high cross winds on takeoff to cruise us smoothly onward to Toulouse, landing the plane safely an hour and 35 minutes later. Now at last I can enjoy the holiday.
As if there was anything to be worried about really. :)
And thankyou to also to Bmibaby.com, who have sponsored this trip. Trip info and prices to come in a future post.
Meanwhile here are some photos I took of the transfer from Birmingham to Manchester Airport at 3am today (now shifted to a separate post ‘Every journey starts with an airport transfer‘) – it’s time to feature all the bits that a travel writer rarely covers.
How nice is Toulouse Airport, for example!