Recently I read an article about flying and how safe it is, and how statistically unlikely it is that you will die in a crater of twisted metal, having gone from 35 000 to 0 feet in a matter of seconds. Yet apparently 30% of people have a fear of flying. ‘Fear’ being defined as something ranging between sweaty palms and the need to be drugged and press-ganged aboard a plane.
I also, in the last week, took two flights on a Burmese budget airline. The type of airline with, at best, an unproven safety record in the type of country with (I suppose, probably without any justification but still) fairly relaxed standards to aeroplane safety.
Both of which got me thinking about the fears that I have around flying. Perhaps, I thought, addressing them in writing will help. So… personally, I’m more towards the sweaty palmed end than the ‘need drugs’ end of the spectrum (although gin always helps). I hate take-off, because that’s when most accidents happen and that’s when you’re most aware of what the plane’s doing: every bump, every shake and every whir. Mid-flight I’m OK until the slightest patch of turbulence has me feverishly gripping the arm-rests. Landing is alright (basically because it means the flight is almost over) until we touch tarmac and the pilot slams on the brakes and pushes the flaps right up and I’m convinced that the wheels won’t be able to take the strain and must be about to snap. I check in-flight maps regularly (any movie I’m watching gets interrupted at least three times) to make sure we’re on course and the pilot isn’t planning to dump us in the middle of the Pacific – though I’m convinced that those flight tracker maps could be rigged by a dastardly crew to dupe unsuspecting passengers. I have to be within view of a window, never choosing the middle block of seats on long-hauls, to make sure the ground is sufficiently far below us. Apart from that, I’m fine.
According to the same article, 2014 was a very good year in terms of air safety. There weren’t many incidents at all. Which is nice. Jolly good. Except, the incidents that did occur were pretty massive. One Malaysian Airlines flight goes wildly off course and ends up somewhere in the Indian Ocean, still unfound nine months later… Another Malaysian Airlines flight is missiled to little pieces over the Ukraine. An Air Algerie flight is found scattered over the Sahara, having apparently broken up mid-air (!!!) in a sandstorm. And then an Air Asia plane somehow ends up at the bottom of the sea four minutes after flying in to a thunderstorm. All four crashes made more terrifying because they happened mid-flight (crashes should happen on take-off or landing when people are, at least, kind of ready) and all four killed everyone on board. Vivid imaginings of what really happened to these flights have filled my mind when sitting looking nervously from plane windows, watching whole cities flit past under me. Actually, flying is amazing when you force the fear of horrific death from your mind. I’ve seen the frozen Arctic, the Alps and Himalayas, and Mount Fuji at dawn, all from high above.
Now, I’m not going to write something stupid like how 2015 is the year I get over this fear. It’s not a debilitating fear: I took 12 flights last year, including two 14 and a half hour slogs between Seoul and Washington DC which turned out to be less scary, more soul-crushingly dull. Also, and more importantly, I’m aware of how stupid it is. For example, during last week’s taxi ride to Heho airport, as the driver sped through rural Myanmar, twisting past ox carts, bouncing over huge pot-holes and enthusiastically employing the ‘honk your horn and accelerate blindly’ rather than the ‘wait until you see that the road is clear’ method of overtaking, I thought to myself how many hundreds of times more likely I was to die in that car than in a plane crash. Was I scared? Not a bit. Then, at the airport, I looked at the smiling families and young, long-haired backpackers checking-in for the same flight as us and actually thought: ‘Oh, that’s good. They don’t look like the type of people who would die in a plane crash…’ I mean, can you conquer a fear that you already know is stupid?
No, I will continue to fly: because I have to; not because it’s fun. Taking the train all the way from Hong Kong to the UK is possible, and does appeal, while I’ve also heard that cargo ships offer passenger berths… But in the end 10 hours of nerves and discomfort will always win out over an extortionate week-long train ride through Siberia or the prospect of 10 foot waves, hundreds of miles from dry, steady land. Thinking about it now, I actually make sure I’m scared. The minute I’m not at least mildly nervous is the minute the plane snaps in half. It’s all to do with not tempting fate. There, I’ve cracked it. It’s incurable, and I will continue to fly in a slight panic until the day I die, in a burning crater of twisted metal or otherwise.