How I Conquered My Love Of Flying

MikeachimThe Everyday29 Comments

Sobrenegro by Robertobas - Flickr

Dear Tim,

I feel incredibly foolish in saying this but…

 

I won’t be meeting you at the airport. That’s because I won’t be arriving on a plane.

Because I suddenly can’t climb onto one.

*****

I’ve always loved planes.

There’s the similarity with spacecraft. That’s how, as a child in Cyprus, they first took flight in my imagination (but only the most futuristic-looking ones like the Bell X-1 (below), hammered through the sound barrier by Chuck Yaegar in 1947). Then I started school and learned that aircraft were heavier than air, on the same day I was told that ship steel is denser than water. From this I concluded that teachers were misinformed idiots.

Bell X-1 by cliff1066 - Flickr

How did planes stay in the air? How did they work? Why didn’t aircraft wings flap? (Answer – they do). Why did pictures of air stewardesses in tight uniforms make me feel a bit funny? Why did old aircraft have two or three wings, and modern aircraft only one? What’s the scariest thing you can do in an aircraft? (Probably this). Why are they all different shapes, like cars? What’s a “stall”?  Why do some planes land while pointing the wrong way? Where are the guns on a Boeing 747?

When could I have a go?

*****

Having never been paralysed with fear before, there’s part of me that finds this fascinating, Tim, but on the whole I’m pretty upset. Especially as I know you’re enjoying glorious sunshine and it’s raining here. Oh, and the whole saying hello to you again thing, too. I mean, that’s important. But it’s *raining*.

Dammit.

*****

I’m in my teens, and I’m in a cockpit.

In – get this – the sky.

“You have control”.

“I have control, sir!”

One of the attractions of becoming a member of 298  (Hornsea) Squadron Air Training Corps is that a couple of times a year, you cram excitedly into a minibus that takes you over the horizon to a fully-working Royal Air Force base. On arrival, you single-file into a typically unfinished-looking holding room where you’d sit for hours, stewing in a mixture of anticipation, trepidation and brackish vending-machine coffee. Then suddenly you’re off: through a door, clambering into flying gear that smells of greasy canvas and mild panic, strapping a parachute to your backside and waddling across the tarmac to where your red and white de Havilland Chipmunk awaits.

(Not any more, it doesn’t).

Chipmunk Cockpit by rreis - Flickr

You put your feet here, and there. (NOT THERE! There!) Then you half-clamber, half-slide into the back cockpit, trying not to neuter yourself on the control-stick. Everything metal is scuffed and shiny at the edges. Should I be able to slide around quite like this? CLACK, CLACKITY-CLICK *pull* CLANK! Seatbelted.

“If you need to get out of your belt in a hurry, just bang your fist here. Just don’t pull your parachute. That would be Bad”.

And before you know it, the  pilot has introduced himself chattily and you’re rumbling down the runway, the concept of top speed meaningless because you’ll never never never stop accelerating…until you leap into the sky with a thud and you look down and you’re airborne, over a shrinking model of the world you know.

I took the controls.

I banked left.

I banked right.

I asked to do a loop. (“Well, that’s probably not a good idea, son”.)

I wanted to be a pilot!

(A fighter pilot).

But mainly, I wanted to stay up there forever.

*****

Fifteen years later, I was flying back from Cyprus with friends, and we hit a little turbulence.

It’s this memory that is filling my mind when I’m due to catch the plane from Manchester to France, to meet Tim at the airport and spend a week climbing mountains, the last buttery smears of summer still clinging to the slopes of the Alps. The memory gnaws at me. The wrongness of it. That feeling inside my body, the sense of the weight of an entire jetliner, stuffed with people and equipment, momentarily losing its grip on the air and becoming the plummeting lump of metal I’ve always known it to be, instinct-deep. Fulfilling my childish intuition that no, planes can’t fly. They’re too heavy.

And the utter helplessness in the face of this knowledge. Relinquishing all control of my destiny to whoever is flying this damn thing, until we land, with absolutely nothing I could do in the meantime. (Yes, like being in a train or on a bus, but somehow infinitely worse. For example, with a train hell-bent to destruction there’s always the ludicrous fantasy you can leap out and roll like an action hero, not breaking both your legs. This is what Hollywood has done to us).

As well as terrifying, it all seemed terribly unfair. And that morning, my mind and body rebelled. They decided they knew best, and they dugs their heels in, turning me into a quivering wreck.

I wasn’t going anywhere.

Passage des Alps by Panorama - Flickr

So what’s with the title of this post? Surely “conquer” suggests some kind of improvement in the state of things?

Well – I’m flying again. I conquered it by acting like it didn’t exist. In 2008 I went to a friend’s wedding in Italy, and deliberately picked two double flights to get there and back (Manchester -> Frankfurt -> Rome, Rome -> Zurich -> Manchester). The weather was poor going out, and gale-force coming back. Landing at Zurich was like off-roading in a jeep – and at Manchester the pilot was forced into a touch-and-go landing by a mix-up with runway permissions, causing someone a few seats down from me to start freaking out. (Luckily, I had my eye on one of the stewardesses – in a number of senses – and she couldn’t have looked calmer when the engines roared up. Happens all the time. Her body language screamed it).

Apart from a nasty moment at Zurich when I checked the British weather online and saw “Storm Warning” plastered over the English Midlands…I was fine.

Nervous, yes. But I could fly again.

But here’s the thing. Now I don’t want to.

Swiss Alps by Jakob Montrasio - Flickr

In 2007, in the height of my aerophobia, I decided to go to Greece. The cheapest way was flying (it usually is) but since that wasn’t an option I followed the advice of The Man in Seat 61 and took the train to Bari and the ferry to Patras. Outward bound, I could not have loved it more. Coming back, the overnighter from Bologna was late and I missed my Eurostar and my train from London to York, forcing me to transfer my ticket for the former and buy an entirely new ticket for the latter, at great expense…but I still enjoyed it more than flying.

I love planes. I love flying. And modern airlines are a marvel. Truly.

But here’s why I’ll exhaust all the other practical options before I pick a passenger flight somewhere.

  • It’s like teleporting. In an indefinable way, I like to feel I’ve earned a destination. Airplanes feel like cheating. You get in a metal tube. You sit. After a while, you get out of it. Hey presto, you’re in For’n Parts. For near-zero effort or sense of achievement. Um…thanks for that.
  • It reduces three adventures to one. Every trip abroad is three exciting experiences. The Trip Out – Being There – The Trip Back. In a plane, I’m keenly aware of the adventures I’m not having, the experiences I’m bypassing in my metal tube all the way up here. I’m aware of it because I’ve done the alternative, and it rocked. Seriously, read through this. Does it sound fun to you? It really, really was. And whenever possible, I’m willing to spend extra to have those kinds of adventures again. It’s worth it.
  • You have to use airports. Don’t get me wrong. I find airports fascinating, plus a handy form of emergency accomodation. But using them? Airplanes may be quick, but when you factor in all the checking-in, queueing, loitering, eating junky food because you’re just so damn bored, waiting for luggage to turn up, being told your luggage has been sent to Greenland by mistake, etc etc….well, they’re not that quick. With trains, as soon as you step on them, you’re travelling. As soon as you step off them, you’ve arrived. And if the mood strikes you and your ticket allows it, you can meddle with your route. It’s a level of freedom that makes all the difference.
  • Good conversation rarely happens. In my experience, at least. I love breaking the ice, and for some reason I find it formidably difficult on a plane. Maybe it’s the tense / bored hush. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m so fed up with actually being there that I feel more like extending the fist of Bugger Off. But there’s something there that inhibits my gregarious side – and since I like meeting new people, I’ll skip such influences. (And let’s not forget how wrong in-flight conversations can go).

So I’m still clambering into steel teleportation tubes every now and again. Sometimes there’s just no alternative, such as with my trip to Vancouver next year. And I’m fond of the buzz of flying, every time.

But the love? The love is gone.

There’s just too much history there.

Images: cliff1066, Panoramas, robertobas, rreis, Jakob Montrasio.
  • pam

    You should know, Mike, that I hate to fly. I really hate. I don’t know so much that I’m afraid, but I hate the un-fun-ness of the whole experience. I think commercial air travel has really had the fun sucked right out of it, and that fun hasn’t been replaced.

    I’m kind of a nervous flier, a little claustrophobic and I have a week stomach. (I don’t like boats, either.) But last month, I was on some bush planes, little guys, and that was actually kind of magical. So I think what I hate is commercial air travel, rather than flying as a whole.

    • Mikeachim

      That’s my beef too. The un-fun-ness. (Copyright You, Just Then).

      Commercial airline flights are a world away from small aircraft. Last time I went up in a two-seater was 2004, in my then-boss’s part-owned Slingsby T67, complete with a fantastic, amazing bubble canopy that makes you feel like your head is stuck out into thin air. My heart was in my mouth all the way, but just….wow.

      I’ve never felt a flicker of that kind of wow from a passenger plane.

      And part of me is wondering how I’d be with flying lessons. (You know, when I make a million bucks, and all that). And since we sound so similar….

      Ever tempted by the thought of taking the controls?

  • belly

    nice. but not on the day before i head off on 31 hours of flying…… i’ll send you a postcard if i can find your address!

    • Mikeachim

      Ah. My timing might not have been perfect. Apologies. :)

      Lucky devil.

  • Jimbo

    Never fly straight and level and beware the Hun in the Sun. That way you’ll be back over the lines in time for tea and crumpets ole boy. Contact!

    • Mikeachim

      (Said by Squadron Leader to Flight Officer Perkins): “I want you to lay down your life, Perkins.”

      “Right sir!”

      “We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war.”

      “Yessir!”

      “Get up in a crate, Perkins.”

      “Sah!”

      “Pop over to Bremen.”

      “Yessir!”

      “Take a shufti.”

      “Right sir!”

      “And don’t come back.”

      “Yessir!”

      “Goodbye, Perkins. God, I wish I was going too.”

      “Goodbye Sah! – Or is it au revoir?”

      “No, Perkins.”

      —— Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe

  • I completely relate to everything you wrote. Several bad experiences with turbulence left me horrified at the thought of flying. I would force myself to do it thinking that would help get past the fear, but at the end of the day I just don’t enjoy it. I love traveling, I love discovering new places. I just would prefer to take the long way to get there for the same reasons you would. Flying just goes against what I enjoy. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • Mikeachim

      And I wouldn’t dissuade you from it in any way. :)

      Have you ever been up in a two-seater? As Pam notes, it’s a very different experience. More in-your-face, obviously, but that feeling of being where the decisions are made is a big confidence boost…

  • Definitely good reading! I agree that flying feels like cheating! So much is missed. Thank you for sharing! Angela Faith

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks for reading, Angela!

  • I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said. I used to love flying; despite the fact that I’ve had three near-miss disasters it didn’t put me off riding the sky. But today, with the onerous security procedures and unhappy airline employees and bad food and high fares, and, and, and…I’d rather take ANY other means of conveyance. And I do. Earlier this year, while backpacking around Mexico for four months, I made a commitment that I easily kept: I could fly in and out, but in between, NO planes. It was, to use one of your words, magical. Now in Asia for six months, I am finding it more difficult. Distances are vast and in some cases air travel is my only option, but at least it is not as ridiculously disgusting an experience here as it is in the U.S.

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks, Barbara. :)

      I flinched at “three near-miss disasters”. What happened?

      Yes, for globe-trotting planes are an almost-unavoidable necessity. You have to be Michael Palin, with the mighty door-opening power of the BBC behind you, to manage without them. And sometimes even he has to cheat

      Again and again I hear the US airlines are pretty dreadful compared to the rest of the world. What are the main problems with them?

  • That’s the big problem isn’t it………….flying just isn’t fun. The passengers are cranky, the flight attendants are cranky. Even before you get on the plane you have to deal with the cranky check-in person, if Internet check-in didn’t work (and here in Asia that’s almost always). Let’s not forget security. This summer going through some Chinese security I thought they were going to tell me that cavity searches had just become the norm. It was scary!

    My favorite airline these days is Air Asia. Not that they haven’t ticked me off from time to time, but overall they’re pretty good. They’re a discount airline with comfy seats (can’t say the same about Thai Air or Air Malaysia) The staff is also pretty friendly. Now that they fly out of Seoul I think flying might become fun again!

    • Mikeachim

      Agreed. Although I’ve yet to encounter cranky flight attendants (I probably idolize them a little in saying this, but I’m always amazed at their ability to stay cheerful no matter how tense the atmosphere or stroppy the passenger).

      Ticked you off, eh? Do tell. :)

  • Fantastic post Mike. It’s true, knowing the statistical odds does not soothe anxiety once the turbulence kicks in. But looking at the behaviour and expressions of the crew could help. I watched a scary documentary about surviving air crashes and now always try to sit within 6 rows of an exit, thanks to one crash investigator’s tip.

    Ever read Rory MacLean’s Falling to Icarus? It’s about how we builds his own plane from scratch in Crete in a (never properly explained) bid to combat his own grief over losing his mother. Really inspiring read.

    I wonder if anyone has successfully attempted an Indian Jones style train roll in real life?

    I wonder also how many lightbulbs http://www.seat61.com has turned on in the heads of travellers, including mine, and if he had any idea what a popular site it would turn out to be when he first started teaching himself html and putting it together by hand.

    • Mikeachim

      Falling To Icarus, eh? Now added to my Amazon wishlist. (I’m limiting myself to one a month, which reflects my appallingly inadequate reading speed).

      And you do realise that whenever I’m on a flight and not within 6 rows of an exit, I’m going to be bathed in sweat and rocking back and forth, screaming prayers. Thanks for that in advance.

      The Man In Seat 61 is a joyous idea. I’m permanently lost in admiration. And I have to wonder if there’s someone out there with the necessary work ethic to do the air travel equivalent….

  • Ha. I was having this very discussion last night. Me, another English girl, and her Italian boyfriend. She’s a fan of flying. He and I – well, not so much. She was trying to bamboozle us with statistics and saying how much more dangerous it is to drive in southern Italy than it is to fly, but I’m still not convinced. How many people fly in planes every day, compared to driving in cars? Not that many, I’d wager. (Someone with more time and Google inclination than me is going to shoot me down in flames in the morning, I’m sure, but right now it’s 3.30am and there’s no-one here to argue with me. Love it.)

    Ultimately, though, flying just *isn’t fun*.

    And ‘airplane’ makes me think of Leslie Nielson.

    • Mikeachim

      Statistically speaking, it’s probably safer to not drink coffee and eat chocolate and have sex. The amount of people dying from coffee-related, chocolate-related and sex-related accidents put together is probably quite frightening if measured against, say, having absolutely no fun whatsoever in life.

      And yes. The thing about crashing in a car is that you don’t have to endure the 5-minute plummet to the ground where your luggage windmills around you and everyone’s shrieking like Jimmy Somerville having a back-wax.

  • i don’t like flying because I don’t like the rigmarole of airports, I don’t like the way the rules always change (went through security recently with a friend doing a long-distance relationship; she was palpably calmer because it was all routine, second nature stuff to her), I don’t like the *noise* on planes, I don’t like the way that the air in planes dries your face and the inside of your nose out, I *really* don’t like that since my early twenties my ears simply cannot cope with landing (always a problem as a kid but now *awful*- scale of problem not helped by the fact that the last few times I’ve flown I’ve had bad colds which have gone to my ears), and I do not like the fact that when you get off the plane there is *further* hanging around and then transport to where you actually want to be.

    I do like trains. I grew up in a town where the train to London left several times a day and took 4-6 hours depending on the service, no changes. To drive to edinburgh, check in, wait, fly, get luggage off carousel, then get from airport to central london…takes much the same time. So trains were always the way, none of this ‘it’s only an hour to London bollocks’. (See also ‘it’s only an hour to Glasgow’ bollocks)

    I only wish trains were cheaper (I am not well organised although later this month Ma and I are doing a return to Newcastle for a total price of less than 30 quid, brill). The alternative-the reality- is that I just don’t travel much.

    • Furthermore; once, when my colleagues were booking travel to a conference in Salisbury, my boss asked me ‘if it’d been you, Helen, would you have paid extra for a carbon neutral flight?’ with a slightly smug look that said ‘you think you’re very green but I’m about to give you a lecture about how carbon offsetting is flawed etc’. He was a bit taken aback when I said that, actually, I’d have taken the train. (Half a day on my own with the countryside rushing by compared to much the same in the company of my work colleagues? but of course).

    • Mikeachim

      Good points there. Yes, the air. That nasty dryness upon waking. And that unmistakeable recycled feel to it. Faintly disgusting.

      Don’t think I’d be good material for the Space Programme, me.

      Have you tried Megabus ( / Megatrain)? I used it to go to London a few months back. Took 4 and a half hours (half bus, half train)….for a total cost of £9.

      But yes, trains in this country….don’t get me started. They should start teaching the rules for using them at primary school, so future generations have a hope of getting around without bankrupting themselves.

  • Fun post! I agree flying feels like cheating. It must have been different before, though – when you flew for days and days to get from say London to South Africa, stopping for dinner and overnights in all kinds of exciting cities.

    My kids and I went by boat to the Faroe Islands this summer. Arriving – and perhaps especially leaving – by plane wouldn’t have been the same at all. Seeing the steep, green, incredibly beautiful islands slowly appear before us, it was easy to imagine what the Vikings must have felt when first spotting these shores. (Although, they might have been too busy manning the sails – or oars – to bother with such romantic nonsense :)

    • Mikeachim

      That’s it. Now we have the option of skipping continents in a day. So we take it. And perhaps that devalues the journey in some subtle way. Perhaps the commitment we used to have to take bonded us deeper emotionally with the journey. Maybe flying is making things too easy for us….

      Or maybe I’m biased. Ahem.

      Ah, Faroe. Now I’m *really* jealous. Wow. There’s a place I’d love to go. In, um, some of the highest seas in the northern hemisphere. Glurk. Good sailing conditions, then?

  • bec

    i love ferry & train trips for all of the reasons you listed, Mike – great post!

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks, Bec. :) And thanks for popping by. Always welcome to do so.

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