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.
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*.
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.
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.
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.
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.