I have always had a fear of flying. I do not go sweaty-palmed and panic-seized like some people with that syndrome. I simply find it the most unnatural thing in the human universe that we have created a machine weighing hundreds of tonnes which goes up in to the sky, fighting gravity the whole way. One mechanical or electrical failure, one case of pilot error and the results can be catastrophic.Of course we all know it is the safest form of travel, but for me that is no comfort. When it goes wrong, there is precious little hope of survival and the potential scenario of knowing for a reasonable number of minutes that you are going to die is too awful to contemplate. I know we are all going to die and mortality must be faced at some point, whether sooner or later, but choosing to step into a machine which suspends you above everything and everybody you know and love is a throw of the dice I have never been happy with.
I always try to blank out the flight number so that I can’t imagine it as the one splashed all over the national newspapers. I glance at the engines as I walk into the plane and say a silent prayer. I look at the rivets on the metal casing of the plane. I notice the cabin crew members and try to see the pilots if possible. I look at my fellow passengers and wonder if we are going to die together today. I take comfort if the pilot or first officer speaking to us on the PA system sounds jolly and optimistic and a strong, sure personality. I worry when choosing a seat on the self-booking systems whether I should go front, back or middle for my best chances. If I am sitting next to the wing, I glance at the flaps and pray they are not going to get stuck – and am relieved when I hear the landing gear go up or down. I can’t help noticing every change in the engine note and panic a bit inwardly when we suddenly seem to start losing a bit of altitude for no apparent reason. I am terrified of turbulence. As we leave the ground I wonder if I’ll be back. When I go to the loo, I think of the 32,000 feet of nothingness below me. And even when I am on the ground, I look up at planes in the sky sometimes and can hardly believe all the souls up there, eating their lunch, having their gin and tonic, watching their film. It just never seems quite right and freaks me out if I think about it too much and what might happen…
Macabre you may say. Realistic could be another term.
When I heard the breaking news of the Germanwings flight, my blood ran cold. It was my worst nightmare come true. I know there have been many plane crashes over my lifetime and I have felt the same horror at all of them and for the people on board. I narrowly missed death by plane myself when a child. We were due to go on a family holiday to the (then) Yugoslavian island of Split. When my mother heard we were due to fly on a Russian plane (Aeroflot –aka Aeroflop – with one of the worst histories in aviation), she refused to go. I remember the conversation quite distinctly, my parents standing in the hall of our house. My father rarely listened to my mother – especially when being ‘irrational’ – but this time he did. They changed their itinerary and we flew to the mainland instead. The plane we were due to be on crashed with few, if any survivors. It still makes my stomach flip and the blood drain out of me now, even as I write this. My grandmother, recently having lost her husband to cancer, thought we were now gone too as she caught the late night news. My primary school said prayers for us in Assembly. In those days, you see, Gatwick was a small airport and no-one imagined there had been two flights to Yugoslavia out of it in one day. But mercifully there were, and we were on the other one.
This ‘throw of the dice’ has stayed with me all these years and may well be responsible for all I feel about flying.
When I heard the news at midday about Germanwings crashing in my beloved French Alps on a routine short-haul flight from Barcelona it hit hard for two reasons: firstly, perhaps, because it was particularly close to home in a literal and metaphorical sense; secondly because I had a friend flying back from Barcelona that day. He had not been able to get on the flight he wanted to get back to the UK, so I feared he had chosen another routing just because he needed to get back as soon as possible. I immediately rang his mobile and mercifully, after ringing for a long time (a good sign), he answered. He had just heard the news himself. When I heard about the lady from Manchester with her baby who had been to her uncle’s funeral and was wanting to get back as soon as possible, hence the flight choice, it further bludgeoned home the reality of choice and fate. She was a waitress in a restaurant we have used a few times in Manchester and I can almost recall her face.
The 16 school kids on board was another recurring nightmare for me – children flying without parents. I have a horror of putting children on a plane alone. I do not think I have to spell out the reasons. Certainly all my girls have at least once or twice flown out on school trips, but never completely alone. I know it is a reality I have to face one day soon as they increase in age and independence. But I dread it. Indeed, Louisa is off just next week on a school trip to Italy and we fly in another direction to France. If I – and they - could stay on the ground for the rest of our lives, I would be happy. Yet this is not the way of the modern world. Air travel is a fact of everyday life.
I have been glued to the news since Tuesday. There was something about the crash which did not add up: that slow, controlled descent; the lack of a distress call. Somehow plane failure didn’t really fit the picture. It had flown in perfectly happily that morning and the Airbus 320 had a great safety record. My thoughts of course turned to terrorism and a ‘deliberate act’. Maybe one of the pilots had been knocked off while the other did the awful deed – hence the silence. I certainly didn’t imagine the ‘being locked out while going to the loo’ scenario. What a costly bladder weakness that turned out to be…
My over-active imagination even wondered whether - if indeed a terror act (and there was all sorts of alarming Twitter chatter from the extremist community) - it was an attention-averter while an even bigger atrocity was being planned elsewhere.
Then yesterday, when the news unfurled that the pilot was a quiet, gentle man with no known terror links, my thoughts turned elsewhere. I saw his Facebook photo in San Francisco (‘The Gay Capital of the World’) and saw a man who struck me as sensitive-looking and introspective, slightly vulnerable. I couldn’t help but wonder (simply as a result of his actions on Tuesday, I hasten to add) if he had relationship problems and and/or self-esteem issues which might have led to (or were caused by) unstable mental and emotional health. I nearly tweeted to that effect but feared it sounded flippant rather than serious, so decided not to out of respect for the dead and a desire not to 'jump the gun'. I looked at his Facebook page but all that was there was hateful messages from strangers, post crash, in the horrible way that social media runs unchecked these days. Was he suffering from a deep and undiagnosed clinical depression? Did that account for his '6-month break from flying'? I even looked up ‘Psychotic depression’. While the airline was declaring him ‘fit for purpose’, I was thinking that mental issues of this nature are often very hard to detect and noted from the website that 'patients with psychotic depression generally function well between episodes, both socially and professionally'. It takes a lot of knowledge of a person to notice the small changes in behaviour that occur in someone with depression - even a severely depressed one. A depressed person finds it particularly difficult to recognise and acknowledge their condition (due to the chemical imbalances going on in their body and brain). It takes a good friend or member of the family quite a long time to persuade that individual that they need help. I know because I have been there – both with myself and with other family members. I now know the signs to watch for and they are very subtle. The airline could easily have missed them.
I was then thinking how, alone in that cockpit, it could seem like there is no-one else up there with you. You are just there at the ‘wheel of the car’ so to speak. A quiet world of humming computers behind an impregnable steel door; an equally quiet world of snow and granite lay ahead. In psychotic incidents, reality is blocked out. It was as if he was alone in his glider, the wind humming softly like the computers around him...
There have been so many commentators questioning how any ‘normal’ person could carry out such an act. But this quiet young man was not fit and well as they were all imagining and hence the unimaginable became reality. The one thing I perceived from an early age is that one simply cannot guess at what goes on inside another person’s head – even a person that you know really well. We are all ultimately alone with our daily thoughts, hard-wired differently and subject to change from experience as well as genetics and physiology.The story of this shocking incident is still unfolding. The final chapter is still to be read, though it is becoming increasingly clear by the day. The only truly certain thing for now is that so many innocent souls have been lost in a terrifying and senseless way, by the hand of a fellow human being, and it is a disaster which, like 9/11, has ripped through the complacency of the collective consciousness.