Butterflies

It’s started already. The knowledge that this is the last weekend before I have to fly to LA has set the butterflies fluttering in my stomach, and it’s frustrating the hell out of me.

The stupid thing about my nervousness when it comes to flying is that I used to be incredibly relaxed about such things. As recently as three years ago I travelled to Tokyo without any real trouble. That was perhaps the first flight where I felt any kind of nerves, but it was very mild by comparison; I certainly wasn’t worrying about it a week or so beforehand.

There’s a kind of logical illogic behind my new-found anxiety. It’s a fairly simple thought process: that if something goes wrong in a vehicle on the ground, it’s less likely to be a serious problem than when you’re 30,000 feet in the air. In a car, whether you’re driver or passenger you feel like you have some semblance of control over your fate. On a plane you’re essentially putting your lives in the hands of pilots, co-pilots, air traffic controllers and aeroplane manufacturers.

In truth, this all stems from an even greater fear – the fear that I won’t live to see my son grow up. It’s an entirely selfish fear; my son and wife would, I’m certain, be strong enough to cope without me. But I want to be there for them. It’s partly why I never wanted a job where travel would play a big role. The fact that I couldn’t guarantee my safe return is something I have a big problem with.

It’s perhaps silly to worry about things you have no control over. Maybe it says something about me that I need to feel that I’m the master of my own fate. All I know is that something I should really be looking forward to is turning into something I’m utterly dreading. And I wish more than anything else that I could change that.

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9 comments

  1. I recently watched an interesting documentary about that Air France flight which mysteriously crashed in the middle of the ocean last year.

    The conclusion was basically that it crashed thanks to a freak series of errors with about a several million to one chance of all occurring simultaneously.

    But I was astonished by quite how many safety procedures are built into the autopilot systems of modern aircraft. Everything, from the speed to the angles to the thrust to the exact tweaks in the way the wings are working, can be automated at the start of a flight, leaving the pilots to basically just make sure the thing lifts off the ground and touches back down again.

    (Of course, the reason that plane crashed is because, thanks to the all-encompassing nature of these systems, modern pilots have very little experience in /actually flying an aircraft/. Hence, when they all spectacularly failed at once, which unfortunately happened to be in the middle of a storm, they were a bit fucked. Probably best not to think about that, though, mainly because the chances of that even happening once again, ever, are enormously slim.)

    I have a very similar false-logic nervousness about flying. Not a fear, by any stretch of the imagination – it’s a butterflies-in-the-stomach during takeoff feeling that usually depletes once I’ve been in the air for half an hour or so. The way I tend to deal with it is to try to get an aisle seat where possible, since my nervousness stems from the exact same distaste for being several thousand feet above ground. With an aisle seat, you basically can’t see out of the window. It’s one of the few occasions on which I’m afraid of heights. I also hate how sharply this giant metal tube seems to bank when you’re actually on-board it, when in actual fact it’s probably only about 20 degrees or something. There’s nothing more alarming than looking out at what you think will be the horizon ahead, and instead seeing the ground. But, like I say, it’s misinformed non-logic.

    I also tend to think that the longer I go without flying, the more that nervousness skyrockets. I haven’t flown anywhere in a good few years now, and I’m aware that I’m now in a job in which I probably will have to fly on a reasonably regular basis. I have no doubt that I’ll get back into the swing of things. I used to not like being on trains, either, for some reason. But over the past couple of years I’ve been on long train journeys thanks to games journalism probably on average once a month. I think it all stems from that same place again: the knowledge that, no matter how statistically safe that form of transport is, if something /does/ go wrong, the likelihood of it being disastrous is elevated beyond what it’d be if you had a 30mph bump in the car, or whatever.

    I’m aware I’m probably not being particularly reassuring, so let’s finish with this, which is what I tell myself each time these worries arrive in my head. We occasionally hear about these terrible plane crashes, or train derailments, or whatever. But consider the number of people who do the sort of thing we do – by which I mean anyone who has to travel on a reasonably regular basis for their work. Think of the number of people in the public eye: TV news reporters, travel journalists, nature documentary makers, whatever. There are so, so many that spring to mind straight away.

    None of them are dead.

    So we’ll probably be fine too.

  2. The weird thing is that I had a moment of Zen calm today when I thought about it directly, and my brain told me something pretty similar to your last full para there. That tons of people will be flying out to E3 that have flown hundreds, maybe thousands of times between them before. And all of them will be absolutely fine.

    I know how stupid it is to feel this way, but I can’t seem to make it go away, no matter how hard I try.

    • I remember reading something John Walker wrote ages ago about his never being able to sleep on planes. While his reasoning was different, his theory was that there should be an option to be put under general anaesthetic immediately upon boarding the plane, to be revived once you touch down upon arriving at your destination. Because, hey, everyone’s groggy when they get off a plane anyway – what difference would it make?

      I would totally choose that option.

      • Absolutely. I’d do that every time.

        Even when I didn’t mind plane travel, I was never able to sleep during flights. Naturally, that’s not even an option now.

  3. Oh, and to add, since I forgot to clarify the thing about flying-lots=less-fear: the time I felt the least nervous about flying was the time I took eight separate flights within seven days when bouncing around America. Including two in a six-seater Cessna during high winds. We’re built to quickly adapt, I find.

  4. I think the whole thing about the longer you leave it between flights, the more they scare you, is true. It’s coming up for fifteen years since I last flew, and I know at that point I was still utterly enraptured by the whole experience! Now, Angus’s talk of wanting to go on holiday fills me with dread… which is ridiculous.

    Partly I can rationalise it. A friend of mine – handsome, intelligent, funny guy – was walking down the street one day as a teenager. Then the drunk driver swerved off the road and hit him. He’s paralysed from the chest down for the rest of his life and you have to remind him who you are each time you see him.

    Point is, you can never guarantee your safe return. Even if you resort to agoraphobia and never leave the house!

    Shit happens. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Worrying about it doesn’t stop it happening: it just diminishes your quality of life before it happens, and leaves you too worn out and run down to think clearly enough to minimise the damage when it does happen.

    Thereafter I use the same technique I did to halt the adrenaline loop that was perpetuating my ME. It’s also what got me into a dental chair for root canal surgery in a remarkably relaxed state, despite a crippling phobia of dentists!

    I guess the trick in this instance is going to be to let yourself be afraid, just don’t let your fear impress you. The brain will prattle on in its own barmy way, so instead of trying to control what it thinks, try diverting your attention to keeping yourself physically relaxed. It’s amazing how ineffective mental fear becomes if you’re taking slow, calm breaths with loose, relaxed shoulders!

    The pilot has trained for this job far beyond any test a car driver has to pass to be allowed on the road. Looking at it cynically, the bad press from a fault costs an airline company way too much money… so you know their planes are going to have gone through insane numbers of checks to ensure safety. Far more than your car goes through each time you take it out on the road.

    Relax. Enjoy. Selfishly be the kind of dad who inspires his son to adventure and joie de vivre… because there can surely be nothing better than watching your own child living life to the full!

    • That’s absolutely true, actually. Chris — you’d want James to grow up being happy to fly around the world should he so desire, right? You want to be able to take him on holiday and, when he’s older, wave him off to go travelling, or on business trips, yeah? Then I guess it’s about leading by example, and CONQUERING THE FEAR! CONQUER IT!

  5. Pingback: One A Day Picks of the Week 1st – 6th June « rudderless


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