Aviophobia isn’t funny, it’s paralysing. A forbidding feeling that washes over you in gentle, threatening waves, before gripping your insides in a supernatural hold that no one should have to experience. For as long as you’re up in the air, you aren’t thinking of what a miracle it is to be “flying”; you’re making a mental checklist of everything that can go wrong. You remind yourself of the astrologer who said you wouldn’t die in a plane crash, but you also pay close attention to the safety instructions, just in case. You fight for the window seat so you can see what’s up when something’s up. Your hand fumbles under your seat to make sure the life jacket they promised you is still there. You work out an exit strategy, which door you’re going to escape from when you crash and everyone’s…everywhere. As you’re trying to decide if you’d rather crash into the sea or on land, you’ve got your eye on the guy who won’t switch his phone off, and on the flight attendants to see if they look panicked in any way; and you’ve got your eye on the phalange because even though you know there is no such thing, what if it catches fire?
This fear of flying hasn’t ever stopped me from boarding an aircraft (I also suffer from acute motion sickness, which knocks out road trips and boats, even trains), but it has made me a pain in the ass to travel with. I’ve been sharply reprimanded by an air hostess for panicking a planeful of unsuspecting passengers because clear-air turbulence is not something my brain can make sense of (air pockets are like black holes are like god… enough people will tell you they exist but how sure are you, really?). I’ve been on the verge of getting arrested for flying into the cockpit during extreme turbulence to ask the pilot if he’s actually the goddamn intern — at which point he had a disturbing “Look Ma, no hands!” moment as he explained how auto-pilot works, the exact opposite of helpful for someone who is asking you to take control.
The worst are those little flights from Here to Nearby. You’d think downsizing from a 500-tonne flying machine to one that’s about two cars big would make things more manageable, but it’s only about as reassuring as a firecracker attached to a tube of Skittles — it may work, but that’s all anyone can say for sure. The metal feels flimsy, take-off is bumpy, and the thing doesn’t look like it could cut through a cloud, let alone weather a storm.
Over the years, I’ve found ways to deal with the hours between take-off and landing (wine, Ambien), and interrogated pilots who have assured me that while turbulence isn’t fun, it’s almost entirely safe. Technology may be the guy in charge, but that’s also what ensures that mid-air collisions are pretty much impossible. That the physics of flight VS the design of human beings means that you’ll never really feel balanced, even when the plane is levelled. BUT WHAT IF THEY’RE WRONG, my brain will scream. The chances of being killed in an airline accident are 1,10,00,000 to 1, WHAT IF I’M THE *ONE*?
I’ve been sharply reprimanded by an air hostess for panicking a planeful of unsuspecting passengers because clear-air turbulence is not something my brain can make sense of (air pockets are like black holes are like god… enough people will tell you they exist, but how sure are you, really?).
I’d accept a scoreboard that read “Feelings: 1, Facts: 0”, if I didn’t have things like the movies and, you know, REAL LIFE to reflect upon. Hollywood has not only trained my subconscious to consider every co-passenger a potential hijacker, I’m also wondering if there are 8,000 snakes hiding in the overhead compartment. In real life, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines’ Flight 370 last year was terrifying. It hadn’t occurred to me that that sort of thing was possibile outside of the ABC series Lost. In May, a Singapore Airlines Airbus headed for Shanghai simply “lost power to both [Rolls Royce] engines”, falling 13,000 ft. In July, Air Algerie MD-83 was “ripped apart midair by a violent sandstorm”. That’s an actual thing that can happen. This year, Asiana Airlines was in the news for a flight that landed short of the runway and hit power lines, severely injuring passengers. A Boeing flying over Senegal collided with an air ambulance, killing seven. My point is: even though coherent thought tells me these things are rare, aviophobia means you remind yourself that they aren’t completely out of the question.
So the slightest turbulence is all it takes for me to summon all the gods I’ve ever heard of and apologise profusely for pretending they didn’t exist this whole time. Before I know it, I’m remixing the Gayatri Mantra with Buddhist chants, the Ardās with the Surah Al-Fatihah, nursery rhymes with fairytales, sounding like an ill-advised Daler Mehendi and La Bouche collaboration to those around me.
And in that moment when turbulence won’t let up and I’m convinced I Am Going To Die, my insides are in knots, my skin is taut, I can’t breathe… and, appallingly, nothing Deep and Meaningful enters my head. I’m wondering if I’ll be a survivor, if I’m going to make it, if I will survive and keep on survivin’. But if it turns out that I don’t have the luck of Destiny’s Child, I move on to which photograph my unpredictable friends and family might choose to frame at my funeral. Will they be surprised I didn’t instead die of texting + driving? I am suddenly tearfully aware of my Last Supper, usually an unholy “sandwich” of essentially mayonnaise and ketchup, which I now attack with urgency. I realise I should have put a password on my computer, removed the plastic from the seats of my new car, and oho, the guy next to me isn’t even cute and he might be the last thing I see. Ever.
I used to think it was my Hollywood-encouraged desire for an impossible love story that made me turn and look for a lover tearing through the airport to stop me from getting on a plane. But I realise now that I just want an excuse to not have to board. Which the universe never lets me have. Even when I’m late and the counters should have closed, my flight will be the one that got delayed last minute, or the one with especially forgiving ground staff.
I can only assume it’s a character-building exercise or something, but should I happen to join the wrong sort of Mile High Club in the near future, I’d be grateful if you could use the photograph of me in a cowboy hat from seven summers ago.