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Flying on statistics and a prayer

As soon as I board a plane, I become a sweat-drenched hysteric strung tighter than piano wire. And nothing can quell the terror

Gulf News

I’m writing this 10,973 metres (36,000 feet) above the coast of Albania. My stomach is an icy mass, I want to cry, and an ache that begins in my thighs intensifies down my legs, reaching a soggy apogee in the soles of my feet, where the nerve endings are continuously, painfully primed for landing. I’m on a plane for the fourth time in six weeks, and I’m scared of flying.

I know many want to help, so let me start by saying: for me, at least, the statistics don’t make me feel better. It’s the safest form of travel! You’re more likely to be harmed in the taxi on the way there; you’re more likely to die in your own bathtub; you’re more likely to brain yourself on the front doorstep after slipping on a slug. I don’t dispute the facts, although I haven’t checked the bathtub one. I’ve never known anyone who’s been involved in an air crash, so I’m sold on the statistical safety of flying . It’s just that it doesn’t stop me wanting to run screaming from the departure lounge. People who fly happily think — not unreasonably — that nothing bad will happen. Those of us who are scared are fixated on the knowledge that it might.

There’s an egotism here, a deeply skewed belief that the fact of my existence is so significant that it must irresistibly draw down the most numerically unlikely catastrophe. I’m also convinced that the emotional force of my terror is somehow important. If I stop worrying — if I read, sleep or listen to Kermode and Mayo — we will fall out of the sky. This applies only to me: other people doing it is fine. Landing in New York — the only long-haul flight I have taken in 30 years — I was completely exhausted by the effort of keeping the plane in the air. Of course, we’re not scared of flying: we’re scared of crashing. There’s nothing irrational about being conscious of your vulnerability. It’s a cocktail of some of the most common fears: falling from a great height, enclosed spaces, having no control. It’s also borne of an overactive imagination, of picturing the kind of death it would be, conscious and free-falling.

Brotherhood of the nervous

The second worst scenario, for me, involves sliding into uncontrolled panic in front of a baffled audience. On a flight some years ago I saw an elegant young woman roll up her jumper, lay it between her head and the window, and fall asleep before takeoff. This is the kind of traveller I aspire to be, rather than a wet-footed, half-drunk hysteric strung tighter than piano wire.

It’s got worse with age. Among people I know, the brotherhood of the nervous expands each year. A friend who makes a living by writing about foreign cities has to go everywhere by boat or train or car. A corporate lawyer cannot avoid flying, but it makes her miserable. Another friend planning the holiday of a lifetime to Canada sympathises: “Oh God, I hate it too.”

On this flight, on take-off, a woman two rows in front of me buried her face in her hands while her husband rubbed her arm; I was torn between wanting to offer solidarity, and wanting to ask her to get a grip, because she was adding an extra level of freak to my already considerable freak levels. I settle for doing neither and instead retreat to pretending that Tom Hanks is on my flight. I do this often, because he is the world’s most reassuring presence, and will surely not die on a tourist shuttle from Epirus.

Take off is the worst, but descending is also awful, as the engines suddenly get quieter and your duodenum appears in the back of your throat. Stacking is exquisitely nerve-racking, endless rack-twists of ascent and descent. At various points on any given flight I will become convinced that the engines have cut out, before realising that my ears have popped. And like most nervous fliers I watch the cabin crew constantly, so that when one of them runs up the aisle (it almost always turns out to have something to do with paninis) I start levitating. There are upsides, though — all of them to do with being on solid ground.

But through it all, I know, obscurely, that later on tonight I will be at home, falling asleep to the sound of planes overhead. I grew up under the Heathrow flight path and live beneath it still. Each night I’m lulled by the roar of engines above my head and imagine passengers heading to Dublin or Dallas, or Delhi or Dubai. And somehow I know that they, like me, will — almost certainly — have a safe journey.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Rowan Davies is a digital campaigns and communications consultant.