Sunday, 17 August 2014

How do you travel the world if you're scared of flying?

Hi, my name's Sophie, I work in travel and I'm terrified of flying.

I know, sounds like the beginning of an AA meeting, right? I mean, lots of people are scared of flying, it's hardly unusual. But what if it's an intrinsic part of what you do?

In my job, I reassure people all the time. Of course Thailand is safe, you'll be absolutely fine. No, you're highly unlikely to get Ebola in South Africa, you're actually closer to the outbreak here in London... It's part and parcel of what I do, and I enjoy it. One thing I struggle with however, is reassuring nervous flyers.

I didn't set foot onto a plane until I was 13 years old, heading to the Canary Islands with my dad and brother. I'd heard stories of people being scared of flying, but that first time, I don't actually think I was too bad. My dad might remember differently, but I don't think flying bothered me too much. It was as I grew older, and became aware of my own mortality, that flying became more and more scary.

I think the first time I was properly petrified was the first time I went on holiday with my friends when I was 18. A couple of my friends were nervous flyers as well, and I don't think we helped each other much. In fact, the joint fear only justified our own individual nervousness, and so I was the most scared I have ever been. I started listening to every noise, and became aware of every movement, watching the eyes of the cabin crew to see whether it was normal.

My brother and I used to watch a lot of Air Crash Investigation on TV (a programme that analyses plane crashes, why they happened and what could have been done to avoid it), and rather than it reassure me, it made me aware of how many things could actually go wrong. There's one episode in which one of the windows in the cockpit blows out, and the pilot is sucked outside of the plane, only saved by the quick thinking of his co-pilot, who grabbed onto his leg. Somehow, miraculously, they managed to land the plane AND the pilot survived, but what caused the problem? Somebody had fitted the wrong kind of nut or bolt onto somewhere. One tiny thing and a massive problem occurred.

I think that's my issue with flying. I know all the statistics of it being the safest form of transport, but if you crash a car, you've got a relatively high chance of survival, or at least that paramedics will get there quickly enough to save you. If something goes wrong in the air, it's not the problem itself that will kill you, but the uncontrolled descent, loss of pressure and potentially exploding into a ball of flames. Chances of surviving a plane crash are very slim, and you'll potentially know about it for a while before you actually die. That's what scares me.

Channel 4 did a programme a couple of years ago called 'The Plane Crash.' (I know, I know, why do I do this to myself?) In it, they intentionally crash a plane into the desert to try and analyse what increases your chance of survival in the case of a crash? Should you brace? Yes, probably. Where should you sit? Well, that depends on how the plane crashes. Nose first, then clearly the back. Tail first, the front is your best bet.

Oh but, by the way, this is only going to help you if the plane crashes in a very specific way. If it doesn't skim the ground right, then you'll probably ignite the fuel tank and you'll die anyway.

The point of this is that, the older I've got, the worse my fear has got. It's now developing into a full-blown phobia. Take off is the worst; once the captain switches off the seatbelt sign I'm usually ok, but all the way through check-in and boarding, I'm an absolute nightmare. I have scars on my wrist from digging my nails into myself during take off; an attempt to distract myself from what I'm actually doing, and ward off a panic attack.

The worst I've ever been was on the way back from Kenya in 2010. I was sat right at the back of the plane, in the middle of the middle row, and couldn't see a thing of what was going on outside. I was to be trapped on the plane for another 8 hours, and I had a really, really bad feeling (something I've learned to ignore as it usually means nothing!) I'd just conquered Kilimanjaro and spent three weeks leading a group of 22 volunteers around Tanzania, but this was too much and I burst into tears and had a panic attack all the way through take off, much to the disconcertion of everyone around me (not that any of the cabin crew noticed).

Since then, I've tried to control myself. I've learned to sit near the window, usually over the wing, so that when I hear a noise I can usually look out and attribute it to something. I tell whoever I'm travelling with to ignore me being an idiot, as I'll sort myself out as soon as I'm at cruising altitude, and pandering to my fear will probably only justify it in my head in the long run.

I take deep breaths during take off, squeeze my eyes tight shut, and occupy my hands so I don't add to my collection of scars! One of the main things that's helped is telling myself that, there's no going back now. Even if something does go wrong, my panic at the beginning won't actually affect anything, so it's best just to stay calm!

When I came back from Sorrento this summer, this was severely tested when we had to set off into a thunderstorm. I had to stand by the window and watch lots of other planes take off safely before I'd even consider going to the gate, and had to force myself to board the plane. Of course we were absolutely fine, and didn't even experience any turbulence, but my brain just wouldn't listen

Recently, with the losses of MH370 and MH17, as well as crashes in Taiwan and Mali, all within a few weeks of each other, plane travel has once again come into the spotlight. Again, I know the statistics, and I know it's the safest form of transport. But it's not 100% safe, and I have to face up to that. My heart goes out to anyone affected by either Malaysian disaster, or any plane crash really, as I can't imagine anything worse. For some reason, MH17 scared me more than most. For a civilian jet to be blown out of the sky; that's something that I hadn't even considered could happen, and it really shook me up.

Travel is my life, however, and flying is something I have to do to facilitate that. I haven't let it stop me in the past, and I don't plan to let it do so in the future. My biggest test will probably be in Nepal in May; I'm finally hoping to do Everest Base Camp (if I can actually get the money together for the flights) so not only do I have to fly to Kathmandu, I have to take a flight in a tiny Twin Otter plane to the most dangerous airport in the world.

Lukla is a tiny airfield. set into the side of the Himalayas, and the start point of most treks in that area. To get there, you have to fly on a tiny plane in which you can feel every movement, and see directly into the cockpit from your seat. In recent years, there have been several crashes here, mainly because of the weather (although Nepali airlines don't have the greatest safety standard either). The most recent was when clouds descended suddenly, causing the pilot to miss the runway and clip a fence on the edge of the airport, killing everyone on board.

Everest has been my dream for a while now, and I've already put it off a couple of times because of lack of funds. I have to do it, and the only other alternative is to add a 6 day trek in from Jiri (which I would do if I could, but I can't get the time off work!) I could do this with every trip; I could take buses and cars and trains, but the trips would take three times as long and it just wouldn't work in the long term. It's just not sustainable, and it would be silly to even consider it.

I've already started having nightmares about the flight, and nothing I've read on it has been reassuring (seasoned flyers have been terrified by it, so there's no hope for me!) The worst bit is that it's not an irrational fear, so I can't tell myself that I'm just being silly, as it is a possibility that the worst could happen.

I know I'm not as bad as some people; I've always been able to get onto the plane, and I've never had to take valium or any medication before doing so. This doesn't make my fear any less real though, and it still affects me more than I'd like.

I can't let this fear take over however, otherwise what's next? My dream of being a travel writer would be over, and I'd never be able to see the world like I've always hoped I would. I've overcome it before, and I will overcome it again. Sometimes you have to accept the risks in life, as the end goal is worth it, and I have to remember that (just don't tell my Mum!).

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