The Construction of Fear

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There’s a horrific tearing sound and the shriek of metal being tortured and twisted fills my ears.  I have one moment to glance out the window before being flung clear into the icy atmosphere; surrounded by the final screams of everyone onboard.  The last thing I will remember is the abject terror on the face of the person in the seat next to me as we both know our luck and time has run out.

I don’t know why I do this to myself every time a plane takes off.  I keep picturing exactly how the end will happen when catastrophe strikes mid-air.  I look out the window again and we’re steadily rising above the city below on the way to my next destination.  In a few minutes we will pass through the clouds and the turbulence will arrive then.

The shaking starts as it always does, throwing the whole cabin around as if they’re just checking our seatbelts.  Then it gets harder and I look down the length of the cabin to try and see if it’s really as bad as it feels.  What’s that sound?  That’s new.  I don’t remember hearing it before.  Like a deep hammering, shaking my bones.  I can’t hear it so much as feel it.  The announcement system crackles into life,
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.  We’ve encountered some unusual turbulence and will be returning to….”
The voice is cut off and the silence only lasts a second before the hammering gets deeper and deeper.  I glance out the window and the next few moments seems to last a lifetime.  The engine has blossomed into flame and is shedding parts constantly.  Some of them are blown against the plane’s fuselage on the way down.  The wing seems to actually be flapping, it’s bending too much as waves of pressure pass down its length.  In the final moment I can hear no noise, just remember watching the wing falling away as the plane starts spinning and I lose consciousness.

Maybe one day I’ll stop this self-torture and be fascinated with the experience again; like I used to be as a child.  I’ve been flying since before I can remember.  When I was eleven months old I was evacuated from Darwin after cyclone Tracy destroyed the town on Christmas Day, 1974.  We spent more than fifteen hours flying to Tasmania on a Hercules military transport plane.  When my mother passed out due to exhaustion, apparently I was quite happy to be passed around the plane to play with everyone else there.  When she woke up in a panic she found me in the arms of a hostess (yes they did have them on these flights) with a group of women all gurgling happily over me.  So flying should be completely natural to me.  I figured out by the time I was twelve, I had flown the equivalent of around the world once, just visiting family around Australia and taking one family trip to Singapore.  By the time I was twenty one, I was close to a second circumnavigation with flights to and from school and some holidays.  In the last five years alone I’ve circumnavigated the world more than twice more on long distance flights to England, Turkey, Russia and China.  So why do I still spend so much time thinking about dying on one?

I normally sit there telling myself the facts to put it in perspective.  There are more than a million people in the air at any one time nowadays.  I suspect half of them are in China and India.  The safety record of the Boeing aircraft we all trust in is frankly extraordinary.  If cars were this safe there’d be a lot more people alive today.  You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than be involved in an accident on a modern commercial jet.
Of course the news reports every air disaster around the world; if it bleeds, it leads.  However, at least half the reason they get reported so enthusiastically is that it’s so unusual.  So am I just a victim of media hysteria?

I can remember when I was about ten years old hating being a part of the group of kids on a plane having to wear a stupid badge and being cosseted by the hostesses.  The experience was so normal to me that I couldn’t understand why everyone made a big deal of it.  The next year I learned to take off the badge and follow an adult off the plane so I didn’t have to wait with the kids anymore.  They only caught me once; much to my disgust.  I remember once holding the hand of this old man who was frankly terrified of the whole experience.  I was busy looking out the window seeing the earth get further away and the view get better and better.  He asked me if I was afraid too.  It frankly hadn’t really occurred to me.  I didn’t like it when the plane shook as we passed through the clouds, but once we were above them, the view was worth it.  I hated going through Mt Isa or Alice Springs, as every flight used to do, because the plane shook so much during takeoff and landing.  I don’t remember being so worried about crashing, I just didn’t like the shaking.  Over time I learned that everyone is terrified of planes and flying in some way.  Adults would always act so concerned about me flying that I’d go along with it and agree with them.  So have I learned this fear?

I think the first time I remember being genuinely terrified on a plane was landing in Tennant Creek on the twenty seat jet that does the milk run flight from Darwin through Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs.  I was on it for work and would have been about twenty three.  It landed sideways.  When it touched the ground one wing was less than fifty centimeters from the ground while the other was high in the air.  Everyone moaned involuntarily as it rocked across the tarmac before finally planting all the wheels firmly down.  That moment touched me deeply, for the first time I saw the very real chance of death in flying.  Even flying in a light aircraft from Jabiru to Gunbalunya a few times had never been this bad; shaky and a few worrying drops, but not like this.  The helicopter ride I once took from Jabiru back to Darwin wasn’t a problem – I fell asleep for one hour of the trip.  Since that landing in Tennant Creek, things have got worse for my imagination.  I think it was the first time I flew to England that really kicked it in.

So we were cruising at about 36,000 feet over the Bay of Bengal when the shaking started.  The first thought that entered my mind was the possibility of the plane plunging more than ten kilometres into the briny deep.  Even as I was thinking that, I was thinking,
“Why is this suddenly a problem?”
I spent the next couple of hours, until the shaking finally stopped, constantly picturing how the end would come.  The only question was whether the shock of the cold outside would kill me quickly or if depressurization would do the trick.  The idea of being utterly frozen with burst eardrums and still falling for kilometres into the ocean seems a much worse fate.  I form the conclusion that I want to go out in a mid-air explosion.  That way you’d be dead in a moment and not have to go through all that tumbling through the endless void suffering agonizing pain until the end arrives with a short, sharp stop.  But…but what if you survived all that somehow.  What if you were floating in the ocean, bleeding from every orifice, suffering numerous broken bones and probably blind and deaf?  Best not to think about it really.  And that is soooo NEVER an option for me.  So why is it that since that moment I always do this to myself on takeoff?

Maybe the answer’s simple, or a combination of many things.  It only ever strikes hard at takeoff.  Once we’re in stable flight the fear dissipates.  If we enter light turbulence it’s not a big problem, but heavy turbulence with those sudden drops; that will flip me out every time.  At landing I’m always really calm, I think that with every second we’re closer to the ground, so each moment brings less chance of becoming part of a twisted wreck of flaming metal.  As you get older the reality of death becomes more apparent.  You know there are so many ways to die and at the end of that experience; there is no more experience.  I think the real seat of the fear is that I will experience incredible pain in my last moments, minutes or hours.  I just want to go out quickly and a mid-air cremation would suit me perfectly.  I’d prefer to have my body in a coffin filled with explosives that is flung into the air high above my funeral party to provide an instant cremation and light show all at once……but I suppose a Boeing 767 could work for me.  Which means only one thing is sure; the next time I’m walking out of an airport thinking about this, I’ll probably get hit by a bus.  Now if it could just be a bus filled with beautiful nuns who will take care of me as I recover…

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