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On air travel in the 21st century, and my decades-old fear of flying.

October 28, 2012


There is one place in the world where, in my life, absolute calm gives way to sheer terror in about half an hour flat. It starts off where I sit back, take stock and watch the world go by.  I look out the window and see interesting things happen. Sometimes I shop and have a cappuccino to prepare me for what lies ahead.

No, it isn’t the V&A Waterfront. It’s Cape Town International Airport. A space where I can be calm, cool and collected and where I can pretend I’m a wise, wealthy and experienced international traveller. That is, of course, before I start chomping pills and muttering mantras…

I hate flying. There; I said it. I hate it; hate it; hate it. But I love travel. How do you get those two facts to live comfortably together? You don’t. It’s that simple.

Just wrong, very wrong

Just sit back for a moment and think about it. You stuff a whole bunch of people in an enormous and unbelievably heavy metal tube on retractable wheels and with wings. You pump the metal tube chock-full of a highly flammable liquid. Then you fire up all that gas, go tearing down a strip of tarmac at a ridiculous speed, and blast this thing into the sky.

It just WRONG, man.

It all started back in 1985, when I read a blow-by-blow account of a Japanese air disaster, complete with weeping people writing final notes to their loved ones before going down in flames. Mesmerised, horrified and mortified, I promptly stopped enjoying air travel.

I actually went to see a shrink about it, and his first therapeutic line to me was: “You’re going to die anyway.” I don’t think he’s in business anymore.

So, I took to clutching armrests, praying to all available deities, and weeping (the time I did the weeping routine I was , blessedly, seated next to a very good-looking and attentive young man, who obligingly held my hand. Snicker.) When I realized weeping and muttering was off-putting to most people, I took to boozing. I worked out that bubbly is the poison that kicks in fastest at a high altitude. This worked for me for a while, but then it dawned on me that booze is actually something that makes you more anxious after a few glasses, at a high altitude, in a plane that is bouncing around like a drop of water on a hot stove plate.

So I discovered happy pills.

A not-so-short history of Mads and the Happy Pill

Happy pills, more commonly known as tranquilisers or “Valium”, work on bringing down your anxiety levels. But, as somebody lives by the either-a-feast-or-a-famine credo, I decided to do things properly. Just in case. (Like the joke about the Irish wearing one condom over another – to be sure, to be sure…) So I combined booze and happy pills on one flight.

Not the most intelligent decision I’ve made in my life.

At the time I was dating a rather conservative fellow, who liked his girls sober and well behaved. He was going to pick me up at Cape Town International as I was flying in from Joburg. At Joburg, I decided to take off the edge of my panic with a double whisky. After the boarding call came through, I followed this up with a happy pill (or two). After takeoff, I ordered yet another double whisky, which I used to bolt down two more happy pills.

The good thing is – I can’t remember the flight at all. I can’t remember how I got off the plane or how I managed to retrieve my luggage at the carousel. I have a vague recollection of being picked up by Mr Conservative, and that he had an expression of severe disapproval on his face. I do remember him dropping me off at home and telling me to get some sleep. When I awoke several hours later, I was starving, so I phoned him and suggested we get a bite to eat somewhere. “Do you know what time it is?” he asked, his voice blooming with disbelief and irritation. “It’s three in the morning!”

The relationship didn’t last for too long after that. And I wisely decided that, in future, to choose one specific poison to help me cope with flying, not two.

The Golden Midway

So, these days, I stick to two mild-dose happy pills. I pop one after I’ve read the safety pamphlet (yes, I read the safety pamphlet. And so should you!) When asked whether I would like to drink something, I ask for a cup of tea. If the flight is smooth, I will not partake of any more drugs. If we hit some turbulence, like we did over the good ol’ Free State on Thursday, I will chomp down a second pill. When I arrive safely at the airport, I am reasonably sober, if a little spaced out.

And I do get to observe that interesting species called the human race, and their when confined to a smallish space tens of thousands of feet up in the air.

There’s the territorial jostling for hand-luggage space in the overhead luggage compartments. The irritated rearranging of the personal possessions of somebody who has taken up more space than they’re supposed to. And then, the wiggling into the sometimes unreasonably small space we each get when we fly “coach” (Americanese for economy class). The way each and every member of the herd settles down into their seat, fiddles with the seat belt, fumbles around in a handbag (I fumble, frantically, for about twenty minutes before I’m willing to – reluctantly – part with my beloved receptacle-filled-with-pointless-possessions before stuffing it underneath the seat in front of me. When I land over an emergency exit, they practically have to wrestle the bloody thing from me to stow it elsewhere.)

The next step for me – I think I’m the only person left on the planet who does this – is the Reading of the Safety Pamphlet. It’s like tossing salt over the shoulder, muttering the mantra or saying the prayer. I dutifully open it up and stare intently at the ghastly drawings, exactly the same since 1971…

The Safety Instruction Pamphlet

Have you noticed that, over the past few decades, even though they’ve done safety demonstration videos and other fancy-pants, newfangled things to inform air travellers what to do in case that unmentionable thing happens, they have done nothing nothing NOTHING to the safety pamphlet drawings?

They still feature women with flicked-out, hairsprayed do’s crawling along a smoke-filled corridor, after having left behind their 1960’s stiletto’s so they don’t impale themselves on the bastards or puncture the emergency slide. Also for your reading/viewing pleasure are very small women clutching very large, ugly babies with no facial features, somebody putting an oxygen apparatus on an old lady who looks exactly like a vulture who hasn’t eaten for two years, and people with unbelievably large hands yanking desperately at the emergency exit door handle.

This does not make me feel any better about flying. It does, however, make me chortle audibly enough to get the guy in the seat next to me to look up and move surreptitiously away from me. He will move even further away once my meds kick in…

The T-word

Usually, things progress relatively smoothly for most flights. But then, sometimes – ironically, these days it’s on the increase thanks to, among other things, air travel – there’s that nasty thing called turbulence. When the plane bounces around among a bunch of nasty clouds and scares the crap out of even those who refer to themselves as “relaxed flyers”. They just don’t show it. But this seasoned neurotic can spot all the signs – the extra-casual stroking of the iPad, adding really psychedelic colours to the Excel doccie they’re working on, the fixed staring at the same page of the in-flight mag for about half an hour, the excessive fondling of the plastic glass or cardboard cup…

“There are no atheists on a turbulent airplane,” said Erica Jong in her masterful book Fear of Flying. I have to agree with her.

By the time the enormous metal thing that has caused me all that misery has touched down and taxied to its parking spot, I’m all bravado, tinged with enormous amounts of gratitude. I’ve survived! I’m alive! I can relax for the X days I’ll be spending here… I will do more exercise! Make a happy list every day! Start meditating! Eat less! Write more poetry!

What I’m not thinking about, of course, is the return flight that’s waiting for me, a few days into the future.


But that’s another story altogether…





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