Frequent traveller: White-knuckle ride
In which our correspondent develops the one condition a business traveller really doesn’t want – a fear of flying...
A couple of months ago, I woke up in a cold sweat after a vivid dream in which I jumped from the roof of a plane only to realise, as I hurtled through the air, that I wasn’t wearing a parachute.
Let me tell you, I am no thrill-seeker and, up until now, I’ve had a very matter-of-fact approach to flying. Statistically speaking, it’s safer than driving – in fact, I am sure you are more likely to be kicked to death by a donkey than die in a plane crash. So, even though I don’t spend much time in the vicinity of grumpy mules, I have convinced myself the odds are in my favour.
What’s more, I’ve always found flying to be a pleasure. I mean, what’s not to like? That little rush you get as the plane leaves the tarmac, the ever-changing cloudscapes stretching to the horizon, looking down on bejewelled cities, sunsets over the wing, sunrises at midnight, champagne for breakfast… I could go on.
But ever since that dream I have become anxious – fearful, even – about flying. I am turning into some kind of neurotic Woody Allen character, gripping the armrests and exclaiming to my neighbour as they tell me to try to relax: “I can’t unclench when there is turbulence, goddammit, I’m an atheist!”
Still, as a business traveller with a fear of flying isn’t much use to anyone, I am refusing to submit to this escalating angst – or trying not to. I’ll admit that the first time I flew after my nightmare, I finagled a prescription from my doctor for some Valium and popped a couple before I got on board to calm my nerves. Not only did I not get any work done, to the embarrassment of the man sitting next to me, I giggled my way through The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel only to start blubbing at the end, before falling asleep on his shoulder with my hand in the remains of my chicken tikka.
Having tipped the Valium down my hotel room toilet in disgust, I called my wife for advice on how to get through my return journey. She recommended a self-help book, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it so instead downloaded an audio guide ready for the flight home.
Back on board, having strapped myself in tightly and breathed deeply as we ascended, I put on my headphones and closed my eyes as a calm female voice spoke soothingly to me. However, I soon realised she was not saying particularly soothing things.
“We seem to be off the ground and into the clouds but the danger isn’t past. This is, in fact, the most perilous patch of air. Right here over Jamaica Bay where the plane banks and turns and the no-smoking sign goes off – this may well be where we go screaming down in thousands of flaming pieces.”
Ripping off my headset in a cold sweat, I stared down at the screen of my MP3: Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong. A bloomin’ work of 1970s chic lit. “Compulsive daydreamer Isadora Wing doesn’t want much – just to be free, and to find the perfect, guiltless, zipless sexual encounter,” the blurb read. If I’d been looking for a distraction of this kind, I would have bought Fifty Shades of Grey.
I ordered a large glass of red wine and drank deep. After 20 minutes, I put my hand up for a refill, and then another, so that by the time the plane landed I was once again asleep in my seat – only this time with drool on my lapel, a crick in my neck and a pounding headache.
When I got to the office, hollow-eyed and worn, my secretary told me I would need to visit our New York HQ the following week. In despair, I turned to Google. Captain Stacey, who “wants you to feel comfortable on your next flight”, was offering some kind of do-it-yourself online course. A drop-down menu encouraged me to choose the one thing I was most scared of – “the plane or pilots, weather, turbulence, ATC, flying over water, flying at night, take-off, landing, not in control, fear of heights, terrorism”. “All of the above!” screamed the Woody Allen inside me, and I gave up.
With a deep breath, I made myself a cup of tea, brushed bad thoughts aside and turned my attention to the upcoming weekend I would have with my family – a jaunt to the countryside would be nice, I mused. When Saturday rolled around, a trip to a petting zoo had been agreed upon. The kids were in their wellies and I was kneeling down helping them to feed carrots to some baby goats. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a donkey, very close to me, with a twinkle in its eye.
On Monday morning, as I boarded my flight to the States and a colleague asked about my black eye, I smiled. For some reason, I had never felt so happy about getting on a plane.
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