Pure, unbridled terror. You know what it feels like. Your palms are soaked wet and your heart is pounding so loudly that you're certain that it must be disturbing the person sitting next to you. I started writing this post on a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, the first of 9 flights that I've scheduled to take over the next month. I sucked back a triple dose of Rescue Remedy within the first 10 minutes of the flight and that just wasn't cutting it, so I drank. When I'm on the plane all my senses switch to hyper-alert and every little sound or motion change shakes me up. I notice that the man 2 rows ahead of me has a cast on his right foot, which is hanging out in the aisle. It could be worse, I think to myself... if this plane goes down, that man is a goner for certain.
My love affair with the air began in 1989 when I was 7 years old. Our family had moved to Johannesburg from Port Elizabeth because my Dad had been transferred for work. That year my mom bought me a ticket back to Port Elizabeth to visit my best friend. It became a yearly treat. At the airport all the nice air hostesses would fuss over me and take care of me, thanks to my UNACCOMPANIED MINOR status. Flying became a real treat and over and above the destination what I looked forward to immensely was the flight. I absolutely loved the magic of being in the air and would do my best to secure myself a spot at the window. I couldn't stop looking out at all the tiny things down on the ground.
I'm not what you'd call a stranger to flying. Since 2000 I've done individual trips to England (three times), Nigeria, Buenos Aires and Tanzania, done a round-the-world trip in 2006 (18 flights), traveled to Drupalcon Barcelona in 2007 (8 flights), a trip to New York in 2007 (with 3 flights), a round-the-world trip in 2008 (17 flights), this latest batch of flying madness involving Drupalcon Copenhagen & Canada, and countless domestic trips in-between. I would even go so far as to say that I like being at the airport.
Well - liked, anyway. In November 2008 I set off on the start of a new exciting round the world trip, and I had all sorts of ideas and plans and more excitement than I could contain. First stop Buenos Aires with a layover in Sao Paulo. The flight departed from Sao Paolo on time in the early evening and would land in BA after dark. I had a whole 3-seater row to myself, and it had been a long day of flying so I slept lightly most of the way. All was well and I was looking forward to the indulgent pleasure of being in this new amazing city, and to being with Scott again who I had not seen since September.
I was woken up to the sound of the seatbelt sign being switched on. Ok I thought, it's only a few minutes until landing and the plane was descending at what felt like a swift pace.
I could not have been more unprepared for what happened next. The plane hit very bad turbulence and dipped down hard. It sounded like the pilot had smashed the jet's belly down onto solid concrete. I was strapped in but obviously not well enough because I lifted completely off of my seat. After the sudden drop the plane flipped completely over onto its left side, and then onto its right and back again onto its left and then finally we straightened out and proceeded with a very turbulent descent. The scene played out in slow-motion for me. I could see all the sparkling lights of the city down below. It was like being in a car where the driver has lost control of the vehicle and tries to straighten out but over-corrects. There was an announcement made by the pilot after the flipping and bumping on the plane but it was in Spanish and I'll never know for sure just how close we were to crashing that day. Of course the attendant I spoke to afterwards assured me that everything was fine but they are robots and are trained to do that.
At that time I believed that I was going to die in that plane. A million thoughts raced across my mind, and the first was that Scott would arrive in BA the next day and think that I had stood him up. I imagined him being in this foreign country alone. I wondered if he'd stay for the full three months after learning of our plane crash or if he'd be freaked out and go back home to Vancouver. I thought about my mom and dad and sister, and I thought about the data on my laptop and wished that I'd backed up before leaving home so that my clients could get their work from it. I thought of the cash withdrawal I'd just made at Johannesburg International Airport before I left that morning, the largest amount of cash I'd ever carried (I had to pay for the full 3 months of our accommodation upfront) and I was mightily pissed off that it was about to go up in flames and my sister wouldn't get to spend it (I decided that thats what my parents would do with all my stuff - give it to her). I also thought about all the people living in the houses below that we would fall onto. It was after dark and I was sure that they'd be in their homes, and wished that I had a way to warn them to evacuate.
Most people I've spoken to have had a bad flight at some point before and so had I. This one was different though. It left me aware of my mortality. For me now, the focal point of travel has switched from excitement about the destination, to paralytic fear and anxiety for weeks preceeding the trip over the stupid flight.
I turned to the internet. Surely I couldn't be the only person this has happened to, I thought. I was right! There are courses designed especially for people like me and the unanimous opinion was that the best fix was one offered by Virgin Atlantic. There was one problem: I would have to fly to London for that.
I've tried talking to friends and family in the hope that someone might have some comforting words and I instead discovered that nearly everyone else had some form of latent anxiety too. I even learnt from my aunt that she had been in a plane that crashed (it was a minor accident, but an accident all the same)! People suggested I see a psychologist but that won't cut it - I need someone who is both a psychologist and someone who can explain to me what all the noises in the plane mean, and the technical reason why the plane will "never" fall out of the sky because of turbulence. My trust was shattered that day.
Some flights are worse than others: on a recent flight out of Vancouver we were on the smallest plane I'd ever been on (it had propellers and only 12 rows of seating). This was definitely the flight that I freaked out worst at, and for no reason at all other than how the plane looked. When we walked across the tarmac and onto the plane I felt like I was being led into a gas chamber. The flight wasn't even particularly turbulent and I'm ashamed to admit that I fretted and quietly howled the whole way through it. Scott thinks that the flight attendant thought that I was grieving a lost friend or relative, which took the edge of my embarrassment (he's kind that way). I had to greet my inlaws-to-be with red puff-face though.
I'm still looking for a course to take and would appreciate any information or advice that anyone has. My fiance is from a country very far way away from mine and I don't want to spend the rest of my life going through this every six months, because not flying anymore simply isn't an option.
Incase you're wondering, the flight was with Aerolineas Argentinas. This flight isn't the reason that I will never user this awful airline again, because we all flew together to Iguazu Falls after that. Scott wrote about them, and after that I can truthfully say that I would rather pay 3 times the cost with any other airline than use Aerolineas Argentinas ever again. If you are ever given the option, do not travel with this airline. They are very bad.