Flying For The First Time, Aged 42 and a Half
The cold hand of aerophobia first embraced me when, as a pale, somewhat gangly eleven year old, I threw up on the tarmac at Gatwick Airport.
I was making my way towards a British Airways carrier bound for the Costa del Sol, along with a hundred other excited holidaymakers. As I reached the smiling air stewardess standing at the foot of the airstairs my stomach wrapped itself into a ball and my field of vision – sky, passengers, control tower – took on the warped contours of an Eduard Munch painting. Before I knew it I was regurgitating my continental breakfast and pleading with the stewardess not to be let on board the screetching metal monster which, I was sure, existed only to come down in a ball of flames somewhere over southern France.
The Gatwick Incident, as it came to be known, was recounted time and again over the years. At wedding receptions, christening parties and post-funeral finger buffets, my parents would recall how, on that day in 1971, having at last elevated themselves into the fly-drive income bracket, they became the unwanted centre of attention as their son was swaddled in a blanket by a St John’s ambulance man and settled in a recovery room behind lost luggage. With the subtlety of a northern club comic my father would chortle out the punchline, pointing skywards as he did so: ’And as if that indignity wasn’t enough, we had to watch from the cafeteria as our bloody plane and our bloody uninsured holiday disappeared into thin air!’
Peals of laughter, guaranteed every time.
Worse, though, was to come. At university in the 80s, during that age when the world grew smaller and a flight to mainland europe took up less time than doing the weekly laundry, my inability to board a plane was looked on by my student friends in the same way that an a doctor might consider an unknown sub-tropical disease. ’You don’t fly ?’ they’d say in bewilderment, the last consonant of the tiny verb prolonged and shot into orbit. ’Crikey - that’s amazing! We’ve never met anyone who was scared of flying. We thought people like you only existed in books.’
I did my best to grin and bear it, of course, even assuming a bolshy Can’t Fly, Won’t Fly attitude by the time I finished my MSc. But, as my fellow scholars jetted off during summer breaks to trek the Himalayas or back-pack around South-east Asia, and my stomach continued to morph into a ball at the merest thought of joining them high above the clouds, I became aware of a fundamental truth: my inability to ride in a plane was preventing me from being part of the modern world.
It wasn’t until the dawn of the 21st century, at the tender age of 42, that I decided to tackle my condition head-on. I was suffering from a period of post-relationship gloom at the time, my five year engagement to English teacher Cathy having come to an abrupt end when she confessed to an affair. This bombshell prompted me into a thorough overview of my life, during which everything I’d ever done, said, or felt – every grade I’d ever achieved, every opportunity I’d failed to grasp - was quietly analysed and dissected during extended periods of lying on the sofa listening to Barber's 'Adagio for Strings'. Yet not once during this time of tortured introspection did I ever consider that my fear of flying had caused me to lose my fiance. Cathy had never broached the subject. It hadn’t been that big a deal for her. Or had it ?
A few months after our seperation the naked truth came out. After unexpectedly running into one another near the fish counter in Sainsbury’s, Cathy flashed a diamond engagement ring and let it be known that her new beau was the divisional manager of a nationwide travel agency. Waving a glossy catalogue, she rolled off a list of far-away places they planned to visit in the coming years – long-haul places which, I realised, had remained frustratingly inaccessible to her during our time together.
That evening, still shocked that Cathy had secretly resented our annual two week pilgrimage to Bridlington Sands, I scoured the psychiatry section of the Yellow Pages determined to find someone who could help me take my place in the modern world.
His name was Mcleash, a stocky, bearded Jungian who specialised in transforming non-flying ninnies like myself into aeronautical pioneers. Mcleash rented space at the local health centre - a single room containing a well-worn leather easy chair – where he practiced a curious amalgamation of counselling and psycho-drama. ’The comfy chair’s for you’ he told me on my first visit. ’I like to move about while I’m working with a patient. And when I get tired of moving about I perch on the window sill, like this.’
A small fellow, he lifted himself up and sat for a while grinning and swinging his short legs. The health centre had demanded that I pay for my course of treatment in advance. Now I understood why.
For the following ten weeks Mcleash investigated every nook and cranny of my phobia. Childhood comics, youthful indiscretions, sexual habits ('with or without a partner') – no murky pool of my existence was left undredged. We played word games and picture games and, to the comforting tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which Mcleash played on a penny whistle, I read aloud columns of safety statistics from worlwide airline industry manuals.
Other times we got physical, acting out the flight patterns of migrating geese, or else just flapping our arms and swooping from one side of the space to the other. There was, Mcleash assured me, a point to all this lunacy: ‘I’m teaching you, my friend, that flying can be a fun thing to do.’
Two months into my treatment we began another form of role play. This time my psychiatrist became the Gatwick air stewardess from my childhood while I assumed the persona of a frightened 11 year old whose inability to fly wrecks the family holiday. Not only did this play acting prove difficult for me but the imaginary sight of the imaginary plane, coupled with the imaginary smell of jet fuel, prompted the acrid sickness in my stomach to return.
‘I can’t do it’ I said, after managing – at the fifth attempt - to negotiate the first few imaginary steps to the aeroplane door.
Air stewardess Mcleash told me not to worry and squeezed my hand. ‘The plane is your friend’ he/she said, his/her voice an octave or two higher. ‘And it wants you to be its friend too. Look – it’s not a monster. It’s a bird! A big beautiful metal bird. Now, why don’t you go and hug the bird, hmm ? Go on – hug it.’
For two whole sessions I sat in a corner hugging the imaginary metal bird, eventually going so far as to plant a kiss on its imaginary nose cone, such buddies we’d become.
‘How did it feel ?’
‘Good’ I answered, surprised.
‘You’ve become friends ?’
‘Yes’ I said, barely able to believe my own words. ‘I think we have.’
After hugging me, Mcleash said: ‘Remember - flying is a gift bestowed on us by the gods. It’s good for the soul...takes us closer to that place where the angels hang out.’
Soon he was leading me to the top of the flight stairs. He guided me to my seat (the leather easy chair), took my drinks order, and strapped me down before we taxied along the imaginary runway, lifting off into the air to the sound of 'Ride of the Valkyries'.
Mcleash had done the impossible: I was cured. At the age of 42½ I was ready to experience a real flight. Walking home after my final session I looked at the sky and saw not Munchean clouds but a vast canvas of the soul drawing me closer to god. Following Mcleash’s advice I decided to begin my new career as an airline passenger with a short trip across the English channel. And after that - who could say ? The whole world was now my playground. At last I was a changed man – a functioning member of the modern world.
Then came September 11th.
‘You want to fly ? Are you crazy ?’
‘No, mom. I’ve been cured.’
‘Cured ? What do you mean “cured” ?’
‘I’ve seen a specialist.’
‘But you’ve never flown. You’re airy-phobic. You break out into a cold sweat just thinking about planes!’
‘Not anymore, mom. Aeroplanes are my new friends.’
‘I don’t believe this!'
‘Haven’t you heard the news ? Didn’t you see what happened in New York yesterday ?’
‘I saw what happened.’
‘My god, those poor people...Len and Marge Cummings have just gone out and cancelled their holiday to the Bahamas. They didn’t even ask for a refund. Nobody in their right mind wants to fly!’
‘I want to fly, mom. And I’m going to. Tomorrow.’
‘There’s talk of a war. The only planes in the air will be jet fighters. Do your mother a favour: get yourself into a bunker. You should be going downwards – not upwards!’’
‘It’s Ok. Believe me. I rang the airport. There are still flights available.’
‘Flights to where ?’
‘Who on earth wants to go to Warsaw and Prague ?’
‘I’m not particularly bothered where I go, mom. This is something I need to do.’
‘[Snivels] What would your father have said, lord rest his soul....’
‘I’ll be alright. I promise.’
‘It’s not that...’
‘Then what is it ?’
‘[Wimpers] I just wish...I just wish you could have been a good boy and gone up in that aeroplane back in 1971.’
She was right, of course. In the days following the attack on the World Trade Centre flying had joined running naked along the motorway among the nation’s least favourite activities. Even the taxi driver, when I ordered him to take me to the airport, turned his head and asked: ‘What for ?’ as if such places had been added to his list of no-go areas. And when I arrived at the airport, as deserted and lonely a place as the dark side of the moon, and shown my ticket to the bemused flight attendent, I was asked to wait while she made an internal phone call to security, telling them in a hushed voice to collect me at once. Despite explaining to the assorted crowd of plain clothes policemen about the Gatwick Incident and Cathy and Mcleash and kissing the nose cone of the imaginary metal bird, I was politely but firmly ordered to accompany them to an interrogation room. After locking the door one of the agents pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and told me to remove my clothes. It was nothing personal, he explained. The world and his wife were on a high state of alert. All I had to do was endure some discomfort for a minute or two and they’d let me go on my way.
So that was how I made my first flight: ruffled, more than a little uncomfortable in my seat, but determined to climb on board my 747 - destination anywhere. And I was proud, of course, that I’d eventually made it – an act of defiance, of sorts, against my former self (and certain others).
And when the stewardess announced to me – her only passenger – that it was time to snap shut my seatbelt, and my friend the metal bird started taxiing along the runway, I closed my eyes, determined to enjoy the ride.
It was everything I imagined it would be.