I'd been scared of flying since my first flight on my first honeymoon in 1977. I guess that might have been a premonition of the disaster which would eventually be the marriage, but was probably more to do with the long patches of turbulence we experienced during a comparatively short flight to Innsbruck. I had to brave the return flight but, after that, I made every trip overseas by ferry. I wasn't travelling far – to the Netherlands and to Sweden regularly to see friends, and once to northern Spain. But even though some of the crossings, especially through the Bay of Biscay, were hellishly rough, I figured anything was better than being tossed around in a tube at 35,000 feet.
Then came the day when I had to attend a conference in southern Portugal – and was laughed at when I inquired whether I could go by boat. I got through that trip – and many more – on a combination of Valium and gin. However, a flight to Yugoslavia, as it still was, made me realise I had to get to grips with my problem rather more efficiently. On that occasion, I managed not only to terrify all the passengers around me but my fear also infected the cabin stewards. It felt to me as though the plane was going up like a rocket – vertical all the way – and then braking so much that I was convinced we would stall and plummet straight back down to the welcoming embrace of Luton Airport tarmac. I was pretty much hysterical, and all those in my orbit were similarly quivering wrecks by the time the seatbelt signs were turned off. Never again, I decided.
So I did a fear of flying course at Heathrow – and eight hours and £100 later, my traveling life was changed. I would never say I enjoy flying. I still twitch during turbulence, never quite believing the mantra we were taught and which I repeat on a loop: Turbulence is uncomfortable, it's not dangerous. But I can get in a plane without any drug or alcohol props, and even fly on my own – something utterly unthinkable in the past.
I do, however, understand that visceral fear, which is why I was absolutely the right person to sit next to a young man on a recent holiday flight to Lanzarote. In the plane at Edinburgh Airport, we were waiting for the doors to close when, at almost the last minute, a chap, accompanied by airline crew, boarded in a rush. A few sotto-voce words were said to the chief stewardess and then the young man disappeared inside the cockpit. A pretty unusual privilege these days, I thought.
The only time I had been in a cockpit was the week after I'd completed my fear of flying course. We had been told to book a flight as soon as we could, to reinforce all we had learned. Fortuitously, we were off to Barcelona in a matter of days and, by now very cocky about my ability to leave the ground without digging my nails into the bones of the hand of anyone unfortunate enough to sit next to me, I told the stewardess. She handed me a (miniature) bottle of champers to celebrate and invited me into the cockpit, where I could enjoy – and I really did – a pilot's-eye-view of the terrain we were crossing. It was memorable, and I was always grateful to have had that chance.
While the young man was away, the stewardess came over to me – I had an empty seat beside me. He's a very nervous flyer, she explained. He had to be talked into coming on the flight and the captain offered to have a few words with him. I was impressed. I was also pleased that he would sit beside me – I had a wealth of experience of how to get through the next four-and-a-half hours while remaining relatively sane. And I employed every trick in the book.
The young man – Duncan – finally emerged and I immediately tried to put him at his ease, especially during the always worrying take-off moments. I introduced myself, told him that I had been a very nervous flyer and then proceeded to witter on about everything and nothing until we were well and truly airborne. I'm not sure he actually heard a word I said – and he really didn't miss anything if he didn't – but the distraction of inane chat can sometimes help. He remained tense for much of the next hour, sometimes sitting with his head resting on his knees, but I kept on with the one-sided conversation until, eventually, he began to relax and to talk to me.
The decision to come on holiday had been fairly last-minute, prompted by the generous offer of a friend whose family was hiring a villa for a couple of weeks. He was looking forward to being in a warm and sunny place for a few days but hadn't been able to commit until the previous evening. He had bagged himself a bargain fare (cue much jealousy) and had then made his way to the airport – and almost turned back a number of times.
Once checked in, he delayed joining the queue to board until the last possible moment, and then confessed to ground staff that he didn't want to go. Gentle encouragement got him on board the plane and the pilot's further generous offer to allow him to ask any questions he wanted persuaded him to take his seat.
For anyone who has never had a fear of flying I can tell you it is truly debilitating. No holiday or work trip can be pleasurably anticipated because you know that in order to get there you have to climb onto a wretched plane and you're stuck inside it for the duration of the flight, with no prospect of using an emergency pull-cord to permit your exit en route. It's difficult to read or write or watch TV on long-haul as you are completely attuned to every twist and turn of the aircraft, every whine or groan of the fuselage, and you never ever take your eyes off the cabin staff. If they look happy and relaxed, then things are (hopefully) alright.
So, for hours on end I subjected poor Duncan to my life story, my cats' life stories, and a raft of anecdotes, just to keep him from thinking about where he was and what he was doing. And then came a real surprise. Halfway through the flight the captain came out, knelt in front of Duncan and checked whether he was okay. He spent at least 10 minutes chatting away and I think this alleviated any residual concerns Duncan may have had (though I was worrying that the co-pilot, who invariably looked pre-pubescent, was in charge). What a thoughtful gesture, and, as far as I am aware, a most unusual one.
Duncan (and the rest of us) made it to Arrecife Airport. I gave him a hug, wished him a wonderful holiday, and hoped he had an uneventful trip home.