Confessions of a brave coward

Flying and punishment


Ever been in jail, locked up, at the warden’s mercy? Neither have I. ever been help- and powerless? I have. When that moistness covers your palms although it’s cold. When your stomach’s knotted up in cramps because suddenly, somewhere over the clouds, this sign lights up: fasten your seatbelt. A storm, turbulences, an abduction, lightning, or has the pilot just pressed the wrong button?

Do you also spend hours staring at the wings, certain that they are about to fall off? And the person next to you says “Hey, don’t worry! These things can fly with just one engine, you know. Hahaha.”

Damn, I’m afraid of flying, even though I’m a so-called frequent flyer.

People who know it all say that that’s completely irrational. Because flying is supposed to be the safest way to of travelling. A lot safer than going by car, or by train. Sure I say. Everybody knows that. But you needn’t talk to me about statistics and the laws of physics – I don’t believe a word of it.

Why does a plane crash in Siberia make it to the evening news, and not a car crash in Brandenburg? Cars move where a ton of steel belongs: on the ground. Steel doesn’t fly and has no business at an altitude of 10 000 metres, and that’s that. And how much does a plane weigh anyway?

I’m not afraid of snakes, and not of sharks either. If I see one, I follow it. Once I even stroked a white shark. But try telling one of those who are afraid of these predators that only ten people are killed by sharks every year, because the animals don’t particularly like human flesh. I’d rather get into a basin full of sharks than into a Boeing 737, even if it’s just flying from Hamburg to Frankfurt. But I understand if some people feel differently. Fear is subjective and irrational.

Everything started in 1993. on a trip to Ibiza, 250 Marks with Iberia. A bargain. Brilliant. So I thought. The turbulences were so strong that even the stewardesses frantically clung to the seats. Aluminium trays of Polenta got thrown around, and the rustling of the sickbags was ubiquitous. Because of strong winds on the Balearics the pilot had to attempt landing three times. At the third try, and after lots of Hail Marys of my neighbour, the plane came to a standstill at the end of the runway. After that experience, things in the stratosphere haven’t been the same for me.

Now I’m plagued for days before flying by all the symptoms of phobias: dizziness, trembling, cold sweats, nausea, cramps, sweaty palms.

Okay, I don’t faint or loose control, and I even manage pretty well to hide my fear. Twenty-five percent of all passengers are said to suffer from fear of flying – my secret allies. You can recognise them by their “Oh”s and “Ah”s during turbulences and other unforeseen occurrences. In those moments, I always cling to the headrest of the seat in front of me and consider taking part in seminars for relaxed flying.

And I’m not even afraid of a crash. I’m also a terrible co-driver. I always work the break-pedal I haven’t got and tell my friends about recent bloody car-crashes if they happen to be driving too fast on twisting roads in misty weather. Some call me a control-freak, but I just hate being dependent on others, unable to intercede. It isn’t as if I could steer a jumbo jet. That’s not the point. But what if both pilots are taking a nap, and the auto-pilot decides to join them?. Then you’re caught in that big metal tube, an oxygen mask dangling in front of your nose. My neighbour pukes on my lap. People scream. Panic. Crash. The end. And there’s absolutely nothing you could do about it. You can’t even smoke a last cigarette, because it’s a non-smoking flight.

How high are your chances of survival if the plane crashes? Anyway, if I could travel back in time, I’d stop the conception of the Wright brothers. They are responsible for the first motorised flight.

The trip to the airport is my Via Dolorosa. I suffer, search for reasons for not flying, feel sick and dejected. There’s nothing to look forward to. Before takeoff sullen ladies and gentlemen expect me in front of beeping machines. The rucksack has to be opened, laptop and camera removed and switched off, shoes taken off, sorry, the belt, or was it the watch. And then the accusing look: “But you know you’re not allowed to take containers of liquids larger than 100ml on board, Ma’am”. How am I supposed to relax under those circumstances? Was I throw my water of mass destruction into the bin I imagine an Arabian-looking guy abducting an aircraft, threatening everybody with a bottle of Evian.

I once tried during a flight to list all the airlines I’d ever flown with. Things got difficult after number 26. I can even boast of having flown with some really exotic lines, such as Lion Air, Lao Aviation, Royal Air Cambodia, Aeroflot, Kam Air, Air India, Ariana or the Pakistani PIA – which some say means Please Inform Allah.
In January 2007 an aircraft of the Indonesian cheapo-airline Adam Air crashed in the south pacific. Four times I flew with that airline last year, from Jogyakarta to Denpassar for 18 Dollars. That’s how much I valued my life.

Flying with the United Nations is relatively pleasant. Their reputation alone makes you trust them. And apart from that the time, well, flies if you’re sitting next to a Somalian rebel leader or a drunk member of the Peace Corps. What’s less pleasant is if a Cessna gets caught in a Monsoon over the Congolese rainforest and gets lost on the way to Rwanda. Or if cows happen to be grazing on the runway in the Cambodian Jungle, unwilling to vacate it. That kind of thing.

There’s nothing funny about flying Aeroflot. Once I’d booked a flight to Cambodia with them. The plane turned out to be an Iljushin, well into its thirties and as bent as a banana. The seat next to me was taken my a man who made me think of Ivan the Terrible.

A giant, who had no front teeth, but a huge scar from his left ear to the edge of his mouth.
But he smiled and offered me vodka.

“No, it’s too early for that, spassiba”, I said. Alcohol exacerbates my fear of flying. Otherwise I’d just drink myself into a coma. I can’t sleep on board, either. Even during twelve hour flights I keep staring out of the window and rubbing my wet palms on my knees. Not even 500mg of Zanax or Valium help. I’ve tried’em all. I also avoid humorous small-talk about the funny safety instructions.

Of course Ivan couldn’t have known that. But he stopped smiling when I refused his hospitality. “Drink!”, he said, and I obeyed.

Even before take off a fist-fight had broken out in the corridor between drunken passengers. I seriously considered cancelling Cambodia. Get out! This here isn’t going to end well. You have to be able to read the signs in order to survive.

Aeroflot is one of the few airlines which don’t take the ban on smoking too seriously. Nicotine calms your nerves, the Russian knows that. But only in the rear of the aircraft. Great. All the junkies had congregated. But there were no ashtrays. A drawling bear pointed to the bin, a hole in the wall. That’s where Ivan should put his cigarette-butt. Which he would have done, if an emerging flame hadn’t prevented him. The bin was on fire. In apathy, I stared at the flames for a few minutes and then informed a flight-attendant that the aircraft was on fire. “Njet problem”, hw answered, and put out the flames with orange juice.

In the winter of 2005 I flew from Kabul to Heart with the afghan Kam-Air. Sounds like an adventure, doesn’t it? Your enthusiasm is dampened if you see the pilot, a Kasakian or Russian ex-fighter pilot, silently spreading what looks like Superglue on the wings. Or shakes his head as he looks at the propellers.

That kind of airline isn’t too meticulous about its timetable. If your boarding card says 11.25, that may mean “sometime tomorrow”. The seating arrangements are also left up to the passengers. My seat number was 23 A, a window seat. Which was occupied by a goat, and a Pashtuni farmer beside it. Why am I telling you all this? In order to demonstrate the close connection between appearances and reality. The exact same machine crashed against the Hindukush in a mean snow-storm two weeks later.

I’ve noticed that the prettiest stewardesses work for the most dangerous airlines. Lion Air or African Express employ only supermodels. I’ve got a theory about that: it’s supposed to take passengers’ minds off their approaching doom.

Once I flew from Nairobi to Mogadishu with African Express. An airline you do not want to fly with. What company is stupid or desperate enough to service Somalia. Ten days later I was supposed to leave the country, Kenya had decided to refuse its permission to all flights to and from Somalia. All planes to and from Mogadishu were grounded. Without giving any reasons for or information about the duration of this measure. As is the custom in Africa. However, an Africa Express aircraft was to take off for Nairobi – violating Kenya’s territorial sovereignty.

The prospect of staying in one of the most dangerous cities in the world for an unspecified length of time temporarily outweighed my fear of flying. So off I go to the local African Express office. I confirm my flight and pay the airport charges. “Madame, I’m afraid we can’t accept your return ticket, the friendly gentleman at check in. It was issued in Kenya and not valid in Mogadishu. New regulations, since yesterday, he explained. I would also need a return ticket – from Nairobi to Mogadishu. “Two hundred Dollar, only, Madame”.

I thought of the last flight that was supposed to leave in two hours time, and my oriental patience collapsed. “Dear Sir, I do not intend to come back to Somalia. I’ve already got a return ticket. Look, here it is”, I said and showed him the ticket. I also had a Kenyan visa and a return ticket to Germany. Which should be sufficient. There was nothing he could do, he responded. If I didn’t want to pay he could also take me off the list of passengers.
There was a faded poster hanging on the wall. It showed the aircraft I was supposed to be boarding. The year1978 was printed on one of its corners. “Please give me ten minutes to consider”, I asked.

Of course I did fly in the end, as I always do. And wherever I land, in Baghdad, Kabul or in Mogadishu, I think: At last I’m safe.

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