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An afterword on fear of flying

I’ve definitely never written this before, and it’s likely of zero interest to anyone but myself. Still, that doesn’t usually stop me.

What I am suffering from when flying on an airplane, it seems, is an attack of subjective probability: the credence I give to the likelihood of any plane that I am on suffering some sort of catastrophe. Apparently, my credence should really take into account statistics on flying, which means that the whole business is more safe than houses. But, being awkward, or maybe simply more attuned to, and wary of, the hidden variables, I don’t. I take a very simple gambling perspective on flying: the plane will either get there, or it won’t. That’s a 50/50 chance.

It seems then, that in my fear of flying I start to take a Bayesian approach to probability, rather than a frequentist one; well at least until the hidden variables become too much for my brain to compute and I boil it all down to a binary sum game of survival: fly or crash, live or die, do or don’t. If everyone took this approach there’d probably be far fewer people in the air, but, amazingly there are still people willing to take far shorter NASA quantified odds on their survival.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield is a case in point. The first Canadian in space, he accepted odds of 9/1 surviving to go up in the space shuttle, and he did this more than once.

Fear of Flying: Statistics, Probability and a Shameless Distortion of Schrödinger’s Cat

If you have a mental image of a contorted feline, all twisted limbs, shoved in a box and mighty pissed off about its current status – stop right there. That’s not what’s this is about. I will however will be playing fast and loose with various theories (probability, quantum but probably not statistics).

I’ve struggled with a fear of flying since 2004. Shortly after Amberleigh House won the Grand National for Ginger McCain, I boarded a flight from Kingston, Jamaica back to London. It may have been Heathrow, it could have been Gatwick – I can’t remember which. It may be that you think that detail doesn’t matter, but actually it does, because did you know Gatwick ONLY HAS ONE RUNWAY? The difficulty with this arrangement at Gatwick is that if something goes wrong on the sole landing strip – those aircraft waiting to land there are fucked. And, as the World’s Busiest single runway that’s a lot of planes stacking up in the air…

Anyway, I digress. Back in Jamaica the plane took off, night fell, turbulence started. The seat belt sign was on for most of that flight, so much so that going to use the toilet felt like taking one’s life in one’s hands – which in a sense it was. Unsecured people’s heads smashing through the ceiling of the cabin didn’t happen on that flight, but it can and does happen – notably recently on a plane from Singapore to London. Sadly, turbulence does cause injuries when you aren’t strapped to the seat and god alone knows how the pilot and first officer actually fly the plane at the same time…

Anyway, flying back from the Caribbean I was a six months pregnant woman so utilising some sort of secret industrial bladder strength wasn’t an option and I had to unbelt myself to literally brave the trip to the loo. I am not sure I have ever felt so vulnerable. Irresponsible too. I was travelling with my partner and two year old daughter. As I perched on the terrible toilet seat to pee, suspended 30,000 plus feet in the air over the Atlantic I was metaphorically shitting myself.

I learned a lot about humans that night (mostly that we are dully sheeplike in extremis) and since then I’ve found out a lot more about aviation generally in a bid to overcome my fear. One rule of those doing the actual flying is:

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

This maxim explains the deafening silence from the flight deck and the interminable illumination of the seat belt sign nearly all the way from Jamaica. The Captain didn’t communicate anything to us the passengers, because he was too busy flying the damn plane through god knows what. I also now know that thunderstorms, despite the widely-touted claims about the robust nature of modern aircraft, are dangerous to planes and all who fly in them and, where possible, flight crew aim to give them a ten mile wide berth.

That night the plane plummeted up and down more than once. It was awful. And it seemed endless. I have since wondered if we were in a series of storms or if it was the plain old turbulence. What’s no comfort in these situations are statistics. Statistics allow us to rationalise the danger we feel that we might be in. One such statistic might be: of every 100 million people that fly every year, only 2 will die in an airplane accident. That statistic does nothing to reassure my overactive amygdala because it doesn’t make sense. After all, common sense not statistics dictate that if a jumbo jet goes down, more than 2 people out of around only 300 on board are going to die. I’m no math genius but numerically 300 is nowhere near 100 million. It’s simple common sense that tells us that in each individual disaster just about everyone is going to die. And over the Atlantic, in the middle of the night, you are all going to die. That’s a fact. Statistics just can’t help with any of that.

So when I board a plane then, I draw zero comfort from statistics. Instead I am focused on probability which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Statistics based on what has happened across the history of aviation tell me the plane will safely convey me from A to B and that my current chances of death on any flight are 1 in 50 million – good odds. Probability tells me that the proposition is more nuanced than that. Probability factors in all kinds of other things like: drunk, suicidal, over-tired, hungover, unhealthy or even one-armed pilots; maintenance crews missing important mechanical things that I don’t know the word for, the weather, ice, sand storms, volcanic eruptions, birdstrike, clear air turbulence that the airplane radar can’t detect, terrorists, plane flaws like those fires on the Dreamliners or metal fatigue in DC10s (I am a child of the 1960s – just) and hijackers. Probability will need to take into consideration the training the flight crew have and have not had, the amount of fuel that the plane has taken on, the nature of the route, and all the other planes that might be out there. It will also have to figure out how likely it is that a whole national Air Traffic Control system can go down, like the UK’s did towards the end of last year. I can’t do the math to say what probability theory tells me about my chances on any given flight are – the variables are difficult to quantify and, well just too variable.

Which brings me to the cat thing. As far as I am concerned, and now I have typed this up I have a horrible feeling that I have written this post before, when I board a plane it’s an either or situation. Like Schrödinger’s cat in the box, in the metal belly of the plane, I enter state of two possibilities – alive or dead – and no-one, including me, will know which possibility will have the upper hand until someone opens the box.

This post has obviously been occasioned by recent events over the Java Sea. It is also mindful that only yesterday a 7 year old girl knocked at the door of a house in Kentucky. She was bleeding and barefoot and the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed all the other four people on board, including her parents. Statistics and probability are no help to her – they only truly inform insurance companies and gamblers and aren’t so much applicable to the indivdual human condition.

Number crunching has it’s place, but we can learn a lot more from cats.

‘Searching for Sugar Man’

Although I still find flights enervating because, and statistics be damned, a crash must be a terrifying way to die, albeit over quickly (although not as quickly as a car crash I might add), I do now feel that if I must take a flight somewhere, then I must. And I can. This is an improvement on the total veto that had been in place for some years, although flying across an ocean for mere leisure purposes still would stretch my resolve a little too far…

This reveals a number of things to me about myself – that I see work as more important as leisure, or if not more important, then at least more of an imperative to do things. It also underlines that although I am no longer as scared of dying as I once was, I certainly am quite theoretically prescriptive about the manner in which I would choose to go. This is not me being morbid; I am simply describing one of the many mental events in my brain.

I am slowly picking up the pieces of the life that I dropped to go chasing a life that happened, mainly in America, in the last century. My Circadian rhythms have reluctantly begun to gather up their toys: the sore throat is on the wane, the chest no longer tight, my voice is returning. There is much to be done. I searched last week, and I found. And, as is always the way, I came up with more and more questions. There are now notes to be typed and more answers to be sought. There is a year of work ahead, at least. I hope I can do it justice.

Anyway, the upside to my new-found lack of incapacitating terror on the plane is my ability to enjoy watching a film. On the way out it was Hitchcock, and Malcolm X, on the way home I was delighted to see they had ‘Searching for Sugar Man‘, a title I had been keen to watch for a while. The film is about a lost American singer, Rodriguez, from the 1970s, who enjoyed little success at home, but unbeknown to him became a huge star in South Africa. The film traces the efforts to ‘find’ him. As is always the way, he was not lost at all, just living his life in a simple way in Detroit.

Great film, better music, and two of the best album covers I have ever seen.

I’ve booked a flight

And now I am panicking.

I really don’t like flying at all. Back in the day I used to be ok about it, more or less, and when I had to book a flight I was fairly price sensitive and that was it. Now I have all kinds of things I have to factor in to the decision to buy a ticket: air safety records, age of fleets, flight route, type of airplane (which I forgot to check and am kicking myself), passenger reviews, number of stars given to the airline by Skytrax and so on and on.

It turns out that trying to book a flight keeping all these criteria in mind is impossible and leaving making the booking any longer was causing its own particular variety of stress and anxiety: the no-choice-of-carrier-or-route-or-price angst. I couldn’t book last night when I found a suitable British Airways flight because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink, so I thought I’d leave it until this morning. By this morning I had checked the top ten ‘safe’ airlines and BA wasn’t in it, so their direct flights to Chicago were out.

I flirted with Swiss Air and Lufthansa, the advantage of the latter being that I could fly from Frankfurt to Detroit, but the main question was: could my nerves bear to fly In The Wrong Direction straight out of London? The answer is no. I don’t think they can. If I have to go transatlantic, which in my head is called flying over scary water, then best to get on with it.

So, I’ve got a flight. The price was ok – the downsides are that I have to take an internal flight on the outbound leg and the customer reviews seem to complain that the front of the cabins are cold. Damn. When I booked I was offered a choice of seats: window, middle and aisle, left and right, and tail, middle or front. My brain flipped flopped about. Where is the safest place to sit statistically in a plane? Tail? Rather than hold up the booking process any longer by doing comprehensive research into this, I decided to take the fatalist’s approach and selected ‘No Preference’.

Now all I have left to worry about is having to wear a coat in the cabin and the size of the plane on the internal flight.

Please, please, please don’t let it be a propeller one.

Trusting the Maple Leaf

Last time I flew I was armed with valium. I swear it did not touch the sides of the terror, although it did have me in tears at Marmaduke, a film about an animated dog.

I thought this time, I’d try two Stugeron and a stiff drink if needed. Hopefully that will take the edge off…

A complaint about flying

I always feel vindicated in my irrational decision to keep my feet firmly on terra firma when planes make the news. This morning, of course, we have the volcanic ash which sounds like the airborne equivalent of sugar in the petrol tank.

Then I found this: a rather excellent and funny letter of complaint to Sir Richard Branson about airline food. Yet another very good reason not to get on a plane to my mind.

There’s a glitch in the formatting that defies me, it must be all that volcanic ash.

REF: Mumbai to Heathrow 7th December 2008

I love the Virgin brand, I really do which is why I continue to use it despite a series of unfortunate incidents over the last few years. This latest incident takes the biscuit.

Ironically, by the end of the flight I would have gladly paid over a thousand rupees for a single biscuit following the culinary journey of hell I was subjected to at thehands of your corporation.

Look at this Richard. Just look at it: [see image 1, above].

I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the desert?

You don’t get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it’s next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That’s got to be the clue hasn’t it. No sane person would serve a desert with a tomato would they. Well answer me this Richard, what sort of animal would serve a desert with peas in: [see image 2, below].

Peas and Custard - yum

I know it looks like a baaji but it’s in custard Richard, custard. It must be the pudding. Well you’ll be fascinated to hear that it wasn’t custard. It was a sour gel with a clear oil on top. It’s only redeeming feature was that it managed to be so alien to my palette that it took away the taste of the curry emanating from our miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter. Perhaps the meal on the left might be the desert after all.

Anyway, this is all irrelevant at the moment. I was raised strictly but neatly by my parents and if they knew I had started desert before the main course, a sponge shaft would be the least of my worries. So lets peel back the tin-foil on the main dish and see what’s on offer.

I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being a twelve year old boy Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat their with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out the catalogue and wrote to Santa about.

Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this: [see image 3, below].

Mustard? No Mustard!

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s more of that Baaji custard. I admit I thought the same too, but no. It’s mustard Richard. MUSTARD. More mustard than any man could consume in a month. On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.

Once it was regurgitated it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard. Everybody likes a bit of mustard Richard.

By now I was actually starting to feel a little hypoglycaemic. I needed a sugar hit. Luckily there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier due to it’s baffling presentation: [see image 4, below].

It's Dead Doctor

It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.

I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was relax but obviously I had to sit with that mess in front of me for half an hour. I swear the sponge shafts moved at one point.

Once cleared, I decided to relax with a bit of your world-famous onboard entertainment. I switched it on: [see image 5].

I apologise for the quality of the photo, it’s just it was incredibly hard to capture Boris Johnson’s face through the flickering white lines running up and down the screen. Perhaps it would be better on another channel: [see image 6].

Is that Ray Liotta? A question I found myself asking over and over again throughout the gruelling half-hour I attempted to watch the film like this. After that I switched off. I’d had enough. I was the hungriest I’d been in my adult life and I had a splitting headache from squinting at a crackling screen.

My only option was to simply stare at the seat in front and wait for either food, or sleep. Neither came for an incredibly long time. But when it did it surpassed my wildest expectations: [see image 7].

Yes! It’s another crime-scene cookie. Only this time you dunk it in the white stuff.

Richard…. What is that white stuff? It looked like it was going to be yoghurt. It finally dawned on me what it was after staring at it. It was a mixture between the Baaji custard and the Mustard sauce. It reminded me of my first week at university. I had overheard that you could make a drink by mixing vodka and refreshers. I lied to my new friends and told them I’d done it loads of times. When I attempted to make the drink in a big bowl it formed a cheese Richard, a cheese. That cheese looked a lot like your baaji-mustard.

So that was that Richard. I didn’t eat a bloody thing. My only question is: How can you live like this? I can’t imagine what dinner round your house is like, it must be like something out of a nature documentary.

As I said at the start I love your brand, I really do. It’s just a shame such a simple thing could bring it crashing to it’s knees and begging for sustenance.

Yours Sincererly


Paul Charles, Virgin’s Director of Corporate Communications, confirmed that Sir Richard Branson had telephoned the author of the letter and had thanked him for his “constructive if tongue-in-cheek” email. Mr Charles said that Virgin was sorry the passenger had not liked the in-flight meals which he said was “award-winning food which is very popular on our Indian routes.”

Feel the Fear and Don’t Do It.


That’s me and flying I am afraid. I used not to mind too much. People can attest to this. The same people who might say to me now that I should just pull myself together and stop acting more and more like one crazy lady! But I believe I am right to be afraid and quantum mechanics explains why.

I promise never to mention quantum mechanics or physics hereafter, except perhaps in relation to horseracing and the Kent coast which we can see from here (but not always – tree in a forest falling?), but today I will explain and then park the thought.

The fuss I make of driving in the dark intrigued me. I don’t like it and it makes me drive with extreme caution. In the daylight I am almost blase – I can even be found speeding. So why the in-the-dark collywobbles; surely I am not scared of it? I think it is this. Quantum mechanics says that (and I don’t confess to understand much) whilst an event is in motion there are any number of probabilities that exist equally until the event is observed. So when I drive in the daylight I am driving with the probability that I will arrive safely, get out of the car and that is the end of the panoply of possibility. Of course I am driving with many other possibilities and outcomes too, but they are reduced given the daylight. At night I am also living with the probabilities of my imagination – that the road will run out, that I will not see something, that I will fall asleep and so on. In quantum mechanics these probabilities of the imagination count, as amplitude.  So my fear of driving in the dark now seems a rational response to the range of probabilities alive in my mind.

Flying, on this basis, creates so many probabilities that I can’t actually cope! I can’t look into the pilots’ eyes before I get on the plane, get them breathalysed and ask if they have had a row with their spouse. I can’t check the fuselage, the engines, that the doors are closed properly. Every bizarre and statistically unlikely plane accident is a possibility in my mind. My rational mind tells me that the likelihood is that I will arrive in one piece, but on a wave and particle level there are many chances that I won’t.

This links to an “interesting” forum for pilots. I read this a bit when the Air France place tragically and unexpectedly plummeted into the sea earlier this year. I am not saying it is recommended reading but there is a thread on the whole allegedly drunk pilot arrested at Heathrow situation!

Actually, with such gems as this:

 “Can a regular drinker fly a plane?  Surely. But, do we want someone who can “function” half-snockered at the pointy end?”

 if you don’t read it you are missing out!

I think I have to conclude that it is not that I am scared of flying; it is that I am scared of not flying in a thousand different ways.

P.S. This is one of the ways  (plane hits warthog, Harare).