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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.

The Raffle

There was a raffle yesterday; it was somewhere that shall remain nameless. I was asked to draw the (25, twenty-five, XXV, ٢٥, vingt-cinq, yes five times five) tickets in front of a small audience with a vested interest.

I called on the children to assist, the eldest wisely backed off, getting a clear sense of the pressure of the situation just as it was dawning on me. This left me and the seven year-old to deal with the imposter called luck, which, as any regular readers may know, is mere probability taken personally.

What this looks like on a Saturday afternoon at a charity Christmas Bazaar is a sea of faces staring, the majority being arranged rather more in line with accusation than expectation, as you and your offspring continue to frantically pull out tickets – without their names on…

It all got to me and I resorted to some violent shaking of the container of tickets in a desperate attempt to get to a ticket that would assuage the mob. This didn’t work either, one raffle-hopeful-but-slightly-indignant-personage just pointed out tightly that I was shaking tickets out on to the floor.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Where’s the Mayor when you need him?

Note to self: never again

Luck: probability taken personally?

Or, how I came to have two rabies vaccines in my fridge at home, be in a car accident in Marmaris (nothing to recommend that place in my view), and read a passport as valid when, in fact it was two years out of date…

That’s my opening gambit for now. I can’t quite bring myself to relate the events of the last few weeks in the usual manner. I am not a great believer in accidents or chance, but I do trust some science, a little psychology and a lot of maths. And then I also believe in other more mystical things that don’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny: they are my articles of faith if you like.

So later, and believe me I would rather do this now, I will pull out the cadaver of Lady Luck from my fridge and give her a good old dissection, but for now I have to write 3000 words on Curriculum Theory and Development (with graphs).