I recently met a pilot.
He was young and hot.
He liked fast cars and fast women.
It brought to mind that dynamite line from Top Gun:

 “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.”

I made a mental note never to fly with him – unless he was beside me in First Class, whispering sweet nothings while topping up my glass of Dom Perignon.

My encounter with the pilot left me flustered.
And not only for the reasons you’d expect. It got me pondering the fear of flying. (And no, I’m not referring to Erica Jong’s seminal masterpiece either.) I’m talking about the stomach churning terror of air-travel.

I dedicate this entry to everyone who feels faint hearted at 39,000 ft. (Without said first officer at their side).

Once upon a time, I adored flying. I loved the thrilling take-offs. Like Maverick and Goose, I also felt the need for speed. Now I squeeze the armrest as I audit how loudly the engines scream as they struggle to heave the behemoth up into the heavens. I will breathe once the plane is horizontal, and everyone is reunited with their electronic devices. Before that, I’m in a place the Catholics call purgatory.


Fair enough. But why is it that we always slam into a crater when I’m not secured to my seat? Copyright: antbphotos / 123RF Stock Photo

As I hang onto the grab rails in the odoriferous cubicle, I cannot help but petition my maker:

“Does it have to end this way?”

When I started flying, the fasten your seatbeltsign was reserved for “real” emergencies. This involved events like your hijacked plane being re-routed to Cuba. The possibility of spilling hot tea on your lap didn’t quite cut it. (God bless lawyers and global warming.)


As someone,  somewhere once may have said: “when flying, I prefer my meals to have wings.” Paging Dr. Freud! This is mostly how that conversation goes:

“Please, can I have the chicken?” 

“I’m sorry, we’re out of chicken.” 

“How that is possible? This is row 43. I had to sell my Jimmy Choos on eBay to pay for this seat. So could you please check if you can get me the vegetarian meal then?”

“I’m afraid that unless you requested the vegetarian option as a special meal when you booked your ticket, it isn’t possible.”

“Do you have any extra vegetarian meals? Or some crackers and cream cheese?”

“It’s not possible.” She says slamming my meal of beef onto my quivering tray table. “Enjoy your dinner.” she says offering me the swuggist* smile she can deliver.

[*Swuggist: Best described as the unhappy marriage between smugness and sweetness, with a little f*@k you on the side. Favoured by those with the power to make your life miserable. Like the receptionist at your doctor’s office, or those office-bearers who exist to torment you.  Illustrated in the following scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987).PG Restriction: F-Bomb!]


Talking about flight attendants, back in the 70s and 80s being a flight attendant was uber cool. They were glamorous and young; sophisticates who got to escape to the bigger, wider world.

Most girls I knew aspired to great things, like winning a beauty pageant or becoming a flight attendant.

But with the slew of restrictions, like height, weight, and age, a girl had more chance of bagging a Harry Winston tiara. Few would get to prance down the aisle of a Jumbo Jet until her prince swept her off her calloused feet.

How could we know it wasn’t all fun and glamour? Who knew about jet lag, sexual harassment, petulant passengers (who only want chicken), and layovers in miserable airport hotels?


There was a romance to flying in the early 80s that didn’t require a membership to a certain club.

The seats were roomier (okay, I was smaller). But nostalgia aside: The skies weren’t gridlocked with discount cattle cars. You weren’t treated like an inmate in a maximum-security prison. And the majority of passengers didn’t have that odor of “entitlement” that reeks more than the lavatory 7 hours into the flight. (Please remain in your seat until the airplane has come to a complete stop. Yeah, right.)

Oh, and did I mention you got real cutlery in case you wanted to cut through the rigor mortis in your beef? (Or cut the six-foot bloke -with a thyroid problem- in front of you. The one who keeps his seat back supine for the entire flight. That is of course until you decide to rest your glass of Merlot on your tray table.)

Petty grievances aside, I forgot how awesome it is to be able to arrive in London 11 hours after takeoff.  Not bad if you consider that it took my scurvy diseased ancestors approximately 27 days to sail from South Hampton to Cape Town. And that’s not factoring in the rest of their treacherous inland journey by ox-wagon.

Yet, I am still paralyzed by an irrational fear that has intensified with age and wisdom (or is it cynicism?)


The following helped me regain (some) perspective:

I discovered a book in the Miami Airport called “Cockpit Confidential” by Patrick Smith.


God bless this man! He has written an entertaining myth buster that gently explains how planes and co. work.

His book undid a great deal of the psychological damage reading the Daily Mail and watching Air Crash Investigations.  I recommend it to anyone who yearns for terra firma. (The book that is, not the Daily Mail or that show.)

Still I don’t believe there is a cure. Flying will remain my “Orvillian” nightmare. Like Icarus, I am certain, the earth will eventually reclaim me.

But, when all else fails, I pull up my bloomers and grab my boarding pass, comforted by the fact that they still serve booze on planes. (If you ask nicely and pretend to study the duty-free booklet as the steward passes, your plastic cup may just overflow.)

Plus I always remind myself that the trip to and from the airport is statistically the most treacherous part of the journey.

I also try not to pass my phobia onto my toddler who grins foolishly during the 250 mph take off. It’s a treat to watch him marvel at the ocean of cloud (unless it’s cumulonimbus) or admire the intricate patchwork below. For now he can embrace and enjoy the novelty and mystery of air-travel.

Heck, maybe he’ll even don four gold epaulets one day and inspire a blog entry like this. Hopefully he can organise his old ma an upgrade to first class. And then, in the unlikely event, that fate shows me the big middle finger, I’ll have enough leg room to go out kicking and screaming.


notes about books, movies and scenes INCLUDED ABOVE

[1] The Fear of Flying is a novel by Erica Jong (1973) published just before I made an early escape from my mother’s uterus.

[2] O Captain! My Captain! is a poem by Walt Whitman (1865) in honor of Abraham Lincoln. Used to salute John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poet’s Society.

[3] “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash” quote, and reference to “Maverick and Goose on the need for speed, are from the 1986 movie Top Gun. Directed by the late, and forever great, Tony Scott. Starring Tom (before he became “odd”) Cruise.

[4] For more information about Patrick Smith or Cockpit Confidential visit: http://www.askthepilot.com . Picture of book: http://www.askthepilot.com

[5] Painting: “`The Fall of Icarus” by Peter Paul Rubens (1636) Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium.