Saturday, 31 March 2012

Fear of flying



I have always loved flying in jet airliners, or at least I have always loved the most dangerous parts - taking off and landing.  The bit in between can be extremely tedious, especially on a long-haul.  The bit I really hate is all the waiting and security scanning, and I suppose everyone else feels the same.

A statistician once gave advice that in order to minimise the risk of travelling on a plane which has a bomb planted on it, take your own bomb on board.  The chances of one flight having two bombs on it were - at the time - so small as to be virtually negligible.  If everyone had followed this advice it would either have made flying one of the safest ways to travel (which it already is, according to other statisticians), or one of the most dangerous, depending on how you crunch the numbers.

Alas, we will never know now because a security system which will not allow you to take a pair of nail-clippers on board would certainly pick up on a bomb - wouldn't it?

I would have thought that the chances of a member of the flight crew having a full-blown nervous-breakdown at 35,000 feet would have been fairly remote also, but changed my mind about that when reading the story about the JetBlue pilot having his.  Apparently, only a week beforehand, an air stewardess got onto the plane's intercom and started telling all the passengers how she was terrified of flying ever since 9/11, and that the chances of a hi-jack which would kill everyone were very high indeed.  She rambled on for quite a while evidently, until she was restrained by a fellow crew member and strapped into a chair just like last week's screaming pilot.

When I first heard about the pilot running into the main body of the plane (having been locked out of the cockpit by the co-pilot) and screaming at the passengers about them all going to die, etc. I wished I had been on that flight - it sounded like a welcome bit of entertainment on an otherwise boring trip.

Statistics cannot be relied upon anyway.  I had a good friend (one less) who was killed in an air-crash in Thailand a few years ago, along with his fiance and the rest of the passengers and crew.  After this happened, I was speaking to his brother who is also a good friend of mine, and he told me that he too had been in a serious passenger plane-crash only a couple of years beforehand, but he survived unscathed unlike his brother, who he was very close to.

Another friend of mine who is a light aircraft pilot for pleasure (yes, I know) once took a course to be an air traffic controller.  I have been flying with him as a pilot on quite a few occasions, and a more calm and level-headed person you could not meet - when in the cockpit.

He only survived about one week of the course before he had to pull out through stress.

On these training courses, the trainee is seated before a bank of computer and radar screens which are all lit up and pre-programmed with flight scenarios, just like the real thing.  Exactly like the real thing, in fact.

Once you have got the hang of how to read the blips and signals, the machines are set up to display a set of circumstances in a busy airport like Heathrow, whereby you as controller are placed in the situation of being responsible for about 5 incoming and outgoing aircraft over a fairly short period of time - just like the real thing - and you even get to talk to the individual pilots through a head-set as they approach or taxi up to holding positions waiting for permission to take off.  Then they play a nasty trick on you.

Suddenly, it becomes clear that two aircraft are on a collision course which can only be averted by a correct decision and a clear set of instructions to all planes made by you and delivered within seconds of the impending disaster which would cost the lives of several hundred people.

There was a famous incident which happened for real in an unspecified airport once, when a team of A.T.C.s were seated at their screens, handling a series of incoming planes which had all arrived at once and were circling the airport in a several mile radius, all running out of fuel and desperate to land.

Apparently, as the planes approached, they would fly out of the jurisdiction of one controller and into the other who was seated next to him.  A small piece of coloured paper representing the plane would be physically handed to the controller sitting beside the other, as a symbol of responsibility and to make it absolutely clear that the care of that aircraft was now in the hands of the one to hold it.

That night, one of the controllers had a full-blown, stress-related breakdown, and had to be carried away screaming from his computer screen, as someone else took over.  When the other guy took the seat, he looked down into a waste-paper bin and found all the coloured pieces of paper had been screwed up and thrown into it by his predecessor, and the planes were still circling about up there, wondering what the hell to do for lack of instructions!

I do hope they give A.T.C.s regular medical check-ups as well as pilots.


26 comments:

  1. Can't help feeling I am glad not to be flying in the immediate future after reading this Tom.
    I absolutely love flying - the taking off and landing are exciting and I always take plenty to read and various games to play. I must say that thelongest journey I have made was to Vancouver, so I don't know how I would get on with Australia.

    I work on the premise that once you are up there you are in the lap of the gods so you might as well enjoy it. In any case, the view of the rockies from above is almost worth dying for. (note that I said almost).

    Sadly at present I am not allowed to fly for health reasons, but can't wait to try Eurostar, hopefully later in the year.

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    1. Yes, I use the same principal as I did when accepting a lift on the back of a motorbike - sit back and enjoy it. A bit like life, really, but not so hard to achieve.

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  2. I fly Jet Blue once a month from North Carolina to Florida. It is a fabulous airline. It is sad that so much is publicized about someone becoming ill or having a "breakdown". The man is being treated like a criminal!
    I can remember when one wore a coat and tie to travel by plane. Expected attire for the event. Now a days, the flight attendants have thirty minutes to vacuum the isles and clean the lavatory before taking off again with a bunch of yahoos in tank tops and dirty shorts half shot on booze. This is repeated in a couple of hours with the next stop. Like coat and tie dress, cleaning crews for flights are something of the past to cut cost.

    I'd say that was a stress job prone to outbreaks or whatever.

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    1. Well, it was a criminal act - if we did what he did, we would be thrown out of the window. Us Brits are treating him as a bit of a laugh. Maybe he will be demoted to cabin cleaning?

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    2. Maybe you should post a photo of your hemorrhoids. That would be criminal.

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    3. In my book, it is a criminal act even to suggest such a thing.

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  3. Lady Magnon made it to Sydney without encountering loony stewards/esses, pilots, or terrorist bombers. There's hope for us all.

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    1. No, WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!!!!!!!

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  4. This is the first time I have visited your blog after noticing you on Earl Gray's Dr Dolittle Tribute Blog. I was expecting verbal fireworks and a few expletives thrown in for good measure. Instead, I find interesting and articulate reflections on the stresses of air travel for involved professionals so I say "Keep up the good work Tom! Grade B+"

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  5. The older I get Tom, the more fearful of flying I become....it has become a stressful chore now, thanks to fellow flyers who cannot behave, poor service ( British airways has gone downhill BIG STYLE), cattle class blues....oh and my anxieties of leaving a cocoon of welsh safety

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    1. having problems with posting hence the repeat

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    2. 'A cocoon of Welsh safety'. Let me think about that for a while and get back to you.

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  6. oh dear
    the older I get, the more nervous of flying I have become
    this is partly due to my fear of leaving my welsh cocoon!
    but is obviously not helped by bad service( B.A IS a real let down nowadays), my fellow passengers (who dont know how to behave),and the lack of nuns with guitars on 747s

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    1. I think that's unfair on BA John. I once had sex with all four super hot stewardesses on a flight to LA whilst flying first class.

      The service was fantastic.

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    2. In my experience (limited) all male cabin crew are gay, so that means... let me get back to you about that.

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    3. 'Welsh cocoon'... nope, I'm still going to have to cogitate on this one for a while.

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    4. It's ok Tom. It was a complete lie anyway. I've never flown first class.

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  7. When I was a lad I was an Air Scout (that's right an Air Scout, not your normal run-of the-mill-scout). One day we went to 'fly' the (then) state of the art flight sim at an airline pilot training centre. The computer was the size of a room.

    I broke it during my flightime and really pissed the instructor off. I mean I really broke it Tom. But I did not have a nervous breakdow. He did.

    If I'm on the same flight as you one day and a screaming flight attendant screams "can anybody fly a plane?", for your own good, please restrain me!

    Anyway don't pilots usually have a few drinkies to calm themselves down a bit?

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  8. Did Baden-Powell used to practice on air-boys?

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    1. I was wondering that, Sarah, but I've never read the book. None of my business, I suppose.

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  10. For 24 years I took care of pts in all kinds of emergency situations without issue. Then in my 25th year I started worrying constantly that folks would fall in the shower and I would get sued. The day I found myself taking a shower with a 22 year old man (to keep him safe of course) was my "Jet Blue" day.

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    1. Now I am confused as to your real motives, Donna. The only way to clear it up is to tell me if you had any clothes on at the time.

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    2. Sounds like something Erica Jong might have done Donna, thanks for clearing that up!

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