Fear of flying leads to blind panic and sheer terror – Steve Canavan

Steve Canavan was a nervous wreck on the plane to China
Steve Canavan was a nervous wreck on the plane to China
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I’m writing this missive in China. My column, I feel, has been getting a bit stale so in order to give it fresh impetus I asked the boss at this paper to book me a flight to Hong Kong (business class, which means you pay about £3,000 extra to get a slightly larger seat and a complimentary bag of salted peanuts) and then a two-week stay in a five-star hotel in a place called Guangzho, China’s fourth biggest city.  

The boss said no, but handily I was heading there anyway as part of a work thing (my day job is at a university and myself and another staff member are taking 12 students on the afore-mentioned trip. Officially the reason for going to is to broaden the students’ horizons and enhance their knowledge; in reality it’s because my colleague and I fancied a few days abroad).

I enjoy travelling to new places. It’s exciting and fun. I remember the first time I went to Scunthorpe. It was so thrilling to look at the bus station, and the launderette on Hazeldine Street (if you do three dark washes, you get your fourth free and a complimentary tub of Lenor thrown in – it’s a belting place).

The problem with travel, travel overseas that is, is you tend to have to go by plane. For normal people, this is fine. For folk like me, with an acute fear of flying, it is an ordeal on a par with being asked to clean a restaurant toilet the day after it has hosted the World Curry Eating Championships.

I am an educated man (six GCSEs including a C in Home Economics) and know my phobia of being in the air is irrational. I know it is the safest form of transport. I know it is unlikely one of the plane’s wings will drop off mid-air. However, that doesn’t stop me from spending an entire flight feeling a mixture of mild panic and downright terror.

On a plane, I am like a meerkat. I sit bolt upright, constantly scanning the scene for potential threats.

First I do a quick surveillance of my fellow passengers. If there are three blokes sitting together, looking slightly pensive, I immediately mark them down as potential terrorists. Why are they sitting together? Why do they look uptight – is it because they know what they’re about to do and that this is their last few hours alive? Why did one of them just scratch his ear – is it code for ‘activate the bomb now’? And has the guy in the middle got such a bad haircut because there was no point getting a trim beforehand as he knows he’s not surviving past today?

I watch every single person who uses the toilet, timing how long they are in there. If a passenger does not emerge within two minutes I imagine they are strapping some sort of explosive device to the underside of the ballcock.

I am also very concerned about the pilot. Years ago you may recall a golfer called Payne Stewart died in an plane crash when the crew passed out because the air pressure in the cockpit suddenly dropped, and the aircraft just flew on and on until it ran out of fuel and dropped like a stone in the desert.

This was more than 20 years ago, since then approximately 750 billion flights have safely taken off and landed, and a similar incident has never occurred. However, to this day I panic that if a plane flies in a straight line for an extended period (which tends to happen because that’s kind of what they do) and the pilot doesn’t say anything (which also tends to happen because they aren’t the chattiest and when they do talk they have such dreadful banter - ‘the weather is looking quite nice at our destination, we should be there 10 minutes earlier than our original eta, if you look out of the left window you’ll see Morocco’ and so on … come on chaps, chuck a little joke in from time to time),  it means the crew are almost certainly slumped unconscious and we’re heading for oblivion.

En route to Thailand on my honeymoon a couple of years back, I was so worried about this I called an air hostess over and said, ‘excuse me, I know this may sound odd but would you mind asking the captain to say something as I think he may be dead’. The air hostess looked at me with a mixture of concern and pity while Mrs Canavan rang her solicitors to ask whether divorce was an option 24 hours into a marriage.

I worry about being shot down (a la Malaysian Airlines over Ukraine) and because of this spent several hours on the way to China studying the airplane’s on-board map. When it showed we were going over somewhere with a slightly unusual name, say Kazakhstan, I felt especially jumpy despite the fact I have no evidence whatsoever that Kazakhstan has missiles, is involved in a war or is a dangerous place. It just sounds a bit dangerous, like Iraq or Rochdale.

What irks me most about the whole flying thing is how some passengers don’t seem to worry about such things. Our entire destiny is in the hand of two chaps we don’t know at the front. If one of them makes a mistake – like presses the down button when we’re taking off instead of the up (because that’s how a plane works right?) - then we’re gonners. Yet some folk are actually sleep – SLEEP! – during a flight. How do they do that? I struggle to drop off on an average night at home in a comfortable double bed, so the chances of me slumbering while 30,000 feet in the air and potentially just seconds from my death at any given moment are minimal to say the least.

You probably think I’m joking or exaggerating with all I’ve written so far but the tragic thing is I’m not. It is a genuine fear and my mind frets about every possible deadly scenario

So while my fellow 379 passengers peacefully slept and woke hours later refreshed as our aircraft was about to land in China, I was still on the edge of my seat, eyes like saucers, regretting not filling that form in about who I’d leave my estate to.

Amazingly, as you can probably deduce by the fact this column got written, the plane landed safely and I survived the experience.

I am in China for the next 10 days, which I won’t enjoy because I’ll spend the whole time fretting about the journey home. Oh to be normal…