I have just one certificate stuck to the cork board above my desk, but what I did to get it is something I'm particularly proud of, and also a little embarrassed about. It certifies that I successfully completed a flight aboard a British Airways aircraft - there is even a photograph of the very plane, a Boeing 757, way above the white cliffs of Dover. When I look at this picture, I often wonder how I got through this flight. Perhaps I should have made a lunge for the emergency exit and bailed out. Or kicked and screamed until the pilot turned back. You see, I did once get off an aircraft shortly before it taxied to the runway. That was a couple of years before I undertook the fear-of-flying course; a couple of years during which I steadily lost touch with reality.
Fear of flying is totally irrational, or so I've been told countless times, but when you experience it, it seems the most logical thing in the world. And it can take your breath away, literally, because it's not just a mental condition; it has powerful physical symptoms, too. What might at first seem to be a dull ache in your stomach quickly spreads throughout your body, so you hurt all over. Meanwhile, your heart rate begins to shoot up, along with your blood pressure, and you start to sweat profusely. You become nauseous. And everything appears to close in around you. You feel as if you are about to implode. You don't exactly feel rigid with fear, more you just feel totally crushed by it.
The symptoms first manifested themselves on a Swissair Airbus that was about to depart Geneva for London Heathrow. They were so bad that neither the cabin crew, or even my uncle with whom I was travelling, could have persuaded me to stay on board.
Perspiring and shaking wildly, I finally stood up, grabbed my hand luggage, muttered something to my uncle about taking the train, and stumbled for the exit. I didn't look back. I was allowed to get off because the plane had been delayed for more than an hour-and-a-half due to a "technical problem", and a few other businessmen sitting in the front of the plane were also getting off, though clearly for very different reasons.
Had there not been a "technical problem", I'm pretty sure I would have completed this flight, albeit very nervously. As it was, the longer we sat on the Tarmac, with men in overalls wandering on board every so often, the more anxious I became. In fact, at one point the plane actually pushed back from the stand and was heading for the runway, engines roaring, or, rather, sort of whining, only to return a number of minutes later. The pilot eventually explained that a computer would have to be changed, although this was a pretty quick operation and we would be off shortly. I, however, couldn't help thinking that it would be a lot easier to get off - after a while, I couldn't bare to look at what was going on (in retrospect, I think this was because I didn't want to witness an engineer making a mistake, not that I would have known what that would have looked like). With each new setback, I was more convinced that this plane was never going to make it to London and that it was going to crash, that we were all going to die, gruesomely - my anxiety and the corresponding physical symptoms spiralling ever more out of control.
The source of my phobia was a Swissair Airbus (for all I know, it might have been the very same) leaving Geneva for London almost one year earlier. Everything was going smoothly that day. There were no delays, the evening sky appeared clear - a beautiful, deep mauve colour with a few snowy peaks just visible. Travelling for work, I happened to be sitting in the business section and was more concerned with the newspaper I had been handed than anything that was going on around me. We took off right on schedule - that I remember, as I was eager to get back in time for dinner with my fiancée. A few seconds later, just as we were at what seemed to be the steepest (and slowest) point of the climb, there was a huge bang, an explosive bang. An electric-blue flash shot through the cabin, along the side walls and aisle, the overhead lockers and right under my feet. A number of people screamed, though not at the front of the plane, not in business class. Then there was this eerie silence. No one even rustled their paper as we waited for the plane to start tumbling back to earth.
My first thought was, wow, I'm going to die in a plane crash. Me. Why me? And why now? I had just got engaged. I had recently sold my first novel. I had a terrific new job. For about the first time in my life everything was going right. Then wham. But instead of plunging to earth, the plane kept on climbing. Up in the plush business section, we started to look at one another quizzically. After what seemed like for ever, but what must have been four or five minutes, the pilot came on the PA to say that the plane had been hit by lightning but there was nothing to worry about. They had run a number of checks and we were to continue to London Heathrow, where we were still expected to land on time.
Over the next year I flew a great deal - I had little option. My "terrific" new job was in fact travel editor of an international newspaper. Refusing to accept that I had suddenly become afraid of flying - I never talked about the lightning strike - I found myself drinking more and more heavily before I got on a plane. And then I started making up all sorts of excuses to get out of going on trips, particularly those involving developing countries or eastern European airlines, or airlines that used Airbuses. I'd ring ahead to check. Looking back, I see that I turned down Brazil, Mexico, Morocco twice, Budapest and Prague.
As well as the alcohol, I also began consuming handfuls of beta-blockers that my doctor had prescribed for me. Beta-blockers are meant to help reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety, and with those out of the way, without your heart pumping like mad, it's supposedly easier to think about something other than your anxiety - though I think that I found the drink more effective. When I went to New York on Concorde, I consumed so much Dom Pérignon 1985 Moët & Chandon that we could have left the stratosphere completely and zoomed off into space for all I would have known. Then I tried to go everywhere on Eurostar, and despite on one occasion being stuck in the tunnel for four hours (three of which were in darkness), I still vastly preferred the experience to flying. It simply didn't set my mind racing with so many catastrophic thoughts.
Yet why I let myself in for another Geneva hop, on Swissair, almost exactly a year after I thought I was going to be in a fatal crash, I still can't quite explain - perhaps I was testing myself. However, once on the Tarmac, in this Airbus that obviously had a serious technical problem, I knew I wouldn't be so lucky a second time - I had already been warned. My fate was sealed. Suddenly flying didn't just frighten me; I had developed a phobia about it. All rationality had gone out of the window. Why would Swissair, an airline with one of the best safety records in the world, allow a dodgy plane to take off?
Of course, I knew that nothing would happen to the plane - I left my uncle on it, after all - just as I knew flying was one of the safest forms of travel. Still, I was glad I got off that plane. I remember walking through the terminal building, heading for the train, feeling a huge weight had lifted. I suppose in succumbing to my anxiety, my phobia, I at least recognised that I had a problem.
For a while I let things get really out of hand. I read everything I could find about planes and their safety records. Regardless of the statistics, I would always come to the conclusion that none of them was that safe. There was always a crash somewhere to prove my point, or suddenly a plane with an impeccable safety record, such as the Concorde, would fall appallingly out of the sky.
I pored over articles on specific crashes - the Valujet DC-9 that slammed into a Florida swamp, the TWA Boeing 747 that blew up in midair just out of JFK, the Swissair MD11 that came down in Nova Scotia, the Romanian A310 that barely had time to become airborne after leaving Bucharest airport. I read somewhere that all the pathologist had to identify the pilot of a Boeing 737 (the most popular commercial jet in the world) that crashed in Pittsburgh was the sole of his foot, a slither of charred flesh. A friend, who works for a big City bank, passed me an internal report that graded airlines by their safety records so its employees could decide which they would feel happiest flying with. I can tell you that at the bottom of this listwas Macedonian Airlines, closely followed by Azerbaijan Airlines, Kazakhstan Airlines and Orbi Georgian Airlines - not, of course, that I had ever flown with any of these.
A short while later, the same friend (friend?) passed me some information that I thought at the time proved my phobia wasn't quite so irrational, that I'd been on the right track all along. It included the terrifying fact that cars are actually 12 times safer than planes and that, of all modes of transport, only motorbikes are more dangerous. This statistic was arrived at by calculating the number of trips taken, as opposed to the norm of looking at the deaths per distances travelled. Even, apparently, if you measure the fatality rate per man-hour of exposure to a particular form of transport, cars and planes come out pretty evenly.
Gradually, I became aware of not just how common my condition was, but that I wasn't the only travel writer who was afraid of flying. Aside from numerous tales of head-banging turbulence and engine fires, aborted takeoffs and undercarriage failures, many of my former colleagues feared that because they flew so much, by the law of averages one day their time would be up. But regardless of all this, and irrespective of how you skew the figures (and even if there has just been a terrible crash - you can usually find at least one major incident in the world in any given month), flying is remarkably safe, and getting safer. The overall accident rate per flight stands at one in a million, well down from 50 in a million in the 60s.
Yet, to the phobic mind, these figures are meaningless - the plane you are on is going to crash, and nothing anyone says can distract you from that thought. I like to think that I eventually left my travel editor job for other reasons (to concentrate on my novel-writing, say, and to spend more time with my new wife), but it is conceivable that my fear of flying played a considerable part.
With my feet planted firmly on the ground, I began to question why flying affects so many people in such a negative way (some say up to half the adult population fear it) - why exactly it generates all this anxiety. I wondered whether I would ever be able to get on a plane without my palms becoming clammy and this heaving sensation starting up in my chest. In fact, I wondered whether I would ever be able to get on a plane again. Why was I being so bloody irrational about it? I just couldn't get my mind to accept the reality of the situation - that I wasn't going to die every time I stepped on to a plane, even if it were to be involved in an incident. Planes are obviously well built enough to withstand lightning strikes, as well as all sorts of mechanical and systems failures. I then started to think about the nature of phobias. My doctor intimated that what most phobias ultimately do is mask some other, probably deeper-rooted anxiety. So what else was troubling me? What had the Geneva incident really triggered?
By the time I eventually enrolled on a fear-of-flying course, I had already got somewhere with containing my phobia, even if I hadn't yet got that far with understanding what lay behind it. I had decided to set my next novel on a plane, thinking that an object capable of inspiring such powerful feelings in me would provide great source material. Or, if you like, I wanted to put my obsession, my pre-eminent anxiety, to good use. Plus, I've always thought of my writing as a kind of therapy, a way of exorcising demons, of trying to confront long-buried issues - of working out who I am and where I come from. And I also wanted to know what made the cabin crew tick, what made them able to spend their lives flying around the world fearlessly. As it was, I soon discovered that they aren't all that fearless.
A friend who once worked for Virgin told me how turbulence used to frighten her so badly that she often found herself screaming out loud, much to the alarm of nearby passengers. She resigned after a particularly bumpy transatlantic flight. A senior BA purser I came across said that he was fine to begin with, but that after almost a decade he couldn't cope with it any more unless he took a Valium. And, in the course of my research, I heard numerous other tales of drug and alcohol dependency among cabin crew, of people locking themselves in the crew rest area, of people not going to work at all because flying suddenly scared the wits out of them.
In the course of my research, I managed a number of flights (specifically eight - four return trips to New York, which is the route in my book) without resorting to my usual cocktail of beer and beta-blockers, by convincing myself that because I was writing a novel set on a plane it would be too extraordinary for me to die in a plane crash. I felt I was somehow invincible - which, if nothing else, illustrates how phobias can really twist your mind, your rationality. At least I was able to concentrate on my surroundings, trying to observe everything in the name of research, rather than worry about a bomb going off in the cargo hold, or the chances of being in a midair collision.
In the past, I hadn't even been able to look out of the window and always asked for an aisle seat, then I'd cower behind newspapers and magazines. Now, I'd stare at the cloud formations, the sun dipping behind a cresting wave of stratocumulus, and think, yeah, actually this is pretty beautiful. I'd listen to the steady, almost reassuring trilling of the engines, rather than turn up the volume on my headset. I'd no longer fight the sense of motion, but let my body relax into the seat (as much as that's ever possible).
It was amazing, too, watching the cabin crew scuttling up and down the aisles, dealing with demanding passengers, handing out the hot meals (or "hots", as they say in the business), and every so often checking that their hair was in place. I suppose what slowly struck me - and this was after I had ventured into numerous galleys for a gossip - was the fact that they weren't some alien species. They were just like you and me - certainly me, in the way they worried about their relationships and their social lives, about their job security and who was bitching about them behind their back. Except everything seemed to be so condensed. It was as if they were operating on fast-forward. They weren't just suddenly overfamiliar with each other; they had affairs and bust-ups on one-night stopovers that would have taken months to materialise in normal jobs. Taking all this in suddenly seemed much more interesting than worrying about the plane crashing.
So when I turned up for the fear-of-flying course - which I had booked months beforehand - I was feeling surprisingly confident thanks to this whole new agenda my phobia had provoked and the knowledge (both social and technical) that I had already gained through my research. In many ways, I felt that I had largely overcome my fear of flying, or at least had learned to cope with it. I honestly believed that the BA-approved course would be a breeze, that I might come top of the class.
What I did not realise was that most people who are seriously afraid of flying know an enormous amount about it. There were people attending (about 150 in all, and a pretty even mix between men and women) who recalled crashes I'd never heard of, people who could describe the workings of a modern aircraft just as competently as the smooth-talking pilots taking the course. And whenever one of the course instructors said some flight system or particular control was infallible - bound by what is known in the industry as in-built redundancy - there was always someone who could successfully contradict him.
"Turbulence is not comfortable," we were told to recite, "but it is not dangerous." Which, sadly, isn't quite true, someone pointed out - a number of passengers have apparently died in midair due to severe turbulence. And planes aren't immune to lightning strikes, either - in 1976, an Iranian jumbo jet was reported to have exploded after being struck just outside Madrid.
My early confidence quickly subsided - the gloomy surroundings of the bland Heathrow airport hotel, where the course was being held, didn't help. I had clearly been kidding myself that I had somehow got over my fear of flying. In fact, what I had probably been doing was just hiding it, or, I suppose, smothering it behind the whole idea of my novel. As we moved on from the technical aspects of the course to the mental issues, it became increasingly apparent that I had been ignoring the issue of phobias and, more important, what really lies behind them (and concentrating on cabin crew gossip instead). It transpires that people afflicted with a fear of flying roughly divide into two groups. There are those whose fear comes from unfamiliarity with the experience and those who, for whatever reason, have developed a phobia. The first lot are easy enough to treat. It's the second lot, people like me, who are the problem.
The psychotherapists, who came along for the afternoon, tried, much as my doctor had, to suggest that it is ourselves who are making us anxious and not the aircraft. They said that very often fear is self-administered and that we simply allow our imaginations to play tricks on us. However, they didn't go much beyond telling us to think of pleasant thoughts - ie, to indulge in a bit of positive thinking, which, to a degree, I had already started to do. Mind you, I can't blame them for not expanding further on the issue - it probably would have taken them a few years to sort us lot out, not an afternoon. One of them said something, however, shortly before we were to board the plane for our "test" flight, that took me right back to the Geneva incident.
"Remember," this patient, soft-voiced, middle-aged woman said, "anxiety breeds anxiety." The time my plane was struck by lightning just so happened to coincide with a great change in my life. I had recently become engaged, accepted a new job, put my flat on the market, sold my first novel, and, I suddenly recalled, been mugged. I'm now certain that the shock of the lightning strike had somehow jumbled all this up in my mind.
All my anxiety about having been mugged, and concern over whether my first novel, new job and quite possibly impending marriage would all be the huge success I hoped them to be, shifted on to the very tangible experience of flying. What was suddenly so good about life became confused because of a traumatic experience.
I'm not sure how effective the course was in getting me to recognise this, or whether I was moving, albeit slowly, in that direction (or maybe even the opposite direction), anyway. I'm not sure that you could say I was your normal fear-of-flying candidate, being a novelist and perhaps particularly susceptible to neuroses and heightened levels of anxiety. Though from the people I met on the course (and while researching my novel), I reckon a phobia about flying can hit anyone, even an air steward. It took me a long while - almost three years - to recognise all this, and also the very obvious and related fact that flying is about letting go or, rather, relinquishing control (unless you happen to be the pilot).
In a way, I see overcoming my phobia - or at least beginning to understand what lay behind it - as a sign of growing up, as a sign of finally accepting that the world doesn't just revolve around me. However, part of me can't help feeling increasingly queasy about having now actually written this novel set on a plane - a novel, as it has turned out, about not just flying but also about relationships and commitment, desire and anxiety.
I haven't flown since publication day, because I am worried that I might just be tempting fate once again. The one, probably very obvious, question that I can't recall being asked on the course, was: "What do you do if the phobia returns?" As with alcoholism, or any form of addiction, do you ever really get over a fear of flying?