Riyadh: Monday 27th August, 2012
As an adult, I have always hated flying. As a child, I positively enjoyed it, which was as well as I did it regularly. But a combination of two things changed my perception of flying forever.
Firstly, I stopped doing it. Having flown on a monthly basis for three years, between 1985 and 1988, suddenly we returned to life in Britain and that was the end of that.
Secondly, the Lockerbie Disaster frightened me. Actually, I do not remember being frightened at the time so much as interested. Night after night, news programmes would chart the course of the shocked reactions, the grim task of collecting the bodies and the difficulties associated with piecing together the component parts of an aeroplane which had exploded in mid-flight. And all the while that familiar Pan Am Jumbo Jet Nose sat over the news anchor’s right shoulder, captivating me with its sheer recognizability. I couldn’t help but wonder what the pilot, navigator and co-pilot looked like in there. I couldn’t help but wonder at how their spouses must have felt knowing that they were in there, on a cold Scottish field, entombed and yet visible through the windows.
Then in 2008, I suddenly had to fly again. I met my partner, who lived on the other side of Europe and suddenly realised I would need to conquer my fear of flying, in order to see her. That first flight was a trial. It was so routine to everyone else that it made me feel worse. And I was tired and emotional. I had not slept for three days, as a result of working nights. Then that horrible feeling of acceleration and powerlessness, the creaking of the aircraft as it’s nose lifts; the barely perceptible wobble as its automatic gyroscopes kick in, and the sudden feeling of deceleration as the pilot reduces the throttle, seconds after take-off.
Every single noise, every single movement, was registered and analysed for critical information that would reveal my likelihood of surviving this flight. And then, the wing dipping towards the fields of England as we banked round in a loop, so that before long I could see the airport from which I had just come, the orange plane, behind us in the queue, now lifting off from the runway, doubtless carrying some other big fearty.
The pilot found a path between the leaden cloud cover and suddenly, I was bathed in sunlight. My fear dissipated a touch now. Over the next two hours, I stared out at the colossal emptiness of the sky and the unimaginable beauty of Europe below me. It was winter and the land over Germany was covered in bright reflective snow.
I was still afraid, Europe is busy for aircraft and they pass each other at such speed, perhaps a mile or two away. Yet, the Sky was so huge, so enormous, that it seemed impossible that we could realistically crash. Against my better instincts, the adrenaline which had nearly paralysed me, now, enlivened me, despite my tiredness. I was enjoying this unexpected, indescribable view of my planet.
Since that day in 2008, I have been obliged to fly (mostly for work), no fewer than, 132 further times. I still find that I am frightened at take-off. The powerlessness I feel as I am gripped by the terrible acceleration, will never go away. All that I can do each time is make my peace with the Almighty, and picture my loved ones one last time as the plane pulls onto the runway.
But similarly, once airborne, the view never stops enchanting me. And I found, as I flew back to London, from Warsaw, last week, that I had a curious sensation. Or, perhaps it was an epiphany. I liked flying. In fact, I love flying. I love the way that the routine flight demonstrations and the bland food, fail to hide the fact that every flight is different, every flight scary for a split second, and yet breathtaking at the same time.
Perhaps, one day flying will be like driving and the thrill I feel will be reserved for those who watch the Earth rising over the horizon of the Moon, but for now, I must admit that I am a wee bit in love with flying; and here are just 10 of the reasons why.
The in flight map: Most people don’t seem to use it, preferring to watch TV or listen to the radio, but I like to know where I am in the world, what that town is below. I like to see the mountain ranges and squint to see the first glimpse of a mountain range or sea, which I know to be approaching. I only wish they had developed such a thing when I was a wee boy.
- The Living Map: Fly over Cairo and see the dark ugly towers cramped together in block after block after never-ending block, and see how suddenly they give way to the Pyramids, travel north and watch how the narrow irrigated channel of fields either side of the River Nile gives way to the desert, and then watch the greenery widen over the Nile Delta as you approach the Mediterranean Sea. Or Take off from Abu Dhabi at night and look down on the glistening bling of the city, occupying its scorpion shaped island, its grid of streets lighting it with a million neon gemstones. Circle over the Sea of Marmara and see the great city of Istanbul Unite the continents of Asia and Europe. Land in London, and see sight after famous sight as you approach. And this is just a small handful of the amazing views to be had. There really is nothing like it.
- Cloud surfing: Intellectually, you know that you are travelling at 500 miles an hour, but it is hard to really feel that you are. Yet every so often, either after take off or just on the approach to land, the pilot will guide his plane briefly, a few feet above the clouds, and you can watch their whipped cream ripples dance by you. Suddenly you feel powerful, in a dream world.
- A cloud lit City at night: A starry sky and clouds below you. Through the dimples, where the clouds are thinnest, they are coloured yellow and luminous. And you know that below you is Frankfurt or Ankara or wherever. It is extraordinarily beautiful and so hard to describe.
- The Shadow of the Earth: I have seen this just once, at dusk, flying from Dubai to Riyadh, with the Sun retreating over the oncoming horizon slightly faster than we ourselves could travel. Below, the dusty grey, featureless orb of Saudi Arabia when the wind is up. Above the distant grey dusk horizon, darkening perceptibly as the seconds went by, the sky was a deep dark blue, and above that, forming a triangle to the forward horizon, a paler blue of sky still illuminated by the sun. And, for the only time in my life, I saw the sheer enormity of the shadow cast by my planet.
- That first wine, when you leave Saudi Arabian Airspace: You are not allowed to drink alcohol in Saudi Arabia. As I have lived here longer, I have come to feel its absence less and less, and when I have it, its effects, more and more. But it is still an uncommon thrill to savour that first glass of wine when you realise that you are now over the Red Sea or Jordan. Savour it, the next one is never as good.
- Landing in a new place for the first time: It sounds obvious, but isn’t that the point of flying, to travel to places you never thought you would see. When I first saw the Alps, or the desert, I was staggered. Flying does that to you, taking you effortlessly from the world of the mundane to the world of the amazing.
- In flight toiletry bags: I never open them; not having much use for airline socks, earplugs or facemasks. But I love the way they are tightly packed, and the little details, like the airline logo in the left hand bottom corner. I usually give them to my Mother, or partner, and tell them to give them to guests when they come to visit.
- The Pilot announcement: I don’t care about the age, race gender of the pilot, one iota, but ideally, the pilots announcement should be delivered in that reassuring paternalistic drawl of the upper class middle-aged white guy. It would go something like this, “Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain, Richard Poshashell, speaking. We’re shortly going to be pushing back from the terminal building and should be taking off in approximately five and a half minutes. We’re expecting a strong tail wind once we get airborne and should make good time on our journey to Somewhereelse and expect to arrive at approximately 4:43pm local time. We’ll be travelling at about 35, 000 feet today, making our way out over the Chanel to Holland, and from their over Germany, Austria, Hungary and Ruritania. We’re now going to hand you over to our cabin crew lead this morning by senior purser, Jim Notasposh, and they’ll be taking you through a short demonstration for your safety.” Now doesn’t that just make you feel brilliant!!!
- Take off: Yes, I know I said it petrified me, and it still does, but somehow, now, when I hear that low rumble which then feeds into a high wine and feel that sudden thrust push me back into my seat, it is not merely frightening, but briefly… thrilling. I don’t like it at all. But could I do without it? I’m not altogether sure that I could.