Fear and Flying
‘Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. The captain has asked that everyone remain seated for the duration of the flight. This is due to the severe turbulence we are experiencing.’
The purser followed her announcement by adding that there would also be no meal service. This was a first. The captain-to-cabin conference call chimed in the cabin. This was another first. Sitting alone by the third right aircraft door, I picked up the interphone.
The captain’s voice boomed down the line. He told us we were indeed flying through a bad storm and that none of us crew were to leave our jump seats for the entire flight. Once he had gained our acknowledgement, he clicked off. The interphones in the cabin all followed. I needed both my hands to secure the door three interphone back in its place - my hands had begun to shake.
We were flying from Male to Colombo, a flight of less than two hours. I had been cabin crew for less than two months.
The jump seat of the third right door faces the aft of the plane and is in direct view of the passengers sitting in the rear of economy. It was a night flight and fortunately for me many of the passengers were drifting off to sleep. Others had become engrossed in the entertainment system and seemed largely un-phased by both the purser’s PA and the turbulence.
Sitting alone by the aircraft door, the words bad and severe were ballooning in my head. The purser had used the word severe and the captain, bad. Which was it? What was the difference?
My hands were now sweaty and clammy. With every shake of the plane, I gripped my fingers tighter underneath the jump seat. I checked and re-checked my seatbelt. There were four buckles to go in. Had they all gone in right? The more fanatically I gripped the seat, the more unsettled I became. How could this small retractable chair with its plastic covering, which was pealing in some sections, protect me from gravity and force? I looked down into the dark cabin, the exit pathways illuminated by floor lighting and ceiling markers. Here were all these human bodies, muscle and matter strapped into seats speeding into a storm at thirty thousand feet.
The safety equipment and the aircraft interior began to look flimsy and futile. I thought that we should all be sitting in individual, indestructible steel pods, or not flying at all.
I started to think of my own mortality and what it might feel like to die? What would it feel like to have the plane smash into the ground, and my body smashed and exploded into pieces? What would that feel like?
I started to formulate my resignation. This had all been a great mistake. How could I have put my fragile life in this dangerous combustible contraption? I imagined myself at the hotel, asking the purser and captain if I could have a quiet word, and then simply telling them I would not be getting back on the plane. I would stay in Colombo and organise a boat back. Yes, I would just have to do that. What could they say really? Surely lots of people must have gone through the training and then changed their minds? There was that girl Jane. She resigned after her first flight - six weeks of intensive training, a flight to Osaka; then back home to Australia and a desk job. Yes, I assured myself, I could do that too.
The passengers directly in front of me were thankfully asleep with their legs outstretched and their eye shades on. I envied their indifference. We were in the same vessel, the same storm, so why were my toes electrified, my eyes strained and theirs not? I wondered if they perhaps were afraid but just didn’t show it.
It didn’t help that I was sitting backwards. Every time the plane dropped in altitude I’d hold my breath until we jolted again and levelled out. Those drops felt heavy and long but they probably weren’t even a second. How cruel fear can be? It manipulates time in such a way so that just at the precise moment where we want time to move quickly, it slows right down and forces us to experience every millisecond and each sensation.
I thought of how frightening it was to drop for just a second. But what if that drop was extended to ten seconds, or more? I wondered if I would I cope.
I remembered back to my pet mouse Mini. She was the first pet I had chosen and bought myself. She was pretty and slim, not like those scary lab rats with red eyes. She had a black and white coat and when I touched her head, her fur felt soft and springy. Sometimes I would stroke her back and watch her little organs pulsating in her belly. But I couldn’t hold her. I was afraid to touch her feet and tail. I was afraid that the tail might move on my hand, or that the feet might have fingernails. I felt immensely bad about my aversion to her, but that scaly texture and fleshy colour, I couldn’t do it. So Mini lived in a cage at my friend’s house with her pet mouse.
On one of my visits as my friend welcomed me in, I noticed her face was different. It seemed contorted to convey guilt or an apology. She announced to me that Mini had died. ‘It was the cat.’ Before I could picture the carnage, she elaborated explaining that the cat hadn’t got Mini; Mini was running loose when she saw the cat. She saw the cat, froze and died.
My friend retrieved a small box from the other room, and lying on a bed of tissues was the mouse. It was still intact and stiff in its stride. It had died mid-action. The feet spanned out like thin small fingers reaching. I quickly looked away and my friend put the lid back on the box.
‘We’ll have a funeral for her,’ my friend proposed and we set about to find a good spot in the garden. ‘Make sure you dig deep,’ her mother called out from the kitchen, ‘so the dogs don’t get it.’
Poor Mini was lowered into the earth and covered up with soil. We chose some flowers and pressed them into the burial mound.
This was the first time I realised it was possible to die from fear. Not to die from the physical inflictions of the threating situation, but to simply die from the sheer terror that those possibilities might actualise. It dawned on me that the fear that precedes those terrifying life or death situations can be more deadly than the life or death situation itself.
I’ve worried since whether the same might be true for humans. Perhaps my fear in a threatening situation could be so great that I wouldn’t even need to wait for the lion to sink its teeth into me, or for my body to smash into the ground; the sheer sight of the lion, or the plummet from the sky would be enough.
We touched down safely into Colombo and I put on my best flight attendant smile. I apologised about the lack of service and humoured the passengers as they disembarked, ‘Was a bit bumpy wasn’t it?’
In Colombo we drank margaritas at the pool, visited temples in Kandy, dined with the flight deck and fed bunches of small bananas to pushy elephants. The crew were nonchalant about the turbulence, ‘Was great to not do a service!’
So when it was time to head back to Dubai, the events of the previous sector had sunk somewhat in their significance and I got back on the plane.
To Fly or Not to Fly?
My flatmate in Dubai was also cabin crew, and had grown up on a farm in Australia. She told me that when she was out in the garden, she would watch the aeroplanes cross the sky above her, and knew then that she wanted to fly. Unlike my flatmate, I had no such childhood dream propelling me to Dubai. My curiosity in flying had stemmed purely from dissatisfaction with my current job. And it took some time for the notion of me flying to move from the realm of the ridiculous to the realm of my reality.
I remember exercising my confusion one weekend by circling the Mall of the Emirates. My friends were talking to me from the other end of the line; from the other end of the world. As I listened, I passed by the indoor ski-field where giddy tourists in red and blue bobbed down the slopes. I walked alongside women in abayas and men in dish dashes. There were women in saris, men in jandals, and large Arab families followed by Filipino nannies manoeuvring prams overloaded with shopping bags. The chaotic mall arena was a smorgasbord of different cultures winding their way around me. My friends passed the phone between them and each in their own way encouraged me to give flying a go. I looked at the people around me, and listened to my friends on the phone. What I had thought was too big, too intangible and too outlandish shrunk in the solace of that phone call. The idea of travelling the world and experiencing new cultures became tangible and linear. It was not some farfetched notion to be shafted for the future, it was already in motion, already mapped out; all I needed to do was just keep moving forward.
In a few short weeks I was at the airline open day. I arrived there early in the morning, stiff in my business attire and stood around for half an hour shuffling my papers and fidgeting with my hair. Eighty other interviewees filled the airline’s training lobby and the discernible ‘sizing up’ of one another began. We were directed into a large auditorium and had our height measured by the stage. The hands that could not reach the marked line on the wall were handed a folded slip of paper. The zealous ones who jumped to reach the marked line also received a slip of paper. The women who wore pants and the women who wore their hair down all received slips of paper.
Speeches were given and a video was shown. Formations of glamorous flight attendants swooped across the screen. Synchronised in stride with their white scarves billowing, they spread out like the wings of an aircraft and wheeled their suitcases across departure halls, hotel lobbies and airfields across the globe.
After the video, a few of the interviewees asked a question or two. Then there was a break for tea and coffee and mingling outside. A man in a white dish dash circled around. He carried a clipboard, made notes and smiled politely. ‘It’s like an American Idol elimination!’ one of the girls whispered to me.
The afternoon was filled by group discussions, problem-solving exercises, psychological tests, knowledge tests and English tests; more folded slips of paper and more tears.
At the end of the elimination, eighty interviewees had been whittled down to just four. None of us had received folded slips of paper to saying we hadn’t made it through.
My new life took off and I was carried along by the momentum of it all. I moved into an apartment on the 44th floor of a building on Dubai’s famous Sheikh Zayed Road. I began six weeks of intensive training and suddenly began talking a new lingo of First Aid terminology, country airport codes and aircraft configurations. I learnt to fight fires, restrain passengers and at night I memorised safety drills and the bases of liqueurs. In the space of a few weeks I had a new circle of friends from countries I’d hardly heard of, like Bulgaria, Bolivia and Ghana, and was travelling to distant places like Casablanca and Frankfurt.
When I saw my reflection in hotel mirrors and airport sliding doors, I was sometimes startled by the person looking back at me. I had morphed into one of those women I had seen in that video during the open day. I wore a uniform and wheeled around a cabin bag. Each day I wore my hair in a bun. I would twist my ponytail over a donut and secure it with a hairnet, red scrunchy and hairspray. I wore lipstick to match the red trim on my skirt. I wore stockings, a name badge and a hat; and the hat had to sit, slightly tilted forward with the white sash, neatly drawn across. I began to fret about laddering my stockings, chipping my nails and talking with lipstick on my teeth. I watched my posture and learnt to fake a smile.
But despite appearances, my early days of flying presented me with many challenging situations. I’d had all the training and passed all the tests, but I still doubted whether I would really be able to cope. Long days of flying were followed by bouts of insomnia, jet lag and fatigue. I freaked out when passengers fainted, became irate or said they were sick. And there were still those times during turbulence, where I would be mid-cabin, mid-service, even mid-sentence, and swearing to myself I would resign.
When the aircraft entered the darkened half of the hemisphere crew would often congregate in the galleys. These night flights had all the makings of a campsite. The cabin would be quiet and the passengers all asleep…nothing but the hum of the aircraft engine. Upturned empty carts and containers would be cushioned with spare pillows to form little seats. We would sit close to each other caving our bodies around hot drinks. The galley chillers made us shiver, but so did the fatigue.
Blue toned cabin lights would spread an eerie sphere around us; the pitch black night looking in through small cabin windows like a grimacing guest. We’d stockpile sugary food to help keep us awake and then lean forward to listen and share stories.
There were many circulating ghost stories, apparent haunted crew bunks, haunted hotels and haunted aircraft. There was an infamous story of a crew member who found an elderly female passenger in the crew rest area looking white and pale. The crew member asked for her name and, on finding the last name in the passenger list, approached the woman’s husband who was sitting in the cabin. She said something to the effect of ‘your wife is in the crew rest area and looks unwell,’ to which he is said to have replied ‘my wife is dead, and in a coffin in the cargo.’
Stories like this were especially spooky when, as so often happened at the story’s climax, a call bell would chime from the silence of the cabin and we’d all jump, each reluctant to be the one to go check.
There were a number of stories like this one; where a body being carried in the cargo below would account for an apparition of the deceased in the cabin above. These stories may have been variations of just one original story which, through being retold so often, had multiplied into many. And, that original story may not have even been true. But that did not stop me from considering, on a number of occasions as I lay in the dark crew bunks, that the curtains were being moved by someone, and that the aircraft we were on was that plane.
I entertained many doubts and fears in my early flying days, until something happened on-board that put everything back into perspective; something great.
St Elmo’s Fire in the Cockpit
During a night flight over Africa, I went up to visit the flight deck as I often did and on closing the door behind me, one of the pilots said, ‘This is your lucky day.’ He switched on the seatbelt sign and told me it was going to be bumpy. I strapped in tight. The silence of the night was quickly broken by a deep crackling, popping sound, like live wire. ‘There it is,’ said the first officer. The black sky flickered and a blue, plasma-like sphere encircled us. It was almost theatrical, like a spot light on a stage illuminating the activity we couldn’t see going on in the dark.
Electric blue veins scattered across the sky. Erratic thin fingers scrambled up the windshields trying to get in. I remember at first feeling frightened. But as I took in the magnitude of the light in front of me, I felt as if I was in the presence of some great universal phenomenon. I remember wishing it wouldn’t stop and trying to look everywhere at once so I could see it all.
‘It’s St Elmo’s fire,’ the first officer informed me. I touched the windshield next to me and streaks of light converged to my finger as though I was conducting this mighty electric force to me. I drew my hand back and the streaks dispersed. But the magic was only momentary. The spot-light dimmed and the sky reverted back to its black pitch.
The pilots told me how St Elmo’s fire is a unique weather phenomenon occurring in areas where there are many thunderstorms. Atmospheric particles rip and emit light when the charges of an object like a plane disrupt the charges of the air, and the result can be quite spectacular.
St Elmo is the patron saint for sailors and the saint’s fire has lit up ships’ masts throughout history . The phenomenon has both frightened and inspired people and references of the ‘fire’ have been made by Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin and Shakespeare.
Sitting in that small dark cockpit, thousands of feet high in the sky and witnessing this ageless and awe-inspiring phenomenon, I felt a seismic shift in myself. I emerged from the cockpit, feeling lighter. I relayed the occurrence of St Elmo’s fire to the crew in the gallery, but my descriptions must have failed as they seemed only mildly interested.
Growing up in South Africa there were many awe-inspiring thunderstorms. As a child they would both scare and excite me. The thunder would rumble and erupt in such a frightful way that even the dogs would be disturbed. I would cling to my parents. Dad would tell us stories of lightning travelling down telephone lines, giving people electric shocks. I imagined burning ears, and quickly added ‘never answer the phone in a storm’, to my growing list of storm rules.
During one particular storm our house was pounded by hailstones as big as tennis balls. I remember watching them fall from the sky and plummet into the pool. Little jets of white spray hopped around in the waves.
In the calm that followed, my sister and I took two yellow buckets and ventured outside. Our garden had been transformed. White icy balls covered the lawn. I thought it looked like snow. The dogs sniffed at the ice as we filled up our buckets.
When I witnessed St Elmo’s fire that night, I felt like I’d had a front row seat at a show for the universe. And I was struck with those feelings of child-like awe. The world was magnificent again; so expansive, so mysterious, so forceful. Seeing the much bigger picture changed my outlook on everything.
In the months that followed I found my rhythm in my new role. I became in sync with the aircraft, the crew and the lifestyle. My training kicked in at the right times and I found I could be assertive when I needed to be. Odd whirring engine noises, clinks in the galley and flashing lights no longer alarmed me. I even found myself consoling passengers who were scared of flying! I would share with them an analogy my mum told me; that ‘turbulence is just like driving over the bumps on a road,’ and I assured them we had well-trained drivers in the front seat.
My time flying presented me with many more ‘St-Elmo’ moments. I got to see the Himalayas from the cockpit, went to the Eiffel Tower, Red Square, Tiananmen Square, and climbed the Great Wall. I soaked up the world and all its offerings. The more of the world I experienced, the more I expanded my own horizons. I worried less about my fears and more about making the most of each moment.
Flying was transformational for me in many ways but most monumental was how it helped me to expand my mind.