columns: Come fly with me...

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IDIOT. Schmuck. What a prat, taking off in those conditions, with limited experience, in a high-performance aircraft he'd hardly any time in ... flying into a darkening haze and the black hole when you turn away from the coastal lights towards a sudden nothingness ... couldn't fly on instruments, how could he have been such a fool ... his wife and sister- in-law murdered by arrogance, I'd say, wouldn't you?

Oh yes. We've all been at it, in crew rooms and flying clubs, everyone from 40,000-hour airline captains to student pilots with two hours' solo under their scrawny little belts. "Hangar talk", it's called; "shooting the breeze", and if you were ever unfortunate to hear the breeze being shot, you'd wonder one of two things: (a) how in hell any pilot is ever, ever involved in an accident, let alone a catastrophe, and (b) how in hell any aeroplane ever reaches its destination intact.

Category (b) anecdotes are almost invariably told by people who have never been in any situation more scary than being stuck in a four-seater aeroplane desperate for a pee, with two hours to the nearest landing field. The preferred opening is "There we were...", as in "There we were, no aileron control, blasting up this blind valley at 200 feet in a blizzard and no room to turn round even if we could have turned round, which we couldn't, owing to no aileron control." Without exception, Cat (b) anecdotes are designed to display an almost inconceivable degree of stupidity, insouciance, incompetence and slack-jawed, burping bravado in the face of self-inflicted danger.

British Airways used to - still may, for all I know - run courses for Fearful Flyers. You'd sign up and they'd give you a lecture, explain how aeroplanes stay aloft (it's a simple matter of willpower, which is why everyone has to grip the arms of the seat at take-off and concentrate) and then send you up for a flight with a captain who talks you through all stages of the flight and is specially trained not to have rows about lawnmowers or women with the co-pilot.

Thousands of old ladies, unable to visit their grandchildren in Australia for fear of flying, have had their lives transformed by the BA course. But if you have an incurable wanderlust, or if your spouse is spending all your money travelling around the world, I can help out. Just come with me to any flying-club bar, and you will never want to fly again.

But then there's a horrible accident and we become unimaginably sanctimonious. I have been boring everyone stupid for a fortnight now with denunciations of poor Kennedy, and at no point have I ever mentioned that I nearly did the same, too often for pride. I nearly killed a lover by flying at night over unfamiliar terrain - the Grand Canyon - towards an unfamiliar airport, and cheerfully descending into a rising range of mountains, only alerted at the last moment by my passenger saying "What's that big shadow?" I nearly killed my wife and my child once, taking off out of Cannes-Mandelieu airport on a flight I wasn't happy about, into thick haze I wasn't qualified to fly in: after take-off I reached for the levers to reduce power, but instead started reducing the mixture control to the point where the engines coughed and spluttered and nearly stopped.

There's more. Any pilot, if he's honest, will tell you similar stories. Until someone's potential story ("Anyway, when we turned towards Martha's Vineyard everything went black. Hadn't a clue which side was up, we're in a screaming spiral dive, and I suddenly realised...") is cut short, not by bad luck but by unbelievably good luck just somehow, this once, failing to happen. Our lives are held by thin threads and we pull and twang and stretch them, never thinking that they'll fail because, of course, they haven't failed so far. But every now and then they do fail, and then there is weeping and shock and disbelief and beauty dead and bodies hauled from the sea to be buried in that same sea later.

The extraordinary thing is that we think it's extraordinary. "Why me?" we say as the doctor breaks the bad news, the court decides against us, the house burns down, the dark sea rushes up to meet us. Better, perhaps, to say "Why me?" when we escape the valley, find the airport, recover from the spin, cheat the odds. But we won't, of course. We'll put the latest disaster to the back of our minds and carry on. Hell, I remember once, there we were...