columns: Come fly with me...

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...

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before