Human beings think there's something peculiar about flying. It just doesn't come naturally. Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once wrote: "There is an art, or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss." Birds do it, bees do it, and – despite being wingless – even educated fleas can launch themselves from dog to dog. But we humans don't do airborne. Our monkey brains and bodies just haven't got that knack.
Of course, the invention of the aeroplane solved the whole throwing-yourself-at-the-ground-and-missing thing. We let engineering take the strain, with the Jet Age opening up vast horizons of travel possibilities. But you still have to convince yourself that getting into a metal tube and going up, up and away will actually work. And for some people, that just isn't possible.
According to Flying with Confidence, a new book published this week, roughly one in three of us have a fear of flying, with symptoms ranging from "mild discomfort" to "severe terror". It's apparently attributable to two things: "a lack of knowledge about how an aeroplane actually operates" and "irrational fears that cannot be explained".
Aside from possessing the most reassuring surname in travel, Captain Steve Allright is one of the book's co-authors. He's piloted Boeing 747s for British Airways since 1990 and is involved with the airline's long-running courses for nervous flyers. If anyone can dispel that "lack of knowledge", it's probably him. "People are only frightened of what they don't understand," he told me. "So if you can create some knowledge it becomes more logical. Even down to the first ding-dong on the intercom. To somebody that's already anxious about flying, it spells imminent disaster, whereas in fact it's Jane calling Mary to the front because they've run out of orange juice."
But what about those "irrational fears that cannot be explained"? That's where the co-author of Flying with Confidence, psychologist Patricia Furness-Smith, comes in. There's plenty of helpful information from her about managing anxiety, including the following very sensible exhortation: "Don't suffer from role confusion. Let the pilots operate the aircraft and you operate your lungs."
I'm not sure whether the book's revelation that "every new aircraft type is tested by firing an already dead bird about the size of a chicken into a running engine" is something I need to know. Nevertheless, there is something fundamental at stake here: human happiness.
Air travel has become such a part of modern life that a fear of flying can be truly debilitating. According to Furness-Smith, overcoming such fears can breed contentment elsewhere: "I frequently hear from past clients that their lives have made a turn for the better in other areas such as relationships or job prospects."
And remember: if Captain Allright says it's all right, it's all right, right?
'Flying with Confidence' by Patricia Furness-Smith and Captain Steve Allright is published on Thursday by Vermillion (£10.99). See our film at bit.ly/happyflyReuse content