It hasn’t been a good month for aviation news. First the horrors of MH17, followed swiftly by the crash of Air Algerie flight AH5017, and then on Tuesday a Qatar Airways plane was escorted by an RAF jet into Manchester Airport because of a “possible device” on board.
The fact that the bomb threat turned out to be a hoax will have been meaningless to the passengers who had to suffer through the terrifying on-board experience, and done little to assuage their fear in hindsight. And it’s a fear that is incredibly difficult to shake. We’re told that air travel is statistically far less dangerous than car or train, but if you’ve ever been on a plane that gets into serious difficulties, you’ll discover that it’s hard to trust the cold, hard maths when you are grappling with the sudden realisation that you are magically suspended in a metal box, 30,000 feet in the air, with absolutely no control over the situation. There is no greater feeling of helpless than being on a plummeting plane, certain you are heading towards your death.
It’s a feeling I know all too well. A few years ago I was flying alone back to London from Corfu. Around an hour into the flight, I noticed a strange smell filling the cabin. My neighbour nudged me, and pointed towards the back of the plane, where smoke was slowly trickling under the door of a loo. When you see smoke on a plane you think one thing: some maniac wants to kill us all.
People began crying, holding each other, and praying, as a member of the cabin crew ran up the aisle and banged on the door of the cockpit, while the rest looked on in horror. I sat quietly, frozen in fear and convinced the plane was about to disintegrate. But my thoughts were strangely calm. How long would my boyfriend sit on the doorstep waiting for me to let him in before he found out what had happened? Would my parents be phoned with the news or told in person? What would the headlines say tomorrow? I hope this doesn’t hurt.
Our story had a relatively tame ending. After a breakneck emergency descent, we were greeted by numerous fire engines and rushed on to solid land, abandoning our belongings. After a number of hours being quizzed on our movements in an airless back room at Geneva airport, and a three-month investigation, we were told that the fire had been caused by a mechanical fault in one of the toilets, and not an act of terrorism.
Much like the Manchester flight, in retrospect it’s apparent we were never in any real danger. But once you have become aware of your total vulnerability in the air it’s not something you can forget in a hurry, as much as I’d like to.