A fear of flying that even 10 pints won't cure

'I never used to be scared of flying, and I've flown in some pretty dodgy aeroplanes'

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Next time your British Airways cabin steward advises you to fasten your seatbelt because they're expecting a spot of turbulence, you'll know the real score. What he actually means is that the cockpit is knee-deep in beer cans, the captain has passed out, the co-pilot is chucking up in the toilet, and since the rest of the cabin crew are serving lunch, he, Gordon (air stewards are usually called Gordon), is going to have to fly the damned crate and he's only just got his provisional scooter licence. Turbulence - you wish.

Next time your British Airways cabin steward advises you to fasten your seatbelt because they're expecting a spot of turbulence, you'll know the real score. What he actually means is that the cockpit is knee-deep in beer cans, the captain has passed out, the co-pilot is chucking up in the toilet, and since the rest of the cabin crew are serving lunch, he, Gordon (air stewards are usually called Gordon), is going to have to fly the damned crate and he's only just got his provisional scooter licence. Turbulence - you wish.

Rumours of a culture of heavy drinking in British Airways and allegations that a BA pilot had 10 pints, a bottle of wine and three hours' sleep before flying a full 737 from Barcelona to London hasn't exactly helped my terror of flying. Is it too late to cancel my BA flight to Cairo and switch to Olympic, which is £30 cheaper but means changing planes, a four-hour wait in Athens, and arriving in Cairo at 3am? BA flies direct, but despite its exotic destination, it's not, I'm told, a favourite with BA air crews because it arrives at 22.40, which allows only 20 minutes to get to the pub.

I never used to be scared of flying, and I've flown in some pretty dodgy aeroplanes. Just before my last visit to Burma I ran into an Irish friend who sells second-hand planes to Third World countries. I wish I hadn't.

"You're not taking any internal flights, I hope," said Colm. Of course I was. I was flying to Heho with a suitcase full of M&S jerseys for my Auntie in Taung-Gyi. Burma Air had only two planes, said Colm, one to fly and one for spare parts. The bad news was that the planes were the equivalent of B-reg Cortinas. The good news was that Burmese pilots and mechanics were ace. Like BA pilots, I suppose, before they go on the razzle.

Pilots are a rum bunch. A friend was telling me about the time she and a planeload of tourists were waiting to take off somewhere in Honduras. "We apologise for the delay," said the stewardess, "but the pilot says there's a serious mechanical fault in the engine and unless he can get a mechanic to put in a new part he refuses to fly the plane." They waited. An hour later the stewardess said: "We apologise for the continuing delay, but the mechanic is still trying to find a replacement part and until he does, the pilot says the aircraft is too dangerous to fly." Shortly afterwards, without further announcement, they took off. "You managed to get another part, then," said my friend to the stewardess when she brought round coffee. "No, we didn't; we got another pilot," she said.

Logan Air, which operates tiny planes between Scottish islands, once had a pilot with a famous sense of humour. His best joke was to board the plane like a regular passenger - he never wore uniform - sit down, fasten his seatbelt and then, after 15 minutes, he'd look ostentatiously at his watch and say: "For heaven's sake, who's supposed to be flying this thing? All right then, I will," and disappear into the cockpit. The passengers didn't scream; they were too busy praying.

My fear of flying got to such a pitch, I booked myself, some years back, on a special simulator course designed to cure phobics. Here's how it worked. "You're the pilot," they said, putting me into the simulated cockpit of a 747. "Choose your destination: New York, Jo'burg, Sydney." New York, I said. And through the windscreen I saw skyscrapers looming.

"You're coming in to land," they said. "Throttle back and check your engines." I checked. The left port engine was on fire; never mind, I had three more. No, I hadn't. Smoke was pouring out of the right starboard engine, and the plane was juddering dangerously. "You've still got two more engines," they said. Bang! Not any more; the right port engine had exploded; the cockpit was full of smoke and spinning. "Help," I shrieked. "It's OK," they said. "There, you've landed. See how safe flying is? You can land a burning jumbo jet on one engine." And 10 pints, of course.

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