After what I've been through, it's no wonder I have a fear of flying

I have to employ my old friend, the suspension of disbelief, to avoid the question about why God never gave us wings
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The Independent Online

I'm writing this in that strange hiatus known to all foreign correspondents. My plane never took off for Paris - en route to Beirut - because snow closed down Charles de Gaulle airport. It happens to all of us. When we should be heading to war or interviewing the participants of velvet, orange or cedar revolutions, we are queuing for the return of our checked baggage and taking the taxi home because that staple of our existence - the sine qua non of all travel, the most technologically sophisticated creature we will ever aspire to touch - can't land in ice. Or it doesn't have Cat-3 landing capacity. Or maybe the reverse thrust of the Airbus A-320-400 series can't cope with the weather.

Yes, we journos fly so much that we pick up huge amounts of highly detailed and utterly useless information about aircraft. Want to know about the torque capability of a Bell Augusta helicopter, the avionics of a Boeing 777, the seat configuration of the MD-111? Well, I'm your man. Along with heaps of appalling knowledge about injuries - I will not entertain you with the details of sucking wounds and emergency tracheotomies - reporters probably know more about aircraft than many of the cabin crews.

I'm sure this applies to the old Afghan Ariana airlines jets when they were flying under the Taliban. Back in 1997, I was on my way to Afghanistan - to see Osama bin Laden, no less - and could only find a flight to Jalalabad from the old Trucial state of Sharjah, a home for pariah aircraft like the old Boeing 727 that was waiting for me on the runway.

On boarding, however, I found that only the first row of seats remained in place. The rest of the aircraft was taken up by large wooden boxes containing "mechanical imports", according to the crew, each heavy box chained to the floor of the plane. Even more trouble was the forward lavatory. For only minutes after take-off, the door opened of its own accord and a dark tide of sewage slowly washed over our shoes and then surged down the cabin.

I didn't feel like an in-flight meal. I was sitting next to two Afghans, the second of whom - vastly bearded to abide by the Taliban's tonsorial rules - was dressed only in jeans and open-necked shirt and who kept glaring at me while squeezing and resqueezing a large and very dirty oil rag in his left hand.

Over Kandahar, we flew into heavy turbulence, the plane bucking about, the chains clanking as the wooden boxes tried to move across the cabin, the tide of sewage revisiting us from the forward lavatory. It was at this point that the person arrived at my seat.

"Mr Fisk, you are our only passenger and you have no need to worry about your safety," he said. "You see, you have the honour to be sitting" - and here he pointed at the bearded, hostile figure to my left - "next to our senior flight engineer."

Ah, for the pleasures of Air France. This was the airline which once calculated that - if I included all my transatlantic lecture trips, my aerial treks for The Independent and a host of other appointments around the world - I travel more frequently than every Air France crew member.

This also accounts for the fact that I almost always know some of the crew when I'm flying to Los Angeles or New York - and why, not long ago, one of their flight attendants met me with the sort of greeting that gives journalists a bad name. "Ah, Monsieur Fisk, après le décollage, c'est un gin-tonic, oui?" Oh oui indeed dear reader, for I have to explain at once that I am frightened of flying.

It began when I endured a crash landing at Tehran airport just after the Islamic revolution. The front wheel failed to emerge from its pod before landing - for aerobuffs, it was a Boeing 737, but Iran was now under UN sanctions - and the plane came down on grass with the biggest bang I have ever heard in my life. No lives were lost. But almost immediately afterwards, the fuselage filled with thick clouds of blue smoke, which - I realised after a few seconds - was every terrified passenger lighting cigarettes at the same moment. I returned to Lebanon with about the worst case of flying fear in the history of the world.

Fortunately, I knew every pilot then working for Lebanon's Middle East Airlines - they were flying the mighty old 707s in those civil war days - and one of them immediately told me to turn up next morning for a series of Boeing test flights out of Beirut airport in stormy weather. He sat me down behind his pilot seat on the flight deck, poured me a huge glass of champagne, strapped earphones on to my head and took off into the kind of turbulence seen only in the movie The Day After Tomorrow.

He flew the empty airliner over the desolate, frothing Mediterranean, turned around, landed on runway 1-18, took off again into the storm, landed and went on and on - each take-off accompanied by another glass of champagne - until, after 14 take-offs and landings, I was giggling like a baby. I never lost my fear of flying - but I no longer believed I would die every time I boarded a plane.

Deep down, of course, like almost everyone I know, I don't believe in powered flight. I simply do not accept that it is natural to tie oneself to a seat in a metal tube and hurl oneself into the sky at 500 miles per hour for seven hours, with or without gin and tonic. And I have come to realise that I employ my old friend, the willing suspension of disbelief, to avoid the question about why God never gave us wings.

Maybe this is why we prefer to regard airliners as something other than what they are. Thus Germans treat planes as offices; the French see them as a cordon bleu experience, the British as flying pubs.

I reached my cloud nine in an Iranian helicopter gunship during the Iran-Iraq war. It was crammed with 19 mullahs and journalists, and took off through a gun line of flashing 155mm artillery, wrapped in dust and sand, flying at full speed only two feet above the Shatt al-Arab river towards the newly occupied Iraqi-Fao peninsula.

Gerry Labelle of AP was with me on this manic flight and I think that we both gave up the idea of surviving when we saw the shell fire over Fao. We jumped out of the chopper into a heaving sea of mud and body parts, the ground quaking with incoming shells, taking cover beside a headless Iraqi soldier.

Later, waiting amid the mire for the helicopter back to safety, the sight of that little mosquito-like machine returning to rescue us was seventh heaven. We clambered aboard - I remember another colleague booting a mullah off the machine - and shot out across the river and between the palm groves like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Labelle and I sat hunched on the floor, watching the palm branches flick past us, the dappled water speeding beneath our feet, the machine bucking and scything through the sweltering heat.

And that, I think, is the moment I relaxed. If we could get through this, we could live through anything. And so our helicopter became our world, and we believed, just for a few minutes, that we were immortal. And there were no gin and tonics in Iran.

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