Sarah Sands: Scared of flying? Don't sit next to a pilot at dinner

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The fate of the passengers on flight JK5022 was hideous and pitiful but it was not unimaginable. Every nervous flyer will have empathised with the man who sent a text on the runway to his wife: "My love, there's a problem with the plane.... They won't let me off."

Many will have looked at the slivers of aluminium held together by screws and doubted the whole enterprise. Others listen to changes of engine tone as evidence of approaching doom. We all know that the moment of maximum danger is the point of take-off, when high speed and heavy fuel are unforgiving of technical faults. It is very easy to imagine the Spanair pilot's deadly realisation as he wrestled so hard with the frozen controls that his arms broke. He defied the non-negotiable principle of aerodynamics: take-off is a point of no return.

Friends of mine who tremble at the thought of flying regard the Madrid air disaster as proof that planes are cursed and that flying is an act of hubris. I heard of the crash in the least superstitious of company – surrounded by British Airways pilots and cabin crew. We were in Tanzania, on a Unicef trip to look at health projects financed by the £25m-worth of spare currency that passengers have donated in little envelopes at the end of BA flights.

The response to the news was grave and calm; pilots are phlegmatic at the best of times. They screwed up their eyes diagnostically as they listed various scenarios. Disasters are usually a doomed accumulation of events. In the 2000 Concorde crash, it was a strip of metal on the runway that punctured the wheel, compounded by an extra-heavy load of fuel to compensate for the weight of luggage.

In the case of the crash landing of the BA flight from Beijing in January, the pilots were more circumspect. We still have no idea why the engines lost power on approach to Heathrow. Sometimes, accidents just happen.

Over two evenings, I grilled the pilots and crew about every conceivable danger in the skies. I learned that my talismanic belief that turbulence could not harm you was false. Bad enough, and the plane could snap in half. I learned about the particularly hairy approach to JFK airport that has to be done by ticking off landmarks. I heard of cabin crew chucking tea and coffee down the lavatory as they prepared for cross winds that emptied lockers and left passengers sobbing. I listened to a pilot's account of being struck by lightning eight times during one flight. I followed an argument over the capacity of the new giant Airbuses to resist lightning. I made a mental note of the league tables of air traffic controllers. I deduced that short-haul flights can be as bad or worse than long haul. I was told of a flight from Luxembourg during which a woman was so terrified by the spin-cycle-style shaking of the plane that she became hysterical. Her husband looked around, and then slunk off to a seat at the other side of the plane.

Despite all this, the pilot and crew regard their jobs as charmed. They trade routes with each other fiercely. They have the mischief of those who are away from home. I will not forget the cabin steward's exuberant rendition of "I feel pretty and witty and gay". Only the pilots – the matadors of the airline business – stay aloof.

Global travel is ideologically unfashionable but we should never forget the glorious freedom of it.

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of British 'Reader's Digest'