I have my fear of flying fairly under control these days. This is mostly thanks to exposure therapy (aka traveling for work) and those magical Gin Gins that set my mouth on fire to distract me from the turbulence. But holy hell the flight I just got off almost had me back to my crying on strangers days.

To be very honest I think I would have cried on strangers if it weren’t for the fact that I was sitting in the middle seat and the man to the left of me clearly had the flu, and the girl to the right of me was a statuesque ice queen who stole my arm rest. I was out of crying options. From the moment we took of until we were just outside Stockholm it was horrible turbulence. The sort of turbulence that is reminiscent of a roller-coaster from an illegal Disney theme park where there are ‘hidden Rickeys’ everywhere.

It was all because of some fucker called the jet stream. According to my extensive research (I googled it) jet streams are the mammoth winds that move weather systems around the globe. For a pilot it means fun times because coasting along in one like a metal albatross makes the plane go faster. For me the jet stream means spending two hours in the middle seat of the last row of the plane, frozen with fear as I imagine the fiery death in front of me.

Of course (spoiler) I didn’t die. I am currently in the back of a taxi and have just had a lovely chat with my driver who is Somali and lives in Sweden but studies Italian. I don’t understand how flying still causes such a fight or flight reflex in me. Yes I am better, and long haul is easier because I try to fly on A380s or Dreamliners, but still a smallish plane and non-stop turbulence can take me right back to square one.

Part of me wonders if it is imagination. Whereas James Bond can walk into a room and see 100 ways to kill people, I can walk into a room and see 100 ways that I will fail at life. When I fly I can’t just accept the science and statistics, I KNOW that things can go wrong (even if there is an almost 0% chance) and my brain just extrapolates from there.

It’s not going to stop me travelling of course, mostly because it is literally my job and and quite like being able to pay rent. But as I check into my hotel and try to unwind my tense mussels I will be cursing the jet stream with every creative word I know.

Wrist cloud

Ever had something you were dreading turn out to be a magical experience?

I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a terrible flyer, I was 19 and travelling back to London from Dublin. It was my 20th flight in 5 months (don’t judge, I was an excitable kiwi on a university exchange*). The turbulence was terrible, and I mean terrible; the flight attendants did not leave their seats for the entire flight.

I had experienced turbulence before, I think anyone who has flown probably has. But this was the first time I have ever seen flight attendants worried, and something in my brain just flipped. Ever since I’ve been flying on a hair trigger, the slightest bump enough to make me dig my nails into the armrest or the person I am travelling with. My brain knows that flying is totally safe, that I’m more likely to die crossing the street in London but for some reason that knowledge just doesn’t help.

Over the last 7 years (man that makes me feel old) I’ve been working to overcome this ‘falling to my death from 37,000ft in a tin can’ fear. After all, I’m a kiwi so travel is in my DNA. And I’m getting better, I swear I’m getting better. Essentially I’ve gone from terrified before arriving at the airport, to just being irrational during the actual turbulence. But I knew I had really turned the corner when I had my moment over the clouds.

I was on my way to Stockholm for work and had gone through my usual mid-flight armrest grabbing, to be honest I was just willing the plane to land so I could be on the safe safe ground again. Something made me look out the window just then, and my heart just filled with magic (yes I perversely always try to get the window seat).

We were landing at dusk and all I could see was a sun tipped forest. It was like a Disney scene out there, just endless woods against a multi coloured sunset. As we kept pace with the sun descending lower and lower the trees became shadows against the sky. Only if you looked closely could you pick out the details, and soon even they were lost to the setting sun. A black paper cut forest against a navy sky.

Flying is such a privilege. Both in that it gets to to amazing places but also that I am one of the lucky few born into a society where as a girl I can choose where to go, and travel there alone and on my own terms. This silly fear of flying will not dictate my life, I will travel because it brings me joy, tears and magic over the clouds.


*Nothing like a quick trip to Egypt as ‘research’ for a Middle Eastern Politics essay