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Flying: Why I haven’t got the Wright stuff 


PRECISELY 120 years ago, on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, achieved the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered heavier-than-air aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The two fearless, pioneering Americans were overjoyed. 

Almost 69 years later, in October 1972, Henry Getley made his first flight – from Gatwick to Palma, Majorca. And the namby-pamby, lily-livered Englishman was terrified. 

For months I had been looking forward to flying off to the sunshine with my future wife, imagining us being wafted into the skies aboard a Boeing 707, the trendy choice of glamorous jet-setters which was invariably featured on TV and in movies back then. Unfortunately, our plane turned out to be an ageing de Havilland Comet, operated by the Dan-Air company.  

There was nothing wrong with it – it didn’t have outside toilets, for instance. But as soon as I saw it waiting on the tarmac, I was irrationally scared. I think it was partly because the Comet’s jet engines were mainly buried in the wings, so to my fevered mind there was no visible means of propulsion. I also knew about the metal fatigue problems of the early Comets which had led to two disasters in 1954. And, as we boarded, it was getting dark. 

Needless to say, the two-and-a-half-hour flight was a trip of terror for me. I sat there, frozen by fear and white-faced, hardly speaking, wondering how the hell I had been plunged into this nightmare. For the first time in a long time, I offered up prayers.  

We had a wonderful week in Majorca and my ordeal was parked out of the way in the hangar of my mind. A couple of hours before the return night flight, I downed several whiskies to numb my resurgent fear. They had no effect and I spent the journey stone-cold sober, suppressing panic. The agony was prolonged when we were diverted 50 miles to Luton because of fog at Gatwick. 

I did not fly again for ten years, but by then I’d read a lot more about how relatively safe air travel is. I cast a cold eye on the statistics, but we now had children, so there was no chance of being a wimp in front of them when we flew abroad. I learned to quell my queasiness.  

What don’t I like about flying? First of all, I’m a coward. But I think a contributing factor is the feeling of not being in control. I’ve done a lot of driving over the years and, in an aircraft seat, I can’t help thinking I’m in a car. Using the drop-down tray as a steering wheel, I keep pressing the clutch and the accelerator (the metal floor frame of the seat in front), using the arm rest to change gear (increase the climb rate – put it in third!) then stamping on the brake if I think we’re going too fast. Sometimes I’ll swerve the whole plane around a big cloud. I’d be fine if the pilot would just let me take over.  

Another thing is the confinement. I’m not claustrophobic, but I’ve only ever flown on package-holiday flights or low-cost airlines and in cattle class on scheduled services. I’m sure if I could afford a private jet, or business or first class on the major airlines – so I could stretch out, move around, and have a drink at the bar (in the Emirates Airbus A380 double-decker jet, you can even take a shower) – most of my fears would evaporate. 

So these days I’m merely another one of possibly millions of nervous fliers and I can just about tolerate a plane trip. But I must confess I’m morbidly attracted to the TV satellite channel series Air Crash Investigation, also known as Thinking of Flying? This Programme Will Put the Fear of God Up You.  

Watch it and you’ll be amazed at how many ways there are to send an aircraft plunging to destruction, from a pilot who’s had only a few hours’ sleep in the last week to a nesting spider blocking the narrow tube on the outside of the plane which carries vital airspeed information to the cockpit. 

Anyhow, must fly – there’s a new episode showing right now. 

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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