Will Self: Fearless flying is an act of collective delusion

If only you could still sit next to the pilot.

The German aviator Otto Lilienthal in 1894. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
The German aviator Otto Lilienthal in 1894. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty

I was hungover and jittery in St Louis, and there was a blizzard raging across the Midwest. As I looked at the departures board in the airport it riffled into DELAYED, DELAYED, DELAYED . . . the only exception being the New York flight: my own. Cursing this glitch that was sending me to my doom, I tramped down the companionway, reflecting ruefully on how my last moments on earth were to be spent noting, yet again, the bizarre habit air transport infrastructure designers have of fitting odd vertical surfaces with carpet.

On board the plane, things got worse: it was virtually empty, confirming my worst suspicion – to fly in this maelstrom was suicide and the other passengers had all checked in to the airport Sofitel to watch reruns of Friends. I have heard it said often enough that you should be worried on a plane only when the flight crew start to look anxious – but I couldn’t even see any stewards to assess, and we were still on the tarmac.

I plonked myself down beside the only other passenger. It’s a tactic I had used in the past to ameliorate my fear: because I’m at least demi-English, not keeping a moderately rigid upper lip can strike me as a greater solecism than dying quite pointlessly. “Nervous?” my neighbour enquired. He was youngish, casually dressed, and the picture of sang-froid. I explained that I felt I’d every right to be, given this was the only flight taking off into the kind of weather that did for Captain Oates. “You shouldn’t be,” he said. “These planes are flown on a wire – that’s the expression we use – and it’s effectively impossible for weather to bring them down.” Realising that my companion had a professional interest in such things, I began pumping him. It transpired he was a cockpit fascia designer heading home from the Boeing plant in Seattle.

Over the next hour or so he patiently explained to me a great deal about how commercial airliners are designed and built. I remember that at one point – in response to my pathetic whine, “But they’re so heavy. How can they stay in the air?” – he said: “On the contrary, given the laws of physics it’s impossible for them not to stay in the air – and you believe in the laws of physics, don’t you?”

Whether or not I believed in the laws of physics, I believed in him, and had been pretty much oblivious to the humping, bumping and shuddering as we surfed the jet stream. As we made our approach in to Newark, I thanked my airborne life coach and firmly resolved never to succumb to such irrational idiocy ever again.

That was almost 20 years ago, and by and large I’ve managed it; from time to time I’ll have a little babbling relapse, but mostly I behave myself, sitting there motionless in deep-vein-thrombosis-inducing thought as the big titanium tube thunders through the sky. In the days when I was seriously scared of flying I’d look around at my fellow passengers and marvel at their detachment. How could they go on reading Jeffrey Archer or scanning spreadsheets while we were hurtling towards our destruction? But after the St Louis blues I began to understand: flying itself may require no magic, but fearless flying relies on a collective delusion of occult proportions. For to sit calmly with only a bit of carpet and some tinplate underlay between you and the void, you must not only be a believer in the laws of physics, but a believer in progress, a believer in growth, a believer in connectivity, a believer in tourism, a believer – in the final analysis – in the whole crazy carnival of so-called globalisation.

That is my fundamental problem. Not having a proper job of my own, I labour under a different delusion – that I’m free; and when I find myself strapped into a chair and being sold plastic sandwiches at €7 a pop, the delusion is punctured and I start brooding on the utter weirdness of my predicament. After all, mass jet travel is only a very recent phenomenon and people have been plummeting out of the sky since Icarus Airlines operated the low-cost route from Minos.

Only contact with people whose work consists of flying can act as a prophylactic against this inability of mine to suspend disbelief in the raw mechanics of late capitalism. The only flights on which I’ve ever felt at complete ease are the ones where I’ve been in the cockpit with the pilot; and since the 9/11 attacks that’s difficult to organise on commercial flights.

A fortnight ago when the Malaysian Airlines flight went missing over the South China Sea all my feelings about the madness of international air travellers came screaming back to me. Consider this: had the plane crashed in a comprehensible way – due to mechanical or human error, or even terrorism – people might have been upset for a few seconds or hours, but soon enough they’d have got on with it (whatever “it” is). However, the mystery of the plane’s disappearance sent a shiver through the collective psyche, because, I’d argue, it darkly shaded the enigma of all our lives: why, in the final analysis, do we get out of bed in the morning at all, let alone get on a plane?