"There is a chance we may crash"

Observations on flying

So Tony Blair has upstaged me. The DC-8 flying him home from Johannesburg had to abort seconds before take-off. He seemed unperturbed as he stepped down from his luxury cabin with its plasma television screens and, no doubt, fine wine on tap.

It was not quite the same for those involved in a far scarier emergency the previous week on Swiss Air. Flight LX458 took off from Zurich at 2.15pm, roughly ten minutes late due to an altercation between one of its few passengers (me) and my warrior stewardess I privately named Brunnhilde. "This is your unlucky day for flying," she declared with a smile as she produced the evidence that, although I had paid Business Class outgoing, I had paid only Economy for the return.

As I was escorted from a Row 1 window seat back to my new place over the wings, I had no idea how prophetic her words would prove.

Forty minutes into the flight I had consumed my single cheese roll and miniature vin ordinaire and was struggling to finish writing a poem. Far back in my lonely hinterland, I barely noticed the captain informing us that we could not land at London City Airport and were returning to Zurich. Soon it became chillingly clear that we were going to find it difficult to land anywhere, as the captain emerged from the cockpit and, after speaking to the sole occupant of Business Class, moved down to me.

"This has been a difficult decision for me to tell you, but there is a chance that we may have to crash . . ." I expect he actually said "crash-land", but my brain froze on the word. It appeared there was a problem with the braking and steering system which would involve a full emergency landing.

I asked if I would be safer in the front or the back, but he gave a shrug which said it all. We would have to circle Europe for an hour or so, he said, to disperse the fuel.

How surreal it feels, up in the clouds, looking over a brightly sunlit wing, cut off from anything and anyone familiar . . . and preparing to die. What do people do? What are you supposed to think? At first I worked on my poem - these could be my last words, after all. But maybe the aircraft would burn on impact, so who could find it in the wreckage? What a relief - I didn't need to finish it, or indeed write anything ever again. In an hour or so, in fact, I would no longer exist and nor would all my ambitions, burdens and responsibilities. It was a heady sensation of freedom. Just me, the sky and my Maker.

I began to repair my make-up (I didn't want to meet Him without some style) and decided that, in the circumstances, Brunnhilde might spare me some of the Heidsieck Monopole Blue normally reserved for First Class. I would at least go down with a glass of champagne in my hand. Ah, no! I hadn't reckoned with the Swiss dedication to rules. Crash or no crash, I had not paid the right fare and it was too late to upgrade, so no champagne.

Furious now, as well as frightened, I moved to the very back seat. Fortunately one of my neighbours was the delightful wife of a Swiss banker. "My husband says it is the safest airline so we always travel Swiss Air," she reassured. "I am certain the captain will want to return to his wife and family." I wasn't sure he had that choice, but I was touched by her concern.

The forced calm suddenly fractured. "Brace position! Repeat, brace position!" the pilot shouted over the sinister roar of the engine. "Keep your head DOWN!" Our stewardess pushed mine forward, but not before I glimpsed through the window a runway hurtling towards us, flashing lights and rows of fire engines and ambulances.

Brace position is not the most dignified posture in which to arrive at the Pearly Gates, and the still-working journalist part of my brain wondered whether it had really been proved the safest. Isn't it a way for the airlines to make sure you snap your neck and die before they have to pay compensation and hospital bills?

I am not sure what happened next, as we descended into the flares. One of my hands, I know, surreptitiously slipped out of brace position to grip my plastic cup of vin ordinaire. A last prayer for forgiveness, a pointless whispered message of love to Tom, my partner, my four children, my sister - so distant now - and Tennyson's words ringing in my head: "And after that the dark!"

I awoke to the smile of the angel stranger, embraced her and, as I was taken away by paramedics, spotted Brunnhilde standing stolidly behind the captain, whose hands I most gratefully shook.

The writer is founder and chief executive of Sane