My fear of flying – Leave the skies to the birds

My fear of flying on a man-made bird has never prevented me from travelling the world, but it has always been with me, keeping me on my toes each time I fasten a seatbelt in an aircraft seat. 

Let’s face it, often what we (humans) carefully engineer, can catastrophically fail and become a statistic…

Call me a Wussbag, but there must be a reason why they serve booze on board airliners.

Barneo base camp hosts the northern most airstrip in the planet
The northern most airstrip in the planet – Barneo base camp, April 2013. Photo by the author.

Between mystics and mechanics, I’m certainly a mechanic. Obsessed with technology enough to wonder how a mechanical part (a jet engine bearing for example) can spin so fast for so long…

well, you get the point…

But I guess by being a believer in WD40 and Duct Tape, I cannot grasp in full the most sophisticated aerospace engineering.

For the last twenty years, I’ve often freaked at the thought of crashing and burning.

So, to educate myself and defeat bad luck, since my first ever flight I’ve always bought an aviation magazine, religiously before each trip.

Only quality Aircraft Porn

Believe it or not, I’ve also become obsessed with “Aircrash Investigations”. Out of necessity I’ve learned how to live with my fear, while preserving a few preflight good luck traditions, never to be broken!

As the concept of “luck” doesn’t really belong to mechanics, it might seem a bit of a personality clash, and it isn’t the only one in my life.

The years with Greenpeace have often required me to be aloft, on mechanical wings, taking one for the planet. It’s almost never for pleasure or my own desire of conquering the skies.  

A fake smile, prior to board an helicopter, in the middle of the Baltic sea.
Fear of flying – “Portrait of the author as a young man” sorry Mr. Joyce! A fake smile prior to board an helicopter, somewhere in the Baltic sea, March 2003

I travelled in many uneventful passenger flights, but I’ve also had endless hours on board helicopters, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, single engine flights over the forest on fire in the Amazon and the smoothest landing

I could have ever imagined at the North Pole.

All of this made for a few memorable moments, which hinted to me I might have purchased a few too many tickets in the lottery.

Here is a collection of few of those…

Those farts in the thunderstorm – the odour of fear

Black, not-quite-puffy clouds often cover Munich airport.

Its proximity to the Alps doesn’t help the bad weather dissipate and often, landing at Munich, can be a bumpy experience. 

In October 2003 it was way worse than usual.

The Lufthansa flight I was on was holding in circles, for the weather to improve and out of my window, right below, I could only see dark clouds and loads of lightning bolts.

As the descent finally began it became a roller coaster ride, with overhead compartments being opened by the turbulence, lots of items flying around the cabin and a fair bit of panic all around.

For the first time my extensive knowledge on aircraft porn came in handy.  I said to myself: I know it! Lufthansa will not crash this plane.

The German carrier doesn’t cut corners in maintenance and training, hence those guys in the cockpit will land this plane just fine!

As I was thinking it positively and the chaos in the cabin was widespread, my sense of smell was overwhelmed by an intense odor of farts. 

Apparently a lot of people around me were releasing bodily gases of some importance (and quite flammable I suspect) at the terrifying thought it would end in tragedy.

Needless to say, I joined the concert, as a member of the Titanic orchestra would have.

Eventually we landed OK, but I think all those “nervous flyers” should consider a subscription to Airliner world!

Chasing the aircraft carrier

Photographer David Sims and I, in January 2005, were sent to Palermo, tasked to rent a small aircraft, fly over the Sicilian Channel and film the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau on her final transit to an Indian beach scrapyard, to gift the locals with few hundred tons of asbestos.

Without much of an idea of where the carrier might have been, we started to look for a suitable plane. 

After some negotiation and a wad of cash, two pilots took us up with their Porter Pilatus: a small aircraft kitted out for parachute diving flights single engine, limited fuel and the option to land in Malta in case of trouble…

David and I were chatting under the right wing, as they were refueling the plane.

The pistol was left unattended, as the tank overflowed, soaking Dave and I in a bath of jet fuel, not a bad start! The pilots didn’t seem to care that we were both highly flammable

Not without a few concerns we sat on the parachute divers’ bench (all made of metal) and clipped the metal belt buckles in the metal clasp…hoping it wouldn’t spark.

In a few minutes we were airborne and after 30 minutes in the air, there she was! The Clemenceau.

Flying over the French carrier Clemenceau
French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, somewhere in the Mediterranean, January 2006. Photo by the author

What we didn’t know was that she was escorted by another warship, which immediately deployed an helicopter to chase us…

All we had time for was a quick round and few pix, then the time came to outrun the French helicopter.

As I’ve finally started to enjoy the flight and the Sicilian countryside from above, the pilot told us an Italian police helicopter was going to blockade us once at the parking apron and identify us, once on the ground. 

Breaking the law once more wasn’t a big deal at that point, so Dave and I decided it was better to go for a long walk through the airport than surrender those pictures. 

So we did and got off the plane as soon as it landed…never to be seen by the police.

The wild wild North

Flying over the polar circle was a unique experience.

I didn’t have the chance of buying the usual magazine in Longyearbyen, but for once, I was more excited than scared! I was going to ski to the North Pole, from the Russian base camp at Barneo.

To get us there was an Antonov-74, capable of landing on an airstrip on the pack ice.

Antonov 74 landing at Barneo base camp, April 2013.
Fear of flying – Antonov 74 landing at Barneo base camp, April 2013. Photo by the author

Bummer there were only four windows on board and the rules were very strict flying out of Norway.

No fuel, ammunition or pyrotechnics to go on board if passengers are flying, and everyone was to remain seated for the whole flight!

Landing was buttery soft and Barneo was definitely a whole different story from Norway.

Yes, think about an island where everything is possible and the Russians are in charge.

Stereotypes aside, the Barneo crew was great and very competent, I think we were never at risk, but it felt rather 80s as far as safety was concerned. Well, good enough for me.

So off we went, on board a huge Mi-8 transport helicopter: 16 people, no seats, 2 tons of equipment, loads of fuel and a jerry can of Vodka! 

Mi-8 from Barneo base camp, on its way to the North Pole
Fear of flying – loading an Mi-8, April 2013. Photo by the author

This time, not only were there windows, but the cargo door was fully open at -45 degrees.

The chopper was so heavy that the co-pilot came into the cabin a few times, asking us to move more to the left, as we were flying sideways.

We landed 200km from the North Pole, quickly discharged the equipment and the Mi-8 flew off in a cloud of snow.

It was glorious!

Birds of Marseille

And not so glorious was that day of July in Marseille, when a big bird decided to catch the flight for Munich, where I was sitting with my former colleague David Edwards. Also a nervous flyer…

The plane went full throttle, accelerating on the runway, as a loud bang went off. The front wheel must have been already in the air, but all of the sudden the pilot slammed the brakes, resulting in more explosions and a thick smell of fuel, busted tires and chicken BBQ. Smoke was also coming into the cabin.

a birdstrike, fear of flying starts at take off
Terror of flying – this is going to end up in tears…

David and I were rather agitated and ready to bail out, but in the plane not a pin was dropping.

I was wondering if we would have managed to come to a full stop before the end of the runaway, and we did.

In a few minutes we were back at the apron, surrounded by fire trucks, while some passengers were whinging…they would be late in Munich!!

I was honestly euphoric to be alive and thought they were nuts.

David and I decided to celebrate one extra night in Marseille, but why go any further than the terminal’s bar? So, we sat down and downed a few beers, commiserating those businessmen on a tight schedule.

Bonus feature

Since it’s my debut on this week, I’ll test your readership. If you’ve been reading till the end, here is an example of what can go terribly wrong! David Roberts nearly getting killed in a helicopter crash…somewhere in the North Atlantic.

Make sure you watch it till the end and you’ll see a rather pale Dave Roberts coming out of the right door

Pilot skill or sheer luck? I leave it to you to tell us in the comments.

One thought on “My fear of flying – Leave the skies to the birds

  1. Sheer skill. I’ve seen this clip many times, and never knew Dave was aboard. Glad he’s still with us. And Gionny, you may be the second unluckiest traveller I know! Have you ever considered that it might not be wise to travel with Dave?

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