Last Saturday’s parkrun had to take a back seat as I headed out to Catalunya for the second successive year to take part in the eDreams Mitja Marató de Barcelona. My good friend Charlie lives out there so it’s an opportunity to see him, take in the culture and run the streets of one of my favourite cities.

The short visit (out Saturday, back Sunday) accompanied by my much better half, daughter and a few running club mates went well. The race is run on a great route that starts and finishes in the centre at Parc de la Cuitadella and takes in the broad thoroughfares of Paral-lel, Gran Via and Diagonal and the tough kilometres from 16-20 gifted us the glistening Mediterranean as company. I was a tad disappointed as I had targeted a 1:32 finish and was going great guns up until 16km however my pace fell away. I still managed to sneak a one second half marathon PB (1:34:36) so came away reasonably pleased. We returned home from our brief athletic and cultural sojourn happily fulfilled but also quite sore and tired.

Approaching 20km with Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in full view.

Our Ryanair flight departed a little late from Barcelona’s El Prat airport. It followed the usual course south west along the coast then turned northward to cross the Pyrenees. Pretty soon after we encountered a sustained period of mild turbulence. I used to be a very anxious flyer but thankfully it has eased off as I’ve grown older. It can be ‘triggered’ though and as the aircraft shifted about over the snowy mountains my palms became clammy, my breath shortened and I felt a bit uneasy.

My fear of flying stemmed from an incident when I was a wee boy. In 1990 on a flight back from the US following a family holiday our British Airways 747 hit severe turbulence. As the rough air ratcheted up my childish view of ‘oh isn’t this rollercoaster ride funny’ changed to a more concerned ‘this shit’s getting really bad’ pretty quickly. The wingtips flexed wildly, overhead bins creaked eerily, glasses crashed together and passengers exchanged worried glances as the aircraft bounced about in the violent thunderstorm that enveloped us. Then all of a sudden we dropped. Those that had not heeded the ‘fasten seatbelt’ signs briefly experienced zero gravity and involuntarily departed their seats skyward. It lasted all of couple of seconds but at the end of the drop there was an almighty bang. I looked back at Big Gerry seated two rows behind and saw fear in his eyes for the only time in my life. It was absolutely terrifying.

When the turbulence subsided somewhat a stewardess that had been in the nearby galley was helped into the vacant seat beside me. She had a nasty head wound and her colleague patched her up. Thankfully the remainder of the flight went smoothly but upon landing in Manchester the aircraft was not permitted to continue onward to Gatwick. It needed a thorough checking over. The poor Gatwick bound passengers had the privilege of a six hour bus journey rather than a thirty minute flight back to West Sussex.

It wasn’t until my next flight that I realised I’d developed a fear of flying. As the aircraft took off I immediately felt scared. Every movement, every sound unsettled me. Matters worsened a few months later when a US bound flight I was on had an engine conk out over the Atlantic Ocean and an emergency landing at Shannon Airport became necessary. This fear would continue over the course of the next few decades. I didn’t stop flying but by God when I flew I was filled with pre-flight unease, in-flight dread and post flight relief.

I developed religious rituals straight out of my Granny’s devout Catholic playbook. I’d bless myself and touch the fuselage upon entering the aircraft for divine protection similar to a South American footballer coming on to the field of play. If I ever forgot I instantly felt we were doomed and our journey’s end would be a mountainside rather than the actual destination. On a flight from New York bound for Brussels one time Orthodox Jews and Muslims headed to the Hajj made up almost half the passengers. My only thought was not the potential for airborne inter-communal tensions but that this flight was sound as it covered many faith bases. It was ridiculous I know but I’d take all the reassurances I could muster.

In the end though knowledge is power. I tried to be governed by the stats. You know the ones, that you’re more likely to (insert any crazy highly unlikely scenario) than die as an airline fatality. I read more about aviation as I wanted to understand the physics of taking a heavy object up into the wild blue yonder and keeping it aloft. I also learned the breathing techniques, basically yoga, that aided relaxation in times of anxiety. All these combined gradually gave me coping mechanisms and I became a slightly anxious flyer rather than a petrified one.

The leaving of Barcelona

Flying, although not very environmentally friendly, is my link to family and my passion for travel. I could’ve chosen to do a Dennis Bergkamp, the non-Flying Dutchman, following my bad experiences but realised that to do so would’ve significantly inhibited my life choices. Like all fears, you have to metaphorically batter the crap out of them and keep them held at bay or they’ll gleefully defeat you.

A number of runners I’ve met often say that they are anxious/scared as they approach the start of a race. I can kind of understand it if it’s one they’ve trained hard for and looked forward to but I’ve heard a few say it a bloody parkrun! As FDR said ‘the only thing to fear is fear itself’ and that remains as true today as when the great man proclaimed it in January 1933. So handle the fear and just f**k it and run or fly or ask that person out or do whatever, within reason of course.

I’m still scared of big angry looking dogs though, I’ve not defeated that one yet.

4 thoughts on “Aviophobia

  1. An interesting read Michael. I’ve had similar experiences with flying including decompression, emergency landing and people I know dying in air crashes. Also my fear started from a Dan Dare flight when I was a kid which had turbulence issues. I confess I eventually took the Bergkamp route as even my friends thought I was jinxed – but maybe one day I will summon the courage… I’ve done harder things (including bloody Parkrun!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s tough Jo and thank you so much for the reply. I must say that I was almost in your position on many occasions but with family stretched across the globe I had to overcome it. Maybe you could come with us on a PAC Belfast away day one time?


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