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Why We Should All Fear Flying

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The frequent flyers club of Olympic Airways is called 'Icarus'. Icarus, you'll remember, was the unfortunate son of the master craftsman Daedalus. When the two were imprisoned by King Minos on Crete, Daedalus fashioned wings out of feathers and wax, and they escaped. Icarus, however, flew too close to the sun; the wax melted, and he plummeted to his death in the Aegean Sea.

In other words, Icarus is hardly the most auspicious brand that the Greek airline might have adopted. Most passengers who cotton on will respond with a mild snigger. For others, however, it's no joke. Anxiety is thought to afflict up to one in three fliers. The mythical story of a young man dropping thousands of feet into the sea is an uncomfortable reminder of how precarious our perch is up in the sky.

There is no commonly used technical term for fear of flying. No-one really uses the term 'aviophobia'. This, I conclude, is because it is not a phobia at all. Phobias are by definition irrational. Triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13), to take an easy example, is more than irrational - it's downright silly. Fear of being shot 35,000 feet up into the air at 500 mph in a metal tube filled with explosive liquid, on the other hand, is perfectly logical. It's all about whether the perceived threat is real and immediate or not. People terrified by the word 'spider' can be called arachnophobic, because the word on its own can't possibly hurt them; but it would be a harsh description of someone feeling a tad perturbed by the sight of a 10-foot tall Shelob lumbering towards her.

Psychologists like to speculate about what triggers fear of flying. A single, memorable bad experience, or something deeper? Claustrophobia? Worries about loss of control? But I'd say the burden of explanation lies rather with the other group, those who can chillax with a gin and tonic and the latest Hilary Mantel as they hurtle towards the stratosphere. We're human beings, built for trundling around on land, and maybe taking the odd splash in the sea; we're just not made for high speeds or high altitudes. What acts of self-deception do these people perform when they convince themselves that flying is a pleasant, comfortable way of spending time? I can see that flying can be a thrilling or even a sublime experience; that's just fear transformed into a nobler register. But nice? Normal? How blind can you be to the weirdness of what's happening to you?

We all know the counterargument. Oh but it is an irrational fear, we're told, because flying is safer, statistically speaking, than driving. You're less likely to die in a plane crash than to be hit by a meteorite (or whatever). Fine - but that just isn't the point. It's not the prospect of meeting one's end in a heap of molten metal that's at the root of the anxiety (although it doesn't help); it's being bounced around in the sky. It's not right.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is just one of a number of Greek myths about flying, which usually end horribly. The Greeks associated flying with the gods alone, so when humans took wing they were claiming a privilege that was not theirs. Perhaps the most famous of all is the story of Bellerophon, who captured the winged horse Pegasus and flew up to Olympus. Before he could join the divine company, however, Pegasus bucked and threw him down to earth. Stories like this aren't just morality tales about how mortals should know their place; they also remind us that as humans we are creatures of the earth. Ancient Greeks would, I'd wager, be shocked at our moral complacency as we jauntily gad around above the clouds in our tin-cans.

Fear of flying isn't irrational, because flying is a serious business. Our primal urge to remain on the ground, wired deep into us, is reinforced by a deep store of traditional narrative. Anyone who has dreamed of flying or of falling has proof that these countless myths have embedded themselves into our subconsciouses. All culturally literate adults know that the sky is the realm of ancient gods, and not ours.

I'll keep on flying. But I won't, thank you very much, be rid of my profound discomfort with it. That discomfort is, for me, a sign that I'm still human.

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