5 MARCH 1988, Page 42

Home life

Fear of flying

Alice Thomas Ellis

I was interested to learn that a recent near-miss involved a Bulgarian aeroplane, since I was in the back of one of them once. It rattled all the way to Sofia, but the most startling thing about it was the food — I use the term loosely — which I have never quite found words to describe. At its simplest it comprised a dark-brown slab of cold meat, grained and textured rather like sodden pine wood, a perfectly enormous tomato, a hunk of bread of the consistency of dry pine wood, and a tasteful mélange of cold rice and cold chips. Happily I was too terrified to be hungry, but I did try the butter. Bulgarian butter, I can tell you, is something else again, I heard a particularly alarming tale the other day from a young photographer. She had a friend who was flying along in an aeroplane when the pilot put the thing on automatic and went off to the loo. The co-pilot emerged to chat up the stewardess, and the navigator came out for a stroll up the aisle, when suddenly, wallop — the plane hit an air pocket and fell about 4,000 feet. All the luggage leapt out of the racks, the passengers were flung about, the pilot was concussed in the loo, and the anti- terrorist device activated itself, thereby isolating the flight deck. There followed a spirited interlude with passengers and crew wildly hacking at the safety doors in order to get at the controls. Now, that wouldn't happen in a Cortina estate. Nor does a trip in the car involve imprisonment in an airport lounge, where the disaffected are likely to shoot at you.

I think of this because one of those creepy coincidences has just crept up on me. A delightful young woman called in order to persuade Someone and me to fly to Geneva to talk to her literary society. I said I was averse to everything pertaining to flying and could we take the train, and she said a friend of her sister's had been killed in the Athens airport shoot-out of some years ago and she herself had been a passenger in one of the planes involved in the most recent near-miss. Not too amaz- ing a coincidence, you would think, but wait. The telephone rang (this was about an hour after I'd moaned about Bulgarian aeroplanes) and it was Isobel from next door to say she'd just returned from Russia (I don't know why the young feel it necessary to ring from next door: they wouldn't have to fly to get round here) and the food had been inedible, and the next plane out after hers had just crashed. I immediately had a sense of responsibility which I put aside in favour of the rather less disagreeable feeling that I merely had some sort of second sight. Then the phone rang again and it was the fourth son speaking from LA. He is the only member of the family actually to fly aeroplanes himself. Last summer his brother dreamed that he had crashed and I made him telephone immediately to dis- suade our pilot from taking off in the near future. What happened next was that the dreaming brother had three ribs broken in a car accident while on holiday with my favourite logical positivist. His second sight is slightly out of kilter.

As somebody remarked only the other day — it isn't the fear of flying that keeps us earthbound. It's the fear of crashing. I've been trying to explain that for years, only nobody ever listens to me. Listen to me, Alfie.