Flying to Tel Aviv

This blog has been a bit quiet lately, partly because I was busy prepping for a two-week stint at the Giro d’Italia and now because I’m at the Giro d’Italia.

I had considered keeping a diary at the Giro but we’re in the early stages of planning a second volume of The Cycling Podcast’s book and, although we’ve not settled on the format yet, the first critically-acclaimed edition featured diaries from the three grand tours. Just in case we do something similar again, I don’t want to use all my best (!) material online now and have nothing left later in the year.

Instead of writing an account of life on the road at the Giro, or documenting the meals and incidents concerning the race, I’ve decided to just write a few things as they occur to me. There’s not a lot of time to spare at the grand tours, so these may be sporadic posts. ‘What do you mean, there’s not a lot of time to spare?’ I hear you ask, ‘Surely all you’ve got to do each day is jabber on about cycling for half an hour or so. What do you do the rest of the time?’

Well, it’s surprising how quickly the day whizzes from breakfast at eight to dinner at nine, or sometimes ten.

Anyway, here goes.

* * *

A few years ago now I went on one of those courses to overcome a fear of flying. My anxiety about being strapped into a long tin tube propelled into the sky by means of passing thousands of litres of extremely flammable liquid through a jet engine had worsened over the years and my natural tendency to over-visualise and fear the worst combined to the point that I found it impossible to get on a flight without being a quivvering wreck.

Several unfortunate experiences had led to this point. On a flight to New York once we overshot the runway slightly, ended up on the grass and because they couldn’t get the stairs to the door, or move the plane, we had to use the emergency slide to disembark. On a flight home from New York on another trip we turned round after about an hour in the air because a passenger was being very aggressive and had been shouting unpleasant things about the US government.

We made an unscheduled stop at Bangor in Maine to the sight of a dozen police cars with their lights flashing on the runway and the sound of armed officers rushing onto the plane shouting at everyone to remain calm and not move. Then there was the flight to Marseille when the Mistral wind played havoc with the landing and the man next to me gripped my arm and said, ‘I do this flight once a week and it’s never been this bad. We’re going down this time!’

There there was a flight to Poland which was supposed to be on a British Airways plane but was switched at short notice to one of their ‘partner’ carriers. We got onto a rattling old plane with worn seats and strange noises coming from every direction. As we thundered down the runway about four of the overhead lockers sprung open and bags and cases flew out. I thought the whole thing was going to shake apart before we’d got off the ground.

Then there was the late night landing that was aborted when we were (it seemed to me at least) within touching distance of the tarmac. Without warning we suddenly accelerated and climbed steeply into the black away from the lovely reassuring earth to do another lap of nowhere in particular before having another go. As we got off the plane, the captain or first officer was standing outside his cabin saying a cheery goodnight to everyone. ‘What happened there?’ said my travelling companion.

‘Oh, there was a plane on the runway a liddle too close for comfort so I thought we’d bedder go round again. Bedder to be safe than sorry. It was nothing out of the ordinary though. Quite roudine.’ He spoke in that peculiar accent all British pilots seem to have. It’s posh but all the Ts are substituted with Ds and words run into each other as if to suggest that the whole business of having to converse with anyone who can’t fly a plane themselves is a lot of unnecessary bother for them. In a way, it’s quite reassuring.

Over the years, I’d tried all sorts of things to rid myself of the jitters – hypnotheraphy, acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine – and each thing was effective for a while. I had a hypnotherapy session before a flight to southern Spain once and it worked a treat on the way out. Unfortunately, the spell had worn off by the time I was ready to fly home and I ended up taking five trains home instead.

In the end, my partner booked me a place on a Flying With Confidence course run by British Airways. It consisted of a series of lectures and demonstrations from pilots and cabin crew followed by a flight from Heathrow round the Isle of Wight and back.

When I arrived I could sense the anxiety in the room as everyone made small talk over coffee. You could almost hear the cups and saucers clattering in nervous hands.

I had a chat with a few people and more or less everyone said, ‘I don’t know why I’m here. I’m not going to get on a plane.’ There was one man who was almost in tears at the idea of even setting foot inside a plane. He explained that his son now lived in Italy and he wanted to visit more often but each trip meant spending as much time driving as with his son.

Being a slightly sceptical type, I initially wondered if some of the most extreme cases were actually actors put in the room to make the rest of us feel less anxious but I don’t think that was the case.

At the end of the day, everyone on the course got on the flight – including the man who had been on the verge of tears in the morning.

All this came to mind midway through my flight to Tel Aviv. After a couple of hours, with three still to go, one of the cabin staff made an announcement.

‘There’s a problem with the flight.’

It perhaps wasn’t the most sensitive choice of wording and there were a few craned necks and nervous glances.

‘The toilet waste tank is almost full. We think they forgot to empty it in Luton. So, we have two choices – we either stop using the toilet at the current rate or we divert somewhere to empty it.’

I spent the last hour of the flight gripping the arm rests, although not for the reason I would have done in the past.