How do you think the odds of being killed in a plane crash compare with the odds of winning the lottery? I could give you the numbers, but there is no point because your emotional attitude to each of these activities will swamp the facts. One you wish with all your might. The other?
All you need to know is that the odds of either happening to you are roughly similar, in the same ballpark. And the chances in both cases are infinitesimal. So there you have it upfront, the good news and the bad news. Reassuring isn’t it? Still think you can win the lottery? Don’t go there! Stop it now!
If you are a frequent flyer you have probably heard more than once your smug pilot telling you upon landing that the safest part of your journey is now over. He is quite correct. Your odds of being killed in a car accident are literally thousands of times greater. 2,200 times greater if you want to know the number. But you probably don’t care about that. We humans don’t relate well to statistical odds. We prefer hopes and fears. That’s why week after week millions of us buy a lottery ticket hoping that our number will come up.
I have lost count of the number of journeys I have flown both for pleasure and for business. I stopped counting of my transatlantic crossings when the number breached 100. And as for the rest of the world, I eventually had to agree with my wife that saving my boarding passes did make me look like a bit of a sad train spotter. I threw them away by the sackful.
Despite all this, and a career spanning several decades in the airline business I have to admit two things. One, I have absolutely no idea how planes fly. Yes I have had the whole high speed low pressure principle explained to me countless times but I still don’t get it. It’s not natural, is it? Several hundred tons of metal flying through the air carrying 300 people eating chicken. Aren’t we clever? Even chickens cannot do this. OK, come to think of it, chickens cannot actually fly to begin with so forget I said that. And number two, I am definitely not a plane spotter. I can just about distinguish a 747 from a helicopter but that’s it.
It’s not what planes are, it is what they can dothat interests me. Basically they conquer distance in a way no other machine can. They take your body somewhere else faster than your mind can follow. I woke up this morning in London and now I am having dinner in Zambia. That cannot be right. Wow!
I made my first flight when I was 15 years old. For reasons I won’t bore you with my pal Allan and I had to fly home from the island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland to Glasgow, at the end of our summer holidays. It was the only way to get back quickly. I remember going into the bank and writing a cheque to cash £15 to pay for the ticket. ATMs had not yet been invented. Expensive for a short flight.
We arrived at Islay airport only to be told there would be a short delay while a man in a land rover drove out to clear the sheep off the grass runway. And then the little propeller plane touched down. We boarded and were off within minutes. I don’t remember being offered speedy boarding, or seat selection, or a pre-take-off glass of something bubbly. Barely had we taken off then the plane started to descend. Oh my god, was something wrong? No, the pilot announced we would drop down into Campbeltown to pick up some more passengers.
Minutes later we were off again and quickly landed in Glasgow. In 20 minutes flying time we had re-traced our outward boat journey that had taken 15 hours or more. The magic had begun.
I said before that I don’t understand the principles of flight. But I do understand that airplanes are strong. Very, VERY strong. So strong in fact that over the years 95.7% of all passengers involved in aircraft crashes have survived. Think of that next time you are worried – 95% survive!
If you want to get an idea of how strong an aircraft is, try this. Creep up behind your best friend and stick one finger of each hand in her ears. Be careful, as she may not still be your best friend at the end of this little experiment. Now try and lift her off the floor. Can’t do it, huh? Well that’s what aircraft wings can do. Those skinny little flat things sticking out at each side of the fuselage are just like very strong fingers. They have air pushing them upwards and together they lift the whole aircraft off the ground. Amazing! So next time you feel a bit of a jolt inflight or look out the window and see the wings bending a little just relax. Those wings are stronger than your fingers!
I want to tell you now about a time I did have a bad experience. Potentially a very bad experience. But the truth is that without the use of alcohol or strong drugs, it was so well handled that I did not really care. Here’s how it happened.
It was a beautiful sunny day and I was lucky enough to be heading on a business trip to New York on Concorde, that most amazing of all flying machines. It was not my first trip on the bird but I was still excited. It was a beautiful sunny day as we took off towards the west. The only way I can describe take-off is that it was a bit like hurtling up stairs in a rocket. Concorde was not quiet, it was not particularly luxurious, but boy was it fast. I had already done an hour in our Heathrow office that morning, we took off at 10:30 and by 10:00 I was expecting to be in the New York office. Bizarre!
We were only a few minutes into the flight when our captain’s voice came over the intercom. After the usual pleasantries he told us in that way that only the British can that there was a spot of bother. I forget the exact technical details but I think it was something to do with the rudder. Most of the passengers, myself included, probably did not even realise that Concorde had such a thing. Anyway, nothing to worry about we were reassured, and here was what was going to happen. “I am sorry for the inconvenience but I am afraid we will have to return to Heathrow.” came the soothing tones. “That won’t take long, and I have already radioed ahead so a replacement Concorde will be waiting for you as soon as we land.”
A different planet from ‘rail replacement buses!’ British Airways had seven Concordes, so luckily they always had a spare one hanging around somewhere, as you do.
“So the only tiny problem,” continued the voice of God (or so it seemed), “is that as we have only just taken off we have too much fuel onboard and the plane is too heavy to land.” Too heavy to land? Oh no, I thought, is this going to be the old joke about the Englishman the Irishman and the Scotsman arguing about who is going to be thrown off first? Luckily not. “What I am going to do is go out of the Bristol channel, dump most of the fuel, turn around and then fly back to Heathrow.”
Dump mostof the fuel? Oh no! How much was ‘most’? I hoped he had a little gauge like I did on my car with a read out of ‘miles remaining’. What if he threw away too much? Would we have to crash land in Swindon? How many miles was it anyway from Bristol to London? A hundred? I seemed to remember reading somewhere that Concorde averaged 5 gpm. Yes, 5 gallons per mile…so that was an awful of petrol he had better not dump on the poor fish in the Channel.
The flight back to Heathrow was magical, among the most memorable I have ever taken. The previous day we had actually been visiting friends in Bath so as we returned to London following the line of the M4 motorway flying at about only 10,000 feet I could re-trace the journey I had taken only yesterday. But this time it was like what I imagine it would be like to travel in a rocket-propelled hot air balloon. Oh look down there, that’s the service station we didn’t stop at! Is that a cow? Are we nearly there yet? Yes, as soon as we turned around we were nearly there, you stupid boy! You are never not ‘nearly there’ on Concorde.
And so, only 10 minutes later, to the skies above Windsor. “Now,” said our captain, “you may not know it, but these poor chaps at Heathrow don’t get much chance to practice the old emergency drill stuff. So what I have agreed with them is that they can use our landing this morning for a jolly good practice. So when we land, don’t be alarmed, but what you are going to see is these boys and girls racing alongside us in their fire engines and ambulances to see if they still remember the training. OK, now down we go.” He didn’t quite let out a ‘wheeeeeee!’ but he might have done.
Relaxed? You bet we were. 99 people all smiling, even although they had just given back their empty champagne glasses. And sure enough as we hit the tarmac with a bit of a bump mind you, it was like the Fisher Price airport out there with all the yellow and red vehicles trundling in parallel trying to keep up with us.
We came to a stop, not at the terminal, but somewhere in the outer reaches of the airfield. Why? Did they really think the plane might explode? (Actually, yes, but the trick is no one bothered to tell us that bit.) So we promptly deplaned and were escorted onto a bus. That was the funniest part. 99 people, 98 of whom had paid thousands of pound to rocket off to New York – I was on an airline ‘duty travel’ fare - and here they were boarding a bus! Not something to shout about back on the cocktail circuit in St George’s Hill.
And so that, dear reader, was my most frightening emergency landing. Thanks to the way it was handled I have not been so scared since the time I dropped a pillow on my foot.
The next day when I was already back in London I saw the newspaper front page headline shrieking “M25 closed as Concorde makes emergency landing!”. Too late to be frightened now.
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