Fear of Flying

November 14, 2019

The first time I noticed it, it was just … well, one of various things I noticed, and I thought little of it. The second time, I remembered that first time I noticed it. And as my return flight to Mexico left the gate in Atlanta a couple of nights ago, I realised I was seeing something consistent.

Many people on a plane like to look out the window as it takes off. Me, for instance. It’s interesting to see the city falling away from the rising aircraft, and to watch for familiar landmarks as they disappear. But my limited anecdotal observations indicate that Mexicans don’t like to look. They like to pretend it isn’t happening. Since for my latest flight I was assigned the dreaded middle seat of three, I couldn’t open a blind myself.

I was never surprised to see people crossing themselves before a flight. Logically, urban drivers in Mexico (as opposed to their politer rural counterparts) pose a far greater threat to human life than plane crashes. But the national imagination was shocked by the crash that killed the movie star Pedro Infante in 1957, and perhaps the continuing adulation of a man dead for over sixty years keeps that image within the public imagination. Death by plane crash is always untimely, though probably far less horrible than other exits from the human condition.


Pedro Infante in the 1940s. He was an amteur pilot, and actually liked flying.

Mexicana Airlines crashed as a company in 2010, its last flight, oddly, being one to Toronto. But that was a business failure, not a technical one. It was scary for employees and suppliers owed money, and the winding down of its affairs still proceeds in 2019. But unless people unconsciously cross-connect that event with Infante’s demise, I’m not sure there’s an explanation in it.


No longer airborne – an Airbus A318 jet of defunct airline Mexicana.

Maybe it’s just a natural fear that affects a huge number of people, and shutting out the view is a way of reducing that anxiety. Whatever the reason, numerous Mexicans, particularly those who, connected by an inscrutable magnetism, follow me onto flights in and out of Benito Juarez Airport, prefer to pretend take-off is an illusion. And moving over the ground, too. Also, landing.

Landing – now, that often alarms me, especially when there’s a strong cross-wind, as there was coming into Atlanta. Seeing the aircraft move up and down on its approach (apparently, the earth moving farther away then coming nearer) has a scary thrill to it. But I trust aircraft technology far more than I trust antsy Mexico City drivers on a highway. Those guys take crazy risks as they pass slow-moving trucks.

On flights with a large proportion of Mexicans, it can be hard to have that experience, then, where I can watch the journey culminate. I still get the sense of the lurchings the plane goes through as it slows and loses altitude, followed by the jolts and rumblings as it touches down on tarmac. Some people breathe rather than mutter a short prayer of gratitude, then we wait for the long minutes to reach the gate to pass.

But I do miss watching cities recede and come into view. I never used to ask for a window seat, preferring easy exit from one by the aisle. I might change my policy in future.

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