Flying Experiences

In 2007 I started research for a book about the JL123 crash. Whilst doing this research I was frequently asked whether I enjoyed flying myself or not. My answer was that I do not particularly, but that I gained a dislike of flying rather always having had this fear. Many were interested to know what the basis was for this change and whether it was related to my research. I was aware that the fear predated the research, but did not know exactly when it started. Perhaps it was related to my own experiences over the years. This article sets out some of the experiences I have had over the years which may have contributed to my developing a fear of flying.

I first visited Japan in 1989 after finishing high school. The reason for the trip was essentially a holiday and a means to check that I was doing the right thing in embarking on my Japanese studies at university later that year. I stayed in Japan for four weeks, staying at the homes of friends in Tōkyō, Kyōto, Neyagawa (Ōsaka) and near Sapporo. The flight to Japan was a long one, as it was still the time of the cold war and I could not afford to blow my whole budget on the air-fare. Consequently I took China Airlines (using Boeing 747s) on a routing which took 26 hours via Dhahran, Hong Kong and Taipei. Perhaps the best thing about this airline was that due to the complications of Taiwan’s status and Japan’s relationship with China, China Airlines continued to fly to Haneda Airport rather than Narita, as would have been expected – a fact I did not discover this until I got to Taipei and so had to hurriedly contact my friend, who lives only about 10km from Haneda and 70km from Narita, who was to meet me at the airport. During this trip I took JAL between Itami and Chitose, and then from Chitose and Haneda. I have not particular memory of the first of these flights, but the second one left a lasting impression.

The date of this second flight on JAL was 27 July 1989, not quite four years after the JL123 crash. The flight (a Boeing 747) was due to take off at 15:10, but we were delayed. The reason for the delay appeared to be due to waiting for some military jets using the adjoining Japanese Air Self-Defence Force base. Whilst we waited, the news was shown on the main screen (it was the days before personal TVs built into seats). As the broadcast was in Japanese, and at that time my knowledge of Japanese was limited to about a dozen words and the ability to read and write hiragana and katakana, I do not know whether this news was a weekly summary programme or what, but it featured only one story: video footage of the United Airlines flight 232 crash in Sioux City on 19 July (see also my post about the dramatization of the crash). In typical Japanese news media fashion, the footage (similar to the video below) of the plane crashing was shown on a continuous loop.

This is not what passengers waiting to take off want to see – and I suspect the memory of JL123 was still fresh in the memories of many of the passengers. The girl in the seat next to me spent virtually the whole flight in tears and never opened her eyes, even to eat the meal which was served on the flight. The first time I met Keith Haines, to receive a free business-class return ticket London-Narita as a result of winning the Sir Peter Parker Award for Spoken Japanese in 2000, I pointed out that I did not like to fly with JAL and that my 1989 experience was part of the basis for this – having a broken TV and not getting my choice of meal when flying out with JAL to start on the JET Programme being another. It is only in conducting this research that I learnt that there was a link between UA232 and JL123 – one of those on UA232 had read a report about how the pilot of JL123 kept the plane flying for so long after losing hydraulics and the cockpit crew used this technique, which helped to ensure that not all lives were lost. Although 112 died in the crash, it is acknowledged that without this information about the skills of Captain Takahama, more, if not all, the 296 lives would have been lost. Ironically, when I flew back from Japan after my first fieldtrip for my JL123 research, the NHK news being shown on the JAL plane that day covered the events on Osutaka-no-one which I had observed the previous day (on the way to Japan I had had to contend with the problem of how to explain, without causing any alarm, why I was going to Japan to the passenger next to me whilst sat on a JAL plane!).

I left Japan on 28 July by China Airlines, but was delayed due to a ‘mechanical problem’ with the plane. Although seated on the plane at the time, I remember my reaction was one of being pleased that my stay in Japan was being extended; ten years later, with my greater knowledge and fear of flying, let alone the continued issues with safety in China Airlines, I expect that I would have demanded to be allowed to disembark had I been told that there was a problem with the plane. Clearly my fear of flying developed at a later stage.

My next interesting experience was in 1998 flight in Ukraine. The trip had already been marred by my luggage going to Lagos (Nigeria) rather than joining me in Kyiv, as most of the passengers on one of my connecting flights had apparently gone to that destination. I had to take a domestic flight from Donetsk to the capital. The flight was early in the morning and the plane was dark when I boarded. The scheduled departure time came and went. After some time a loud rumbling noise was heard and a long lorry pulled up in front of our plane. From what I could tell wires were then attached to the plane and the engine of the lorry, the bonnet of which had been lifted, and the plane was then jump started. This was mildly amusing until I began to wonder what would happen in the event of the engine failing during the flight. That same day, I took another flight – on a plane of the same design, albeit newly painted in white (to the extent that even the netting to hold the in-flight magazines had been painted over, as became apparent when they were pulled back) – with Moldovan Airlines, the air stewardess was most insistent that I have a Moldovan beer, pointing out that it not only tasted good but was complimentary, despite my protestations that it was still only about 8:30 in the morning!

In 2000, I took a flight to Nice. The plane was an Airbus. I was sat next to right-hand window and could see we were above the runway. But instead of landing, the engines roared and the plane gained altitude. At this point I remembered the China Airlines flight 140 crash at Nagoya Airport, which I was living about 15km from at the time and I had discussed in some detail with an ANA pilot when visiting his house and seen the report on the lounge table. Our plane continued out to sea. After a minute or so the pilot explained that we had been too high and too fast. I now had two concerns. First, was that, unlike when a driver has problems and it is possible to get out and someone to take over, we were probably reliant on this pilot getting us down. My other concern was that it is easy to over-compensate when trying to correct a problem. From what I could tell from looking out of the window, this second concern was not too far misplaced, but we did land safely.

My concern in flying is somewhat ironic given that my father was a pilot during World War II and I had grown up hearing stories of his various experiences. My father took up flying again when I was quite young and I remember going to the flying school on at least one occasion – although my most vivid memory is one of terror when the plane went into a steep dive after the instructor, who had taken me up on a tour of the area, briefly gave me the controls.

In relation to JL123, as I mention in the book, the crash is my first memory of seeing Japan in the news, although I was in France on the day of the crash it was still one of the major new stories when I got back to the UK later that week. I have vague memories of seeing some of these stories, although the only one that left an impression was the theory that the crash was due to a broken door. I also remember discussing the crash with friends when the school term started again in September. I remember this distinctly as the mother of one friend told me how she had a premonition about the crash. This is a conversation that has stuck in mind although I do not particularly believe in premonitions. Part of this reasoning may be based on a desire for premonitions not to be possible as I once, in about 1997, had a vivid dream, much people describe their experience of premonitions, whereby I was involved in an aircraft accident. Subsequently, when flying, I have often remembered this conversation and in turn thought of JL123 – as well as requesting a window seat on the right hand side of the plane and so negating the image that I saw where I was on the left hand side of the plane. I suspect that it was this ‘dream’, more than any other experience which contributed to my fear of flying. However I suspect it was not helped by other experiences or by the number of documentaries I watched about plane crashes.

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