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FLIGHTS OF FEAR? - OR FLIGHTS OF FANCY?

Three incidents and a terrible phobia have given me food for thought over the years. Each incident was a fleeting occurrence that left a marked impression in my memory, the phobia is with me all the time and will probably stay that way until I die.

My mother became aware of the first incident in 1946, when I was four years old. Apparently, I had asked her the age old question, "Where did I come from?" Mum, using all her knowledge on the subject, answered that ‘The stork had brought me.’ (The classic answer given to nosy little boys in those days). Thinking that to be the end of the matter, she was mildly surprised when I answered "Oh yes! I remember flying over the land and seeing a cat down below." Curiosity getting the better of her, she questioned me further about that statement. I then went on to tell her how I had looked down onto a hill in amongst the trees and could see the cat near the top of that hill. I told her that I must have frightened the cat because it ran off down the hill.

Mum laughed to herself about my story, knowing full well that I’d never been flying in an aeroplane, let alone a sheet held in a stork’s beak. Nevertheless, she slotted the story into her memory bank with the intention of telling me about this brief exchange when I was older.

Although I can’t remember our conversation that day, for some reason I can vividly recall the scene that I was trying to describe to her. It has stayed very clear in my own memory even after nearly fifty years have passed since that day.

Somehow, I was flying. My eyes were looking down on a wooded area (described as the edge of a jungle in later years). The trees were spread out thickly below and over to the left, But, just to the right, they ended in a jagged line and were replaced by grass-covered plains. Up in the sky ahead I could see dark, angry-looking clouds although the scene below was bathed in golden sunlight. The green of the grass and darker green of the trees looked very fresh and bright, as if a rain-storm had recently passed that way. There was a small grass-covered hill on the edge of the wooded area, surrounded by trees on three sides but open to the plains on the right. The hill was about one hundred feet (30 metres) in height and groups of yellow flowers were scattered amongst the grass on its slopes.

This scene rose up, as if my eyes were swooping down towards the ground, and I noticed a movement just near the top of the hill. As my eyes focused on that movement I realised that it was an animal. The scene was rushing up in my vision but I clearly had a fleeting glimpse of that animal. It was a lioness (described as a ‘cat’ to my mum as I had not seen a lioness at that time). The lioness looked up, as if startled by my approach (although I could hear no sound), then turned and raced off down the hill. And that’s all I can remember. The last thing I saw was the lioness racing down the hill, away from the direction that I seemed to be approaching from. There was no sound throughout the whole incident that I can recall.

This story was a bit of a mystery to my family although, apart from remembering the vivid events, I never thought too much about it. Like all young boys I was fascinated by flight and spent many hours around airports watching aircraft movements (although I was never really interested in fighters except for Spitfires and Hurricanes) and longing for the day when I would be able to fly myself.

That day came in my seventeenth year when my girlfriend and I took a pleasure flight around Portsmouth Harbour. Not being a very rich lad, I was determined to make the most of that flight and record every moment in my memory as if I would never fly again. With a thrill of excitement, I felt the initial acceleration as the little aeroplane roared down the runway and lifted up into the air. At last I was flying and one of my dreams was being realised. I gazed down in wonder as we gained height and felt happily content. but that happiness was just about to be shattered.

The aeroplane had taken off in the direction away from Portsmouth and we had to turn around and fly back past the airport. As the left wing dropped and the horizon tilted up, I experienced the most terrible feelings of fear that I had ever known. My heart suddenly started to race like mad, my throat felt as if it had blocked up, making me gasp for breath, my stomach knotted up tight, and I had a real sick feeling of doom. In short, I was terrified. In a surge of panic, I grabbed the edge of the seat with my right hand and put my left elbow up against the door pillar. What the pilot thought can only be imagined, but he said nothing and my girlfriend hadn’t seemed to notice.

I can't recall much of that flight, other than the strong feeling that I was doomed. Although I pretended to be looking out of the window, my eyes were mostly looking down at the floor. I did glance out and see the buildings of Portsmouth below, and my interest was aroused enough to watch the harbour pass by beneath us. Then the runway was just ahead and, with a feeling of amazement that we were all still alive, my first flight was over. I was shaking like a leaf as we left the airport.

Having got the desire to fly out of my system and thinking that I'd never have cause to fly again, I concentrated on getting on with my normal life. After the usual ups and downs of a typical teenager I was given the opportunity to better myself and I never looked back.

That opportunity came over the Easter holidays in 1963. I was asked to help drive a group of young lads up into the mountainous area of North Wales. That trip, and the dogged determination of the trip leader to ensure that I got the most out of it, introduced me to mountaineering, rock climbing, and caving.

Through these pastimes I discovered that I had a mild fear of heights and an acute fear of enclosed spaces. The fear of heights has been easy to accept for without it I wouldn't get a ‘buzz’ on the big rock faces. The fear of enclosed spaces was virtually eliminated very early on through my desire to explore the underworld of cave systems. So much so, in fact, that caving eventually became boring. With these two facts in mind, we move on to the summer of 1967 when the second incident happened.

Still with only that one flight under my belt, but happily having sorted out those fears (or phobias) as mentioned above, I settled down in bed one evening in that year. I was reading a book before going to sleep, as usual, when the second incident occurred.

As I lay there looking at the pages of the book, everything suddenly went black before my eyes, as if fading from one scene to another in a film. Then my eyes were looking down on a village, surrounded by lush trees and grass, near a coastline. This village was made up of a dozen or so small white houses with red roofs. The village took up the top right-hand section of my view and to the left was a coastline forming a long bay that swept out to the left opposite the village. In the top left-hand corner I could see the coastline again so I presume that the village was situated just inland of a peninsular. The sun was shining brightly on this scene as I looked down.

All at once, as if I was in the cockpit of an aeroplane swooping down towards the village, the scene began to rush up at me. The whole area looked deserted but I could see pin-pricks of light flashing around the houses. Then two rays of ‘grey light’, one from each side of my vision, suddenly raced down towards the centre of that village. At this point there seemed to be a lot of smoke around and the scene was getting very blurred. Finally, there was a brilliant flash of blinding white light, everything went black then I was looking at the book still being held open in my hand as I lay in bed.

If I was asked to describe this incident in easy terms, I would say that I was the pilot of a fighter aeroplane shooting up some village near the sea. As I approached along the coast and the village came into view below, I dived down to attack the area. The pin-pricks of light could have been the ‘enemy’ firing up at me (although I can't recall seeing anybody in or around the village) or they could have been small explosions from my gunfire. At the height of, what I would estimate to be from my experience of height now, about five hundred feet (152 metres) a ‘grey light’ speared down from each side of my vision to converge towards the village, just as if a rocket had been fired from under a wing each side of me. The blinding light suggested to me that I may have been hit at that point before going into a blackness of shock or unconsciousness.

And that's the only ‘normal’ way I can describe the incident. I feel that the village was in a country near the Mediterranean or on that line, north or south of the Equator, somewhere around the world. Throughout the whole incident there had been no sound that I can recall, although the events suggested that there should have been the roar of at least one engine and a lot of banging. I had been wide awake when this incident took place, having only settled down about ten minutes before.

At the time my life was plodding along wonderfully with no worries whatsoever. I was extremely happy in my work, I had a very nice girlfriend who shared my interests, and most of our weekends were spent either up in the mountains or down in the caves. Flying was the last thing on my mind.

Then I flew to Europe and back and the fear that I experienced on those flights had me babbling like a demented fool. Throughout the two short flights I couldn't breath, my stomach was knotted tight, I felt sick and I was expecting the aircraft to fall out of the sky at any moment. I vowed that I’d never fly again.

On 13th January 1969 I collected a load of horse dung from some stables very near Gatwick Airport. I was driving a lorry for a mushroom-growing company at the time and the used straw from horse stables was, apparently, ideal for mushroom growing.

On the 5th January, just over a week previously, an aircraft had crashed while approaching that airport. As I drove around some fields towards the stables, I idly noticed that the ground had been churned up in one of the fields on my right. Thinking no more about this, I arrived at the stables nearby.

Whilst loading the straw onto my lorry, a stable boy mentioned about the recent air crash. He told me that fifty people had died, including a couple in a house that the aircraft had hit on the way down. He said that the aircraft had crashed in a field just down the road and I suddenly remembered the churned-up field that I had passed on the way in. I felt very fortunate that the bodies and wreckage had been cleared before I passed by.

Then, on Father’s Day, Sunday, 18th June 1972, My girlfriend and I were driving home from a week’s holiday up in the Scottish mountains. The car radio was on and, whilst listening to the news, we heard that an aircraft had crashed shortly after taking off from London's Heathrow Airport and nobody had survived the impact. I felt extremely sad for the passengers and crew on that aircraft as they had experienced the very thing that I was so fearful of.

At the time I was employed as a ‘southern shunter’ for a Darlington transport company. It was my job to meet a driver (night trunker) who had driven a lorry (truck) down from the north through the night. While that driver slept, I delivered the load and found a return load for the driver to take up north that night. We were using Volvo prime-movers with 50 ft long, tri-axle trailers and most of the loads from up north were either North Sea gas pipes (the distribution pipes for North Sea gas were still being put into the ground down south at the time) or large steel beams.

My diary from that year tells me that, on the Monday morning after returning from the week’s holiday, I had a mixed load to deliver. A part of the load (steel beams) went to Hounslow and the remainder, North Sea gas pipes, went to a field just south of the Staines/London Road between Staines and Bedfont. With the promise of a return load from the Reed’s Paper Mill at Thatcham I planned my day as I drove east towards the western suburbs of London.

I decided to do the Hounslow delivery first and then the Bedfont delivery. Hounslow is just east of Heathrow Airport and the Staines/London road near Bedfont is to the south of the airport. As I was approaching that great airport from the west, my plan would take me across the whole northern perimeter to the delivery point at Hounslow. Then I would drive down the eastern side and turn west to reach a point somewhere just south of the airport where the pipes were to be delivered. Rather than drive back all around the airport to the M4 motorway after the final delivery I planned to carry on west past Staines and on to Thatcham via Bracknell, Wokingham, and Reading. I hadn't been that way for a while and I thought the change would do me good and add a bit of variety to my working day.

As I happily drove up the M4 motorway towards Hounslow, I little knew that my plans would cause me to glimpse the tragic scene of the aircraft that had crashed the previous day.

With the delivery done at Hounslow, I carried on down around to the Staines Road and found the field where the pipes were to be delivered. As the pipes were being off-loaded, one of the men idly mentioned that, if I climbed to the top of the crane jib, I would be able to see an aircraft that had crashed nearby the day before. I recall being curious at what a crashed aircraft would look like but, to me, it didn't feel right to climb that jib and look at the scene just to satisfy my curiosity. I declined his offer and it wasn't long before the trailer was empty and I could continue my journey.

Within minutes of leaving the field (which was on the south side of the Staines/London Road, immediately south of the airport) and turning west, I was on the Staines By-pass and caught up in a more than unusual (for that by-pass) traffic jam. At first I was just moving slowly with the traffic around me, then I was crawling along and finally I was forced to stop. Ahead, the by-pass and wide verges were almost completely blocked by parked cars. Another short move took me closer to the blockage and I could see a hot-dog stall set up on the verge to my left beside the road. A movement caused me to look beyond the hot-dog stall and I could see a man in a white shirt, with a camera slung across his shoulder, running towards some trees that lined the side of the verge. I looked through the trees in the direction that he was running and there, to my utter horror, was the crashed aircraft.

When I look back now, twenty five years later, all I can recall of that scene are lumps of bright whiteness, that were broken sections of the fuselage, glimpsed through the trees that lined the verge. There seemed to be a lot of people hurrying through the trees towards the crash site and it was mainly their parked cars that was causing the traffic jam. The policemen there were doing their best to stop the sightseers but they seemed to be up against some very determined people.

Before I had time to take in any more of the scenes going on around me, a couple of lorry drivers ran up to my cab window and asked me if I would help them turn the hot-dog stall over. I asked them why they wanted to do this and they replied that they thought it disgraceful that someone should try and make money out of other people's tragic circumstances by selling hot dogs to the sightseers. Just at that moment a policeman called out and hurriedly waved me through a lane that he had managed to clear amongst the parked cars.

For a few minutes my concentration was taken up with trying to get the long vehicle through the narrow gaps without hitting anything and then I was free to go my way, hoping that the police would throw the book at those sightseers and the hot-dog stall owner. I had been horrified by the quick glimpse of tragedy. Once more I felt very fortunate that I hadn't had to look upon the full aftermath of an aircraft crash, and again I vowed not to fly anymore.

But, at the end of 1974, I broke that vow and flew out to Australia. And once again I experienced the pure terror that my ‘fear of flying’ phobia caused me to endure. For twenty five hours I sat rigid in my seat, waiting for the bang that would tell me that something had gone wrong with the plane causing it to plummet to the ground. I couldn't eat a thing, I couldn't concentrate on the in-flight movies, and I couldn't sleep. With the greatest relief I finally arrived in Australia and vowed once more that I would never fly again.

Four years later, having happily settled down in Western Australia and again with flying the last thing on my mind, the third incident occurred.

Exactly as with the previous incident, my life was going wonderfully well, I had a good job, a nice girlfriend who shared my interests and we were doing plenty of climbing and caving on the weekends. I didn't have a worry in the world as I said good night to my girlfriend one evening in the Australian summer of 1978 and settled down in bed for my usual pre-sleep read. And again, exactly as in the previous incident, no more than ten to fifteen minutes had passed before the blackness briefly came and I was suddenly ‘flying’.

This time the incident was very short-lived. My eyes were looking at the interior of a perspex-covered cockpit, with a supporting frame of metal in the perspex, very similar to the cockpit cover of the Hawker Hurricane. Everything inside the cockpit looked very gloomy, I could just make out some dials on the instrument panel and outside there was only a thick light-grey fog with wisps of white flashing by. The cockpit was tilted up at about a thirty degree angle and everything seemed to be vibrating fiercely, but I can't recall any sound. My eyes were sweeping around the greyness outside, mostly to the front and right, and I had a strong feeling of apprehension and urgency. The whole incident probably only lasted about twenty seconds before everything went black and I was suddenly looking at the page of my book once more.

Again, if asked to describe this incident in simple terms, I would have to say that I was the pilot of a small aircraft and that aircraft was struggling to gain height up through thick cloud. I ‘felt’ that there was ‘something’ in the mist over to my right (a friend flying in formation nearby?) and that I was expecting to meet ‘something’ up above the clouds (enemy aircraft?).

And that’s the story of the three incidents and the terrible phobia that I suffer. I vividly remember every detail of the ‘dreams’ and I have related them here exactly as they happened.

But, for me, the story doesn’t end here. My inquiring mind would like some answers to the many questions I have, caused by these and other incidents that I’ve experienced throughout my life. Some people will say that the incidents were only dreams and that my ‘fear of flying’ phobia is quite normal. I can accept that everyone has a right to their own opinion and I’d like to brush it off that easily. But, through a lot of research, three other incidents on a different subject and my love/hate relationship regarding flying, I feel that there is more to this than just ‘normality’.

Firstly, there are the incidents. They could have been unconscious ‘thoughts’, imaginings, scenes coming back to me from some films that I’d seen, visions, regressions, or just dreams. As I can’t recall the circumstances leading up to, or after, the first ‘flying’ incident, I couldn’t say too much about it apart from the vividness of the events. But the other two incidents, before, during, and after, are engraved in my memory as if they had only happened yesterday.

Just like everybody else in the world, I've had hundreds of dreams and have usually forgotten them quite quickly. But these three incidents, all concerned with flying, seemed so real, and two of them occurred under such relaxed circumstances that I find it hard to think of them as mere ‘anxiety dreams’ (of which I had many while going through an unhappy period in my forties).

In these enlightening years of the nineties, ‘regression’ back to a former life is now a recognised phenomenon. At the age of four years old, I knew nothing about flying or aircraft when I told my mother about the first incident. Had I already ‘regressed’ back to a former life? I was born on the 20th November 1942 and, according to a part of my research I could have easily died in the early stages of World War 2 and my spirit could have still been reborn during that same war. Was I a pilot in a former life? Did I somehow regress back to that life in the three incidents?

And then there are the questions regarding my continuing love for aircraft and flight, even at my present age of 53 years old. Why do I stop and marvel at the sight of an aircraft flying overhead? Why do I still slip up to the local airport to watch the aircraft movements? Why do I have a library of aircraft books on every conceivable subject to do with flying, from Icarus to the present day? Why do I have a library of videos on the subject of flying? Why do I have four (commercial) flight simulator programs (which I happily play with for hours) on my computer? Why is it that I only have two ‘aggressive type’ simulators (World War 2 bomber and Spitfire) when I refuse point blank to purchase or use any of the many more modern fighter simulator programs that are available on the market now? Regarding those ‘aggressive type’ aircraft, why am I not really interested in any fighters that were produced after the Spitfire and the Hurricane? Why is it that I can conquer my ‘fear of enclosed spaces’ phobia, and learn to enjoy my ‘fear of heights’ phobia so casually? Why am I so fascinated by flight and yet so fearful of it?

And as for that ‘fear of flying’ phobia, it is still with me although I have tried very hard to conquer it through books and practical experience. According to another part of my research, people can unconsciously ‘create’ their phobias through guilt, wanting their own way, rebellion, some tragic event in their life, etc. To me, having been the victim of somebody else’s phobia, this made sense and I had a close look at myself, but I could find nothing to support this fact. It has been said that maybe I've read too much regarding flight and the aircraft industry. Well, there are a lot of people in that industry (Flight Crews, Maintenance Engineers, Airline Operators, Crash Investigators, etc.) who know far more about flying than I ever will, and apart from a relative few, they are happy to fly. It has also been said that maybe I’m not happy about somebody else ‘driving’. Well, I have happily sat beside some terrible car drivers, I love riding trains (where I can't see the driver, and knowing that train travel is far less safer than flying) and I've flown with pilots that I know personally and have admired. But It’s still the same.

Since that flight out to Australia, in spite of my vow not to fly again, I have been to the UK and back twice, I have flown to the Eastern States of Australia and back a few times, I have flown to New Zealand and back, I’ve flown to Tasmania, I’ve flown in search & rescue aircraft, and I’ve used aircraft to look for new climbing and caving areas. During the eighties, through my job of work at the time, I flew up to the relatively remote north of Western Australia and back many times, and used aircraft like city buses while living up in that vast area of land. I’ve also flown out to the Goldfields and back a few times. I’ve flown through rugged mountain passes, I’ve been landed on gravel airstrips on tiny islands, grass-covered paddocks, and mountain glaciers.

And yet, even though I’ve flown those many thousands of miles and survived the many flights in many types of aircraft under many different conditions, I am still plagued by my ‘fear of flying’ phobia. Even though I’ve learned almost every aspect of flight and aircraft, even though I know the efforts that are made to keep aircraft maintained in tip-top condition, and even though I know that flying is the safest form of transport, I am still turned into a human wreck as soon as I know that I’m going to fly and during each flight.

I have had some adventurous flights and have even survived some emergencies. The last emergency that I experienced whilst flying was when, after departing from Perth airport in Western Australia, the aircraft developed a hydraulic problem. I spent an hour of pure terror while we circled Rottnest Island (just off the coast of Western Australia from Fremantle) to burn off fuel, and then the pilot brought us all back into Perth airport with one of the finest landings that I have ever experienced. But even though I was impressed and gratified by that pilot’s skill, it wasn't enough, I refused to reboard the aircraft again after it had been repaired (although I’ve probably flown in that same aircraft on flights that I’ve made with the same airline since). I look back and laugh about that flight now for, while I was falling to pieces and thinking that we were all doomed as the aircraft circled the island, the gentleman in the seat next to me was reading a novel - about an air crash. He must have been one ‘cool customer’ and I still envy him for his calmness while flying.

Another fact that could relate to this story was brought to my notice in 1989 and also gives me another question to ponder over,

My parents had separated shortly after my birth and I never knew my father. But, in 1989, after four years of searching, the Salvation Army finally managed to trace him for me. Within a month of our first contact I had taken holidays from work and travelled back to the U. K. so that I could meet him. As we got to know each other, I became amazed at our similar interests.

My father has a passion for model railways and he has a large model railway layout up in his loft. I too, have a passion for model railways and a large layout in my spare room. My father hates to see broken articles thrown away and spends hours at pulling things to pieces and fixing them, I do the same. He loves going to ‘Boot sales’ and I love going to ‘Swap meets’ (Boot sales are called Swap meets in Australia). He does a lot of charity work for blind people and I do a lot of charity work for youngsters. He doesn’t watch very much television and neither do I. He is a very good handyman, able to handle all types of jobs around the house, I am the same. He doesn’t like beer or public houses and neither do I. He loves the countryside and doesn’t like the city or shopping, I am the same. In fact, we were so alike that it was uncanny.

But, in spite of all these similarities that I discovered during the time we spent together, there was one thing that we didn’t have in common. During World War 2 my father was in the RAF. Although he doesn’t brag about it, I know that he served in at least the UK and Burma. Just like myself, even though in his seventies, he is still happy to spend an afternoon or so at any aerodrome or airport watching the aircraft movements.

The only main difference between us is, I hate flying and he loves it. Why?

PS. See my story The Moel Eilio Experience for more on this subject. And also my poem The Flying Flop in Appendix 1. Or....

Next story - The Beech Barn Incident.

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