Captain Steve Allright, a Boeing 747 pilot of 24 years, who has notched up 12,000 hours, is the man tasked with the job of trying to take the fear out of flying for UAE residents.
So when I ask what the most alarming incident that’s ever happened to him up in the sky is, he has a quip ready.
“There was one time the cabin crew didn’t have my choice of dinner,” he says. “Nothing more alarming than chicken when you want lamb.”
I laugh politely.
In fact, it turns out, the most hair-raising incident that’s ever happened to Captain Allright was the time when, while flying some 250 passengers from Philadelphia to London, his Boeing 747’s engine suddenly failed at 9,100 metres.
“There was a mechanical issue,” he remembers. “It went silent and stopped working. Not ideal, really.
“I wouldn’t say there was panic on board but, obviously, when the engine suddenly goes quiet it can cause passengers a certain amount of... disquiet.”
Yet, as the man at the proverbial wheel, Captain Allright apparently never broke sweat. “These are the situations pilots are trained for,” he notes. “On that plane there were two engines and, of course, two wings. Now if anything had happened to one of the wings we’d be in real trouble because that’s what keeps a plane in the sky, but without one engine? Even without both engines? You’re OK, no [major] problem. You can glide for about 100 miles. I told the passengers not to worry, that we were going to have to divert to Boston, and other arrangements would be made for their onward journey.
“Then I used the rudder to control the yaw [keep the plane level] and took her down. For a pilot, it’s no different to, say, a car engine failing. As a driver you instinctively know what to do – find a safe place and pull over. That’s what I did.
“How did I feel? Probably a bit annoyed I wouldn’t get home to London that evening.”
He insists his actions don’t make him a hero. His passengers may well disagree. I too disagree, as it goes.
Above and beyond his inexplicable calmness under extreme pressure, any man whose working day can typically include – as he describes it – dropping the kids off at school, flying to Moscow and back, and then taking the bins out before bed, has something of the heroic about him.
Now, Captain Allright, who was born and raised 10 miles from London’s Heathrow Airport, will (metaphorically) park his jumbo jet in Dubai for a few days in March to run a course – along with therapist wife Donna – to help residents who fear flying conquer their apprehension.
Perhaps at the start of 2015, having such a fear is understandable. That’s because last year was a truly horrible one for the aviation industry. Almost 900 people died or disappeared while on airplanes in a series of incidents that shocked the world.
On March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airlines MH370 vanished while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board. Despite the biggest search in aviation history, no trace has been found of the craft. On July 17 the same airline company suffered a second devastating loss when flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine. All 298 people on board were killed.
The same month 48 people died when a domestic Taiwan flight crashed while landing at Penghu Islands, and another 116 perished in an Air Algérie flight downing in Mali following bad weather.
The year was rounded off tragically by the December 28 crash of AirAsia QZ8501, which dropped into the Java Sea between Indonesia and Singapore. The cause of the accident – in which 162 people died – remains unknown*, although the black box recorder has been recovered.
Captain Allright, though, is not supposed to discuss any of that. Part of his contract with British Airways means he is forbidden to speculate about any accident until a final investigations report has been filed and rules for future safety have been implemented by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
We push him, but he’s not for talking: “What I will say is, I know it sounds heartless, but when I hear of an incident, my first feeling as a pilot, is one of interest rather than bereavement. I want to know what happened. These things are so rare that when something does go wrong I want to know why and how.”
In any case, it’s perhaps because of such incidents that there’s a very real fear of flying present in the UAE.According to a British Airways survey, one in four people in this country are apprehensive about aviation. And considering there are some 8 million expats that means it impacts hugely on people’s lives.
“It shows that some people here are missing out on going to see family and friends because they don’t like to board a plane too often,” says Disa Tersmeden, a Dubai-based events organiser who is helping to organise the course. “That suddenly turns a fear of flying from a fairly common but largely avoidable phenomenon into a major life issue.”
“There are one million people airborne every single second,” says Captain Allright. “Boeing airplanes alone complete 38 million miles [60 million km] every single day. So, when you think of it like that, incidents really are incredibly rare. “More people died by sticking knives in toasters [and thereby getting electrocuted] in 2013 than they did in air accidents. It’s information like this that we are trying to pass to people.” Indeed, according to America’s Air Transport Association, a person could statistically fly every day for 3,859 years and never be involved in an accident. Along similar lines, the American news broadcaster CNN estimated that there is just one crash for every 1.4 million flights.
Such numbers probably have something to do with the fact that it’s the most regulated industry in the world. Planes are analysed by mechanics before every single flight – for every hour in the air, engines undergo three hours of checks – while pilots face a rigorous training programme and a licence proficiency exam every six months.
“If we fail it, we’re out,” says Captain Allright. “This is the most tested profession on earth. The only thing pilots fear is that exam.” He’d also like to point out that planes cannot be downed by turbulence. “It may be uncomfortable,” he notes, “but it is never dangerous. No plane has ever crashed because of turbulence.” All of which begs the question: just why are so many of us scared of flying?
Perhaps there is something in the famous quote from the First World War British aviation expert Captain A G Lamplugh. Flying in itself, “is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”
More pertinently, though, reckons Donna Allright, the fear is often a symptom of something completely unrelated to the flight. It could be a manifestation of claustrophobia or a fear of being out of control rather than the flight itself. In some instances, other stresses – such as looming work deadlines – have been found to exacerbate a fear of flying.
It may even be something as simple as a newly sharpened sense of how important life is.
“It’s quite common for new mums and dads to become phobic because their new child has suddenly given them a sense of their own mortality,” she says. While such feelings aren’t unreasonable, she says, they aren’t entirely rational either. There’s no more chance of a flight going wrong just because you are now a parent than there was before.
Yet rationality rarely comes into phobias. So the real key is controlling your feelings.
That may be easier said than done, but there are techniques that advocates say really do work. “It’s about giving yourself the toolbox that allows you to cope,” says Donna, a professional counsellor of 12 years who has worked with individual and corporate clients across the UK.
Controlling your breathing is one suggestion. When we’re scared we instinctively go into fight or (no pun intended) flight mode, meaning adrenaline is released, which, in this case, adds to our anxiety. By taking long deep breaths, we can override this instinct and take control.
“Clenching your buttocks is also effective,” says Donna, “as it overrides other nervous signals going up and down your spinal chord.
“Then you can have a calculated conversation with yourself in which you should use the technical information to remind yourself how safe you are.”
Visualising a successful end to the flight is also useful. Imagining yourself stepping off the plane into the arms of loved ones releases positive endorphins that counter negative emotions.
And distract yourself. It may seem glib to say an in-flight movie can curb a crippling fear, but boredom leads to the mind over-thinking. Having something to pass the time prevents this.
“I wish I could wave a magic wand and make everyone feel comfortable about flying,” says Donna. “But I can’t. But with the right help, people can and do overcome their fears.”
And that, says Captain Allright, is almost as rewarding to him as flying his beloved jumbo jets. “Flying is life-changing,” he says. “There’s a whole world out there to see and explore. No-one should ever be put off by fear of the journey.”
In the Noughties, Arsenal dominated English football but never won a European trophy as their talisman wouldn’t fly to away games. In his autobiography he said, “Sometimes I was preoccupied by the flight home while I was playing football. It was hell.”
He ruled North Korea with an iron-fist, but he apparently couldn’t rule his own fear of flying – he made all state visits by train. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was never quoted on the issue.
Credited as one of the men who brought an end to the Cold War, but before Reagan became president, he was helped with his fear of flying. In a letter he rejected an invite to a broadcaster’s dinner. “Part of the difficulty, is that I don’t fly, so time must be allowed for train travel.”
B A Baracus
For a man who regularly claimed “I ain’t getting’ on no plane, fool” the A-Team legend spent a remarkable amount of time in flight – normally after his sidekicks had knocked him unconscious.
The comedienne and actress has her own rock bus for making journeys across the US. “I’ll fly if I must,” she says. “But I prefer my rock bus.”
Five ways to fight fear
1 Arm yourself with knowledge. Knowing how a plane works and how remote the chances of a crash are is reassuring.
2 Practise deep breathing techniques to override your fight or flight instincts.
3 Envisage a successful end to the journey so positive thoughts flow.
4 Distract yourself. Boredom can lead to worry.
5 Accept. In life there are situations you can’t control. This is one. But you’ll soon be safely on the ground again.