Being a kid on an aircraft in the 1970s and 80s was great. They gave you puzzles, colouring books and toffees to keep you quiet, and if you were travelling alone, they’d let you hide the geeky ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ sign in your pocket whenever you felt that your ten-year-old dignity was at stake. Best of all, they almost always offered you a cockpit visit, because this was back when fewer kids had guns, and before there was a terrorist hiding in the sole of everyone’s shoes. A few minutes in the cockpit made a ten-hour journey worth every minute, and ensured that I grew up thinking that being on an airplane was the best, most thrilling thing in the world, and kudos to mankind for achieving flight.
Turbulence was but a series of entertaining bumps, and air pockets a delicious whooshing sensation in the tummy. Electric storms were pretty. On occasion when I saw another passenger murmuring prayers and sweating and clutching his or her armrest in obvious distress, I felt great washes of magnanimous pity for the poor laggards in the gene pool.
Around the time I turned thirty, however, the proverbial thing that goes around, came around and bit me in the butt. On a flight between Delhi and Bombay, one minute I was looking out the window and enjoying the dubious inflight service. The next, I became suddenly convinced that all the noises I was hearing bespoke engine failure, wing dismemberment, wheel shredding, navigational error, airplane breakup and general hydraulic, electric and prolific calamity, all of which the pilot was refraining from telling us doomed passengers about because he was himself dead in his seat.
I observed that the air hostesses continued to serve tea in a kind of ghoulish denial of what was happening, and that the other passengers kept snoring or picking their noses as if they simply couldn’t hear the big-wire-that-controls-everything short-circuiting, and the ailerons falling off. I became a gibbering wreck, and when suddenly the engines seemed to shut off, nobody batted an eye. I realised that it was up to me to keep the whole benighted aircraft aloft by shivering and sweating profusely.
Since that day, I have taken only three flights that I enjoyed more than I hated; and paradoxically, those were in a helicopter, a little Cessna, and a hot air balloon, all of which are a good deal less safe than your average passenger aircraft.
Recently, however, I happened upon a kindly pilot who attempted to cure me of my fear by inviting me into the cockpit of his Boeing 747 so that I could see for myself the awesome technology that was holding me safe in 35,000 feet of nothing (which pilots insist on calling ‘air’). I took this as my chance to voice my deepest fears, and get reassurance by a qualified chap.
It’s been fifteen years since I was last in a cockpit, and I have to admit that it was still a great kick, even though it’s a tad disconcerting to see the control yokes moving by themselves, and to realise that you can’t make out a single word of what the air traffic controller just said, and to discover that pilots do in fact frequently bang their heads against the millions of knobs on the overhead panels.
But all in all, my visit did help to reassure me that the people in the cockpit know what they’re doing—which is, apparently, dying of boredom and therefore happy to answer the most foolish of your questions. I’m too embarrassed to repeat it here, but I’m happy to say that the answer is ‘no’.