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KLM helps me overcome my fear of flying

Having grown up in the mountainous outskirts of Mbabane – Swaziland – the closest airport to us was Matshapha, which was some 40 odd kilometer away. In the mid-seventies, when we were young children, our parents sometimes (not often) would take us picnicking at the Matsapha airport, after Sunday mornings' church service. This small airport had a fenced off open park, adjacent to the main building, that served as a viewing deck. There, our mother would lay a couple of grass mats on the floor and delicately lay out the foods and goodies from the picnic basket, all of which were home-made – including the peanut butter, bread and mayonnaise (not to mention the jerseys we wore). Back in the mid-seventies, many other families would also come to picnic at the airport, where we met and made friends with many other children. And, when airplanes took off and landed, we, together with the other children would run up and down the fence waiving our good-byes and hello's to the passenger's in the planes – even though we hardly ever saw or even knew any of them.

One Sunday afternoon we arrived to an air show that turned out to be more memorable than we could have ever imagined. We saw small colorful "fighter-planes" flying around, leaving streaks of various colors in the sky, that formed circles, lines and squiggly patterns of all sorts of shapes. Then, there were groups of parachutists that also formed numerous patterns in the skies above before landing close to where we were. While this show was going on, I remember this, being the most amazing day a child could ever experience.

We were joyfully playing and running around when all of a sudden we heard screaming, shouting and sighs of despair coming from the crowd of spectating adults. One of the parachutists was coming down at high speed and his parachute hadn't opened. As I turned towards the unfortunate parachutist's direction, I heard him screaming while kicking wildly as his (/her) body sped for the hazardous, hard ground. And, in a split second, we heard a loud earth-shattering thud as his body hit the bare ground. His lifeless body bounced once and settled down on the grass field as a small cloud of dust and some specs of loose soil, grass and minute stones rose simultaneously as if to signify some sort of "last-kicks" from the dead body.

I vaguely remember the chaos that ensued thereafter, as parents scrambled to prevent their children from seeing any much more of the brutal tragedy that had unfolded. We were quickly whisked back into the car, and left in a haze of traffic that shortly opened way for the emergency vehicle – supposedly carrying the lifeless body of the unfortunate parachutist. The thirty minute drive leading back to our home, seemed to unfold so much slower than it had ever done before. Between long bouts of silence, our parents mumbled inaudibly to each other in the front. While the excitement that used to fill the back seat of our car, was replaced by a very cold, and thin silence, as our thoughts gaped at this afternoon's harrowing event. My head was filled with "what if" scenarios: what if we didn't go today, maybe his (/her) parachute would have worked... what if he was sick / ill and couldn't perform, maybe he would have stayed at home, and wouldn't have died...

In all that silence, I only heard one audible statement from my father as we drove up the road that meandered up the famous Malagwane mountain. With his index finger raised to us, the back seat passengers, my father raised his voice and said: "you see, if you suddenly have a problem when you are driving a car you can put the breaks on and the car will stop... in a plane you can't put the breaks on and stop in the middle of the air". My young, child brain desperately tried to make sense of the link between the death of the parachutist, and the fact that a plane can not stop in the mid-air. It all didn't make much sense at the time, but the experience planted a small grain of fear that grew to petrify me in my adult life. This small grain quickly grew into a big, thorny bush that would cloud all logic when ever I would have to reason with thoughts of aeroplanes, flying and being far above the ground. With that early incident, my paranoia for aeroplanes has grown in leaps and bounds.

As "Murphy's law" would have it, when I grew up, I found I would have to fly from time to time. At every single flight, my uninvited "fear" would welcome itself into my conscience a week before the flight. My thoughts of "what if" mortified me into believing that one day I will, most definitely, somehow hit the ground like that parachutist. Each flight, I took, always felt like it would be the last. While each "good bye" was just as perilous. Yet each landing came as such a miracle, and each complimentary "hello" was met with more joy than was deserving of the occasion. And so my flying life continued one scarey flight after the next.

One mid-winters day in the late 90's I was faced with my first flight abroad to visit my elder brother who had recently moved to live in Edinburgh – Scotland. My brother's constant invitations, left me with fewer and fewer excuses, each time he would extend his invitation. And, out of a bout of frustration, I purchased a return ticket with KLM. Having never flown abroad before, I had no particular preference to fly fly KLM, except that they offered the cheapest flight, with the least total number of hours in the air.

KLM 787 aircraft in the sky
I requested a window seat in the back of the plane, as I had read that; most aeroplane accident survivors had almost always been seated in the back seat(s) of the aeroplane. As I slowly walked down the aisle towards the safest seat on the flight, I tried to memorize my fellow passengers faces, hoping that this would keep away my terrifying thoughts of fear. Although this was an over night flight, I didn't anticipate falling asleep because of the multitude of wild thoughts that filled my little head.

At first glance, I was disappointed with the seat I had requested. It was a single seat on the very last row of the plane, with no neighbor to chat with or keep me company. The seat was right next to the toilet and the window was in such an awkward position that I would have to lean so far forward to see outside: my brain immediately started reasoning why this seat was so safe... yet so socially displaced.

When I'd finished putting away my hand luggage in the overhead compartment holder, I routinely sat down, fitted on my seat belt, and proceeded to stare through the far window into the dark of the wet and windy Johannesburg evening. My mind wondered if this would be the end of me yet again.

The air hostesses had started walking up and down, checking and ensuring all passengers had their seat belts on. And, even though I had my seat belt on, the hostess inquired whether I was alright as she gave me a look of peculiarity. "I'm fine" I heard myself say, as I wondered what she could possibly have found unusual about me. She arranged for a napkin for me and asked if I am feeling feverish as she handed me the napkin and signaled me to wipe my face. I hadn't realized that, in my fit of fear, my face was dripping with sweat. So I quickly assured her that I am so scared of flights and that this is the longest flight I have ever taken. Her facial expression immediately relaxing and she quickly reassured me that I would "thoroughly" enjoy this flight. She continuously checked on me and chatted, which relaxed the feelings of anxiety that had previously immobilized me. Her concern and company kept me entertained for the remaining part of the evening. Fortunately, we experienced absolutely no turbulence, which reassured me that this flight was much safer than I had originally thought – I actually fell asleep somewhere along the line. Before I dozed off into a comfortable sleep, I remember thinking that I'd won over my new found companion's sympathy. I asked this kind and sympathetic hostess to serve me as much alcohol as possible so that I could calm down my nerves and live through this long flight. To my surprise, she advised me not to take anymore alcohol, but promised me that she'd give me as much water as I wanted as this would re-hydrate me, keeping my body fluids in balance and keeping me calm at all times. I adopted her advice, and have been using water on all flights since then, which has helped, tremendously.

Before I could notice our flight was nearly over. As we descended onto Amsterdam I took the opportunity to thank that young, pleasant lady for all of her courtesy, and wished all the best for the future. When I had alighted from the plane, I could hardly believe that I had had such a pleasant and peaceful flight with KLM's well trained, dedicated flight attendant.

For the first time my uninvited "fear" disappeared into thin air somewhere on the way from Johannesburg to Amsterdam.

My pleasant experience with KLM airlines was later reinforced by my poor encounter with Swiss air, who's staff were so indecent to me through out the flight. Although I have since not had the fortunate occasion of using KLM following that first flight, I am doubtlessly confident that they still give the same superior service. I am, however, glad that I have not had to use Swiss air again since, and, have vowed to avoid them at all costs.

Thanks KLM: big ups to you and all of your staff. I eagerly look forward to flying with KLM again.

By Coy Dlamini, written on the 20th January 2013

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