On Aeroplanes

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I have been lucky to travel by plane quite a lot over the past few years. For many people flying is a topic ripe for complaining and the sharing of horror stories about cramp and lousy chicken pasta. But me, I love it and I still get a child like excitement when we launch into the air.

The small panic and rush as you speed ahead. Seeing below slip from toy town tracks to quilted patterns of green and brown and blue. Sliding into sleep as we leave the sun beneath a curved horizon and you wake in another, distant, world.

Perhaps it’s just the thin air that makes me a bit dreamy. Air travel does have it’s downsides and budget airlines have sucked up and gleefully spat out any glamour that there once may have been. But it’s still flying, in the air, around the world, above the clouds.

Flying is one of those human endeavours that is absurd and full of contradictions – and that’s what makes it wonderful.

Firstly the physics. I know it’s something about air flowing at different speeds over aero foil that creates a pressure differential but it still feels like magic. When you see one of those huge airbuses sat squat and heavy at the departure gate it seems inconceivable that it could actually fly. Yes they have engines the size of a house and make enough noise to deafen half of the home counties but I’m still convinced planes fly mainly on faith. It’s an unspoken rule that planes work by magic – and as long as everyone on board believes that huge mechanical monsters can fly – then it works. Those crashes you hear about that’s what happens when someone on board doesn’t believe enough.

OK it’s not all magic. Penned in to spaces activists would protest against for livestock, rebreathing each other’s noxious emissions and being viewed with something beneath contempt by the hostess – flying budget has got it’s flaws. But what more do we want? People used to get dressed up to fly in a freezing, bumpy, death trap that took 3 weeks to reach France. Now, we rock up in tiger print onesies smashed on breakfast beers and complain that the peanuts are too salty.

For less than it costs to heat a bath full of water these days you can travel at nearly the speed of sound, go higher than Everest and be half round the world before you’ve even read about ‘The top ten nightspots in Ulan Bator’. We should celebrate this, not bemoan and whinge about it. Yes, each time you fly you get exposed to more radiation than a dozen X-rays. Yes, each time you fly enough toxic waste is belched out to suffocate the last of the pandas. Yes, each time you fly some Russian oligarch can buy another diamond house. But you are achieving the impossible. Each time you fly you can see the world the way our ancestors could only imagine gods do. Each time you fly you are closer to the sun and the edges of the universe. Each time you fly you make magic.

I remember, the author, Will Self once made the same argument and said that we were no more in awe of flight. He suggested that, instead of check in desks and luggage trolleys, we should have ranks of trumpeters in winged helmets to send us off and the captain should greet us personally at the doorway and declare “Today, we shall FLY!”

I’m down with that.

Air travel is a contradiction. And so are humans. The way the world is going we’re not going to be able to burn our way through the air for much longer. So we should put on our winged helmets, press our faces to the round window and enjoy the ride.

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