I Was Booked on Flight 103

A meditation on Lockerbie, accidents, and fear of flying.

I cannot remember a time when I did not fly on airplanes, and for years and years, I flew without anxiety. Later, after the Lockerbie crash, when I developed serious fear of flying not the odd tremor during turbulence, but the real thing – this previous experience with airplanes helped me to keep it concealed.

During this period, I seemed, on the face of it, to be a perfectly normal passenger. I purchased my tickets just as other people do, planning trips according to price and convenience, not astrology or tea leaves. I went to the airport with the regular sort of luggage, stood in the queues, answered questions about where and how I had packed my bags, watched calmly while my laptop computer was x-rayed and my handbag searched. I had to travel quite often at that time, sometimes on dodgy airlines, sometimes on quite safe ones. But it didn’t matter: every time I got on an airplane, whether it was the mail plane from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar or United business class to Frankfurt, I knew, with the certainty of a condemnded man, how it would end.

That is, I knew but I didn’t know. Rationally, I knew the fear was silly, but rationality didn’t prevent my imagination from starting to work as soon as I got on the plane. I would sit down, buckle my seatbelt, close my eyes and then immediately begin to imagine what it would feel like if the plane exploded in mid-air. First, I thought, it would be very, very cold; then there would be the sensation of falling. One might lose consciousness, or one might not; certainly there would be sparks and cinders all around, like fireworks. There might be noise – first the explosion, then the whoosh of air, then the cries of other people, if one were able to hear them in the wind. Or one might die immediately, burnt to a cinder by the bomb. Or perhaps the explosion would occur near the ground, and one would survive, albeit horribly mutilated.

I would go through all of the details in my head, envisaging the newspaper photographs, the commentary on the evening news. Would there be an instant Reuters report? Would I get mentioned? Whose story would get told later in a Channel 4 documentary? Would the newspaper for which I then worked write an obituary? One by one, I would think through all of these possibilities, until I was so panicked that I would begin sweating, would feel ill, would be physically sick, would start promising myself never to fly again. All around me, people would be reading their magazines and eating their peanuts, and I would be sitting, eyes tightly closed, waiting for the explosion to come.

Over the years, I developed various tricks to stave off the panic: I would tell myself, for example,that it was better to be flying over water, because that way the impact of the crash would be lessened. Or, when approaching the ground, I would count to one hundred slowly, and then count backwards. I got someone to explain to me why an airplane makes certain noises at certain times, so that I would be able, at least, to tell the difference between the bomb explosion and the beginning of descent.

But none of this helped. The panic got worse and worse, finally culminating, rather bizarrely, in a hysterical moment aboard a Lufthansa flight from London to Berlin. No Lufthansa plane has ever crashed, to my knowledge; the flight from London to Berlin takes about an hour and a half; and there was no turbulence that day. Nevertheless, I became convinced, half way through the flight, that there was something wrong with the plane and they weren’t telling us. I could see the plane swaying side to side, could feel something wrong with the engine. I called to the stewardess, and demanded that she ask the pilot what was wrong. She looked at me oddly, went away for a bit, and then came back, claiming that the pilot had said everything was fine. I didn’t believe her, and spent the rest of the flight gripping my seat, but was fortunately too embarrassed to talk to her again.

Not long after that, I persuaded a kind doctor to give me tranquilisers, the kind that say “do not take together with alchohol” on the bottle. After that, I would have a drink in the bar before taking off, have a drink on the plane, take the tranquilisers and fall asleep.

As I say, all of this started not long after the Lockerbie crash, although for a long time I didn’t really make the connection. The kind doctor told me that it was “control anxiety”, and speculated that perhaps I felt the same sort of panic in other situations. I didn’t. My husband thought it was female oversensitivity, and used to tease me mercilessly, reciting lists of crash statistics, clutching my arm in feigned panic.I would even tell other people about it and laugh, tossing it off as some kind of American, Woody Allenish neurosis, albeit a funny sort of neurosis for a foreign correspondent. But in retrospect, I think it was to do with Lockerbie.

For at one time, I was booked to be on Pan Am 103, the flight that left London for New York on December 21, 1988, and never arrived. About a week before the flight, however, I postponed my trip simply in order to stay a day longer with friends in Oxford, where I had recently been a graduate student. Some members of my family dispute the exact sequence of events, but in any case it is certain that I usually flew home for Christmas on this particular flight, certain that I changed the ticket, certain that I finally decided to fly Pan Am 103 on the 22nd rather than the 21st, and equally certain that my mother firmly believed I was coming home on the 21st, the day of the crash.

She heard the news on the car radio. Then she rang Pan Am. At first they refused to tell her anything (“we are giving no information at this time”) then they put her through to “special services”, who told her that yes, there was someone called “Applebaum” on the plane.

The next I heard of it was when I returned home that evening to my friend’s flat, and had a message from my then-boyfriend to call home, urgently, which I did. I remember hearing a sort of greyness in my mother’s voice. I remember my father telling me not to worry, he’d always been convinced that I wasn’t coming home that day. I remember putting the phone down and feeling odd: nothing dramatic, nothing special, just odd. I also have some vague recollection of talking to the then-boyfriend as well, of him saying disgustedly, “don’t you ever listen to the news?” Everyone in the world, it seems, had heard about the crash that evening apart from me.

That’s all that happened, except that the following day I missed my flight – the only time I have ever missed an airplane flight – because, as Freudians will appreciate, I left my ticket in the back of someone’s car. By the time I finally got home, two days after the Lockerbie crash, everyone was annoyed with me rather than relieved and the Lockerbie saga, for me, appeared to be over.

But it wasn’t quite: during the next few days, we heard of several acquaintances who had been on the plane. The brother of a friend of my parents was on the plane; the brother of a partner of my father’s was on the plane. A whole group of students from one American university, all studying in Britain on their year abroad, were on the plane. The plane was full, in other words, of people like me: Americans living or studying abroad, people whom I might know or people who might be related to people I know, all coming home for Christmas. Those people would have been laughing, talking, eating the chocolate Santa Clauses that stewardesses always hand you with your airplane meal around Christmas-time, rifling through their Fortnum and Mason bags checking whether the Christmas presents for their families were still there.

Transatlantic flights around this time of year are almost always packed, and always noisy. To say that I felt said for the families of the people on Pan Am 103 is not enough. Perhaps my feelings are better expressed if I say that I have, ever since, consciously tried not to read any newspaper articles about the Lockerbie crash or the subsequent investigation.

Of course it would now make a nice little morality tale, if I could go on to write that my life was somehow changed by this odd nearish-miss experience, that I resolved to live a deeper, fuller existence, that I henceforth became a kinder person, that my relationship with my mother, who for an hour or so thought I was dead, was totally transformed. Sadly, it didn’t have any of those effects. But when those waves of panic began a year or so later, in retrospect I can see that they didn’t come from out of the blue. For Lockerbie did, I think, serve to fracture ever so slightly the safe techno-bubble in which we modern ex-pats now live.

Once upon a time, people who went abroad went abroad for good: a posting for India might last a lifetime, emigration to Australia meant you never saw your mother again, a trip across the Atlantic was a drastic undertaking, one which might easily end in death. Letters took months to arrive, telegrams were a horrendous expense, people who lived far apart usually stopped communicating.

Nowadays, of course, it isn’t like that. I might live, as I do at the moment, in a ridiculously provincial part of the Polish countryside, but I can talk on the phone to my mother in Washington every week or every day if I wish. I can fly from here to London for the evening for a party. I can fly from here to New York for the weekend for a wedding. Most mornings I get a few e-mail messages from one of my friends in Los Angeles or Moscow, and most evenings I send a few back.

I can keep up friendships long distance for years on end, even when I hardly ever see the friend. Someone called me from Paris a few days ago whom I hadn’t spoken to in many months, and within minutes we had picked up the strain of our last conversation as if no time had passed at all.

People who don’t live in this techno-bubble find it hard to understand, and I am often asked whether I don’t miss my family, having been away from home for more than twelve years now. The question often surprises me, because I labour, most of the time, under the illusion that I am not separated from my family. If, in the course of a week, I talk to my mother, e-mail my sister, and get a fax from my father, they seem present to me. And, of course, I can always go home to America for Christmas, and I almost always do.

Lockerbie, however, was a reminder that crossing the Atlantic is still an important, serious undertaking, that America and Europe are far apart. Lockerbie heightened my sense of the vast, geographical space which has to be crossed in order to get home: looking down from the plane window at the dark ocean, I no longer saw a bit of blank territory to be covered as quickly as possible, but the area of water where the broken bits of the plane would be found floating on the morning after. Lockerbie was a lesson in distance: even living in London, which is sometimes described by American ex-pats as a “suburb of New York” I wasn’t, in fact, at home. I was abroad, in a foreign country, and I had a long way to go in order to get home for Christmas.

And then it went away. That is, for no particular reason, my fear of flying receded. Recently, I took a plane from Moscow to Archangel, flying on something called “Arkhangelsk Airlines”, and happily read the newspaper during the flight, even during take off and landing. Last spring, I flew across the Atlantic and slept all the way. Short flights no longer require days of psychological preparation, I no longer keep tranquilisers in my bathroom cabinet, and I don’t drink on the plane. The panic is gone, but the sense of distance remains.