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For foreign correspondents, one phobia that won't fly

One reporter can't help that knot of fear as she boards rickety planes in far-flung locations. She's glad to shake it off once she gets to her destination. But then there's the return flight.

October 24, 2009|Robyn Dixon

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR — Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack. I pause as I mount the steps of the 737, frowning at the spinning engine.

"Does your engine always make that noise?" I ask the flight attendant while boarding the airplane from Antananarivo to the south of Madagascar. "Seat 5B," he says. "On your right."

A moment's hesitation. I sit. (Mental image: flames shooting from the left-hand engine.)

The problem with having one of the world's most interesting jobs and flying to the world's most fascinating places is getting there.

Whenever I land, it's fine. I plunge in, full of curiosity, and forget all about flying.

Accelerating down the runway on our flight from Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, the thundering momentum should be exhilarating. But for me it defines phobia: fear of flying.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, October 26, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Fear of flying: An article in Saturday's Section A about a foreign correspondent's experiences flying referred to a helicopter lurching sideways at 15,000 feet. The copter was at 1,500 feet.

Odd sounds send that fear soaring, like the midair thunking sound on a flight out of Liberia in 2005. Thunnnnk. Thunnnnk. Thunnnnk.

I asked the flight attendant what was thunking.

"It's nothing. Just the air-conditioning compressor."


Then I thought of a recent international air catastrophe -- when the pilots on a 737 to Athens lost consciousness, reportedly because of a fault in the air supply system or decompression; 121 people were killed.

Choppers are even worse. Perhaps it was the helicopter flight I once took in Chechnya with the Russian military. We rose to about 300 feet and then descended abruptly to the ground.

"It's normal, normal, totally normal," I told myself.

Again we rose. I sat as far as I could from the massive interior fuel tank.

About 15,000 feet up, the chopper lurched sickeningly sideways. There was a moment of sagging equilibrium as it hovered before plunging with an alien metallic roar. (Mental image: fuel tank exploding in a ball of fire.)

At the last moment, the pilot dragged the machine from its descent and began skimming just a few yards above the ground, rising to avoid trees and electrical wires, dipping into valleys. Finally I understood. This was terrain flying, Russian-style.

And in Tajikistan, the world's biggest chopper, the Russian Mi-26, nicknamed the Korova ("Cow"), took me up into the maze-like valleys of the Pamir Mountains, black peaks striped with snow like a herd of zebras. Clouds descended rapidly. It got so bad the pilot considered giving up and heading back to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe.

"Oh, come on," his co-pilot said. "Be a man."

As a child, I loved flying. But my first posting raised alarm bells: In January 1994, three months after I became a correspondent in Moscow, a flight from Irkutsk to Moscow crashed, reportedly because the pilot ignored a cockpit warning that the engine starter turbine wasn't working. The engine burst into flames. All 124 people on board died.

Soon after, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Hong Kong crashed because the pilot let his 15-year-old son fly the plane. The flight data recorders revealed that the boy unknowingly disabled an autopilot function, sending the plane into a 33,000-foot, 4-minute death dive.

Every Moscow journalist had a terrifying story: flight attendants ferrying bottles of cognac into the cockpit; dual engine failures; emergency landings in the middle of fields when the fuel ran out; flights so cold that the beer passengers were drinking froze in their hands.

Two days before Christmas in 1994, I was flying to Vladikavkaz in southwestern Russia. As usual, a chaotic pack populated Moscow's Vnukovo Airport, a grim place with a neglected air.

The plane, due to leave midmorning, was delayed for an hour. Then another.

At 5.30 p.m., a plane was suddenly found and we were rushed onboard by an attendant with big hair and bright butterfly wings of blue eye shadow, shrieking at people to take their seats. She unnerved me.

"This is normal, completely normal," I told myself.

It was a Tu-134, the kind of plane that had an emergency rope, not a slide. I was in the row behind the emergency rope, sitting beside a friend and human rights advocate, Andrei Mironov, who'd survived three emergency landings and a helicopter that had hopped like a kangaroo on takeoff.

As we took off with an unearthly screech of what sounded liked tearing metal, my eyes kept straying to the huge bag a passenger had dumped in front of the emergency exit.

The pilot yelled through the scratchy intercom: "Put your seat belts on!"

As the plane struggled to gain height, I looked at Mironov and suggested we ask the guy in front of us to move his bag away from the emergency exit.

"Later" was all he said, meaning there wasn't any point. Years later, he told me that he had been sure we were all going to die.

Minutes crawled by. The plane didn't stabilize and seemed to be slowing. Outside, Moscow's skyscrapers loomed like treacherous coral reefs.

I glanced at a seasoned war correspondent across the aisle, who'd survived severe shelling when covering the former Yugoslavia. She was crying.

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