When flights get scary

There's turbulence, and there's turbulence.

There's the stuff you get on just about every flight: the little bumps and jumps that might make you put your coffee down so you don't end up wearing it, but which is not going to see you wind up on the evening news.

Then there's real turbulence, the violent shakes of the plane that have the hosties buckling themselves into their jump-seats, that have knuckles turning white on armrests, food trays flying across the cabin, overhead lockers popping open. The kind that has passengers breaking into applause when the wheels finally touch the ground.

In other words, scary turbulence – the stuff that sows the mental seeds of a fear of flying.

I had a pretty rough flight recently. Everything was smooth until we were somewhere high above the Pacific, about halfway between Auckland and Tahiti.

The meals had just been served when, bam, the plane dropped a good couple of metres. A few girls behind me started screaming as the plane began to shake violently, like a car driving over corrugated iron, sending trays rattling to the floor and hosties dashing for the jump-seats.

It was pitch-black outside, too, so there was no way to tell what was going on. Were we rolling around? Were we diving? All you had was your imagination. You just had to grab the hand-rests and try to ride it out calmly.

Ten minutes later, there was a girl having a slight panic attack in the seat behind me. Someone was crying a few rows ahead. We were still shaking violently; you could feel the plane rolling left and right (or was that just my imagination?).

People's minds started whirring – it wasn't a huge stretch to start thinking about that Air France flight off the coast of Brazil a few years ago. What if that's us?

Whoosh – the plan dropped another few metres into the night sky. More screams.

I'm not a fearful flyer, but I also have no wish to plummet into the ocean from a great height. No romantic notions of "he died doing what he loved" for me. The main thought crossing my mind at the time was: "If I'd stayed at home, none of this would be happening."

Of course, you're reading this, so you know the end of the story. The turbulence continued all the way to Papeete, but we survived. The cabin broke into applause when the wheels hit the tarmac, and we all went off for some soothing ukulele tunes and a Hinano or four.

I don't think I'll wind up with a fear of flying. I've been through my fair share of bumpy rides, and it hasn't got to me yet. I even did one of those mental Red Bull Air Race stunt flights last year, which almost made me pass out, but still didn't stop me jumping on the next plane.

I do, however, seem to be getting slightly more concerned about flying the older I get. It's nothing to worry about – I still press my face to the window to watch take-off and landing, and I'm totally relaxed in the air. It's just the little bumps that make me flinch a bit more than they used to.

When I was a kid, turbulence was all part of the ride, like a roller-coaster 30,000 feet up in the sky. Now, however, the little bumps give me pause to ponder my own mortality. Don't take me, oh god of travel. I've barely lived. Take Sarah Palin, or Donald Trump. Anyone else.

Of course, it's all faintly embarrassing when you get back to the safety of land and look back at what a wuss you'd been. What was I worried about? It was just a couple of shakes.

Until the next time...

Have you ever feared for your life in a plane? Do you find you worry about flying more as you get older?

Hope you're enjoying the Backpacker blog – there will be a new one published every Tuesday and Wednesday on the Fairfax Media websites. To contact me with any topic suggestions or personal abuse, visit my website, follow me on Twitter, or email me on bengroundwater@gmail.com.