Why would anyone watch Air Crash Investigation?

The success of TV show Air Crash Investigation shows there's a few million viewers who regularly enjoy being scared out of their wits.
The success of TV show Air Crash Investigation shows there's a few million viewers who regularly enjoy being scared out of their wits. Photo: Reuters

Who in their right mind would watch a television program called Air Crash Investigation?

Quite a few people, it seems. Ninety-eight episodes of the harrowing Canadian docu-drama series, which forensically examines the causes of plane crashes, have been screened in 144 countries and in 26 languages and its continuing popularity means there are another 11 episodes in production. It has spawned clones such as Britain's Air Crash Confidential and the Smithsonian's Air Disasters.

That's a few million viewers who regularly enjoy being scared out of their wits.

I suspect lots of the audience are people who are nervous of flying.

It's like having a headache and finding yourself trawling the internet for articles about brain tumours: it's human nature to imagine the worst.

There's actually a greater chance of Miley Cyrus becoming Amish.

"It's strangely comforting," says a much-travelled friend who is a member of the White Knuckle Brigade but who watches Air Crash Investigation religiously.

I have an awful little secret. I'm a nervous flyer too. You'd think that would be very rare for a travel writer but in fact it's not. I've been surprised to find many of my colleagues are anxious in the air, especially in lurching turbulence. So I'm not such a freak. Flying is, after all, the most unnatural thing a human can do.

It isn't that we travel writers have any inside information that would make us anxious. We know the statistics are on our side - only one fatality per 4.03 million scheduled flight hours during 1998-2007.

And the odds are better recently. There's actually a greater chance of Miley Cyrus becoming Amish. And even if your plane does crash, there's a 95 per cent chance you'll survive. Really. When Asiana 214 so spectacularly belly-flopped short of the runway in San Francisco in July, 305 passengers survived. Of the two killed, one was run over by a rescue truck.

In my case, and I suspect in the case of other writers, my illogical anxiety about flying is driven by an overactive imagination. The slightly burnt smell of brewed coffee in the galley might be the sign of a full-on engine fire. An unrestrained child running down the aisle might work out a way to open the emergency door. That flight attendant smiling rigidly as she tries to serve lunch in a storm knows we're all going to die. There are dozens of little scenarios an active mind can create on a 14-hour flight.

I should say here that I am also illogically afraid of chair lifts and of River Cave rides at fairgrounds, thinking I might fall off and drown in 30 centimetres of water. Don't get me started on glass elevators! I'm the Woody Allen of Australian travel writers.

But years ago I decided I wanted to go places. And that meant, from Australia, that I had to fly, unless I spent a few weeks on a ship (and I don't like waves much either).

The more I've flown, the less anxious I've become. I haven't done any of the courses airlines offer. I've simply taken myself in hand and talked myself out of it. Mostly. I'm quite blase these days, although I study pre-flight weather reports obsessively - a pointless exercise if ever there was one. I do find, though, that when things get rough, as with an aborted landing once in Sydney, I'm the one calming the passenger next to me and trying not to look worried as I hand out the sick bags.

The last thing I need, however, is Air Crash Investigation. I don't need to know a swarm of wasps in the petrol tank might bring down a plane, that hundreds of deaths were caused by something the size of a paperclip, or that there's such a thing as Distance Measuring Equipment and inexperienced pilots can be misled by it.

In the world of ACI, known problems in aircraft design remain unfixed, cockpit windshields blow out and air traffic controllers take bathroom breaks, leaving circling aircraft above on a collision course. All this happens against a soundtrack of dramatic music, lots of realistic shuddering of gear sticks and the sweaty brows of flight crews who know they are doomed.

Flying in commercial aircraft is an act of trust. Once I'm on the plane, I've made that pact of trust. I really don't need to be worrying about whether our landing will be a "non precision approach" or not.

lee.tulloch@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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