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 aeroplane, 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 condemned 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, imagining the reactions of various people, until I was so panicked that I would begin sweating, would feel ill, 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
100 slowly, and then count backwards. I got someone to explain to me why an aeroplane makes certain noises at certain times,
so that I would be able, at least, to tell the difference between the bomb and the beginning of descent.
But none of this helped. The panic got worse and worse, finally culminating,
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 from 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 tranquillisers,
the kind that say "do not take together with alcohol" on
the bottle. After that, I would have a drink in the bar before taking off, have a drink on the plane, take the tranquillisers and fall
As I say, all of this started perhaps a year 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 over-sensitivity, and used to tease me mercilessly, reciting lists of crash statistics and
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
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 my 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, they believed 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
Oxford 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 down the
phone and feeling odd: nothing dramatic, nothing spectacular, 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 aeroplane 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
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 aeroplane meal around Christmas-time, rifling through their Fortnum & Mason bags
checking whether the Christmas presents for their families were still there.
Transatlantic flights around this time of year are always packed, and
always noisy. To say that I felt sad 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 then, 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
peculiar near-miss experience, that I resolved to live a deeper, fuller existence, that henceforth I became a kinder person, that
my relationship with my mother, who for an hour or so thought I was dead, was transformed. Sadly, it didn't have any of those
effects. But when those waves of mid-flight 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 expats now
Once upon a time, people who went abroad went abroad for good: a posting
to India might last a lifetime, emigration to
Australia meant you never saw your mother again, a trip across the Atlantic was a dangerous undertaking, one that might easily
end in death. Letters took months to arrive, telegrams were a horrendous expense, people who lived far apart usually stopped
Nowadays 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 12 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. The crash of Pan Am 103 heightened my sense of the vast, geographical space that has to be crossed in
order to get home: looking down from the plane window at the dark ocean, I would no longer see a bit of blank territory to be
covered as quickly as possible, but an area of water where the broken bits of the plane would be found floating the morning
after. Lockerbie was a lesson in distance: even living in London, which is sometimes described by American expats 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 tranquillisers in my bathroom cabinet and I don't drink on the plane. The panic is
gone, but the sense of distance remains.