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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Buckle up and enjoy your flight

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The atmosphere on demonstration flights is relaxed and informal. Photo / AP
The atmosphere on demonstration flights is relaxed and informal. Photo / AP

Even though we're well aware that flying is the safest form of transportation, fear of flying is as persistent as superstition.

An obvious reason for this is that we know that the odds of surviving a plane crash are low. Most of us have had scary moments on the road, but afterwards we feel lucky that we're not on our way to hospital rather than lucky to be alive.

And although the number of flights that end in accidents is tiny, the death tolls aren't, so plane crashes always make the news, which creates the impression they're happening all the time. Unless a Kiwi is involved, we never hear about fatal car accidents in Central Asian countries or Central American narco-republics. They're like trees that fall in the forest.

A plane went down in Indonesia last week. The Russian Superjet 100, in Indonesia on a six-nation Asian sales tour, was on what's called a demonstration flight: you fill the plane with VIPs and airline executives (and perhaps their wives and kids) and journalists and take them for a joyride.

For reasons yet to be determined, the aircraft flew into the side of a dormant volcano. Whatever turns out to have caused the crash, the investigators will probably point out that sound civil aviation practice is to give volcanoes a wide berth.

It took me back to the days when I worked in the press section of Airbus Industrie, the European aircraft manufacturer.

Times were tough, especially for a fledgling consortium widely seen as yet another of Europe's misconceived and doomed attempts to challenge America's dominance of the civil airliner industry. It would be an understatement to say the world's airlines were sceptical of this joint venture by Britain, France and Germany.

Proof of their scepticism was that there were more white tails - unwanted aircraft with their tails painted white as opposed to being adorned with an airline's logo - sitting on the tarmac at Toulouse airport than there were Airbuses inservice.

So Airbus did what any sensible taxpayer-funded organisation would do: loaded up a new A310 with champagne and caviar and the most glamorous stewardesses Swissair and Lufthansa could provide and set off to sweet-talk someone into buying the aircraft. (They cost US$50 million in those days.)

As well as demonstration flights - essentially mid-air cocktail parties - there were technical flights, which were strictly for pilots and flight engineers as they involved frightening manoeuvres to demonstrate how the aircraft could cope in an emergency.

In Gabon, a group of VIPs insisted on going on the tech flight. Our regional sales manager shrugged and said that if we didn't let them, we might as well pack up and leave. Afterwards, the cabin looked like the venue for one of those Japanese speed-eating contests that end in tears and projectile vomiting.

I did many demonstration flights but can remember being nervous only twice. Once was when we flew through a pass in the Yugoslav Alps that was so narrow the wingtips were almost scraping the cliff face.

I assumed our pilots knew what they were doing, but it was hard to dismiss the thought that we were a sudden updraft or downdraft away from disaster.

Someone had the bright idea of going to Angola, which was having a civil war. The Unita rebels had blockaded the town of Hwambo - no-one could get in or out - so the Marxist Government wanted us to land there for propaganda purposes.

Apparently Unita had shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles and was vowing to shoot down any plane that tried to land in Hwambo.

If the rebels needed a further incentive, half the Politburo was going to be on board.

Once again, the salesman told us it would be a deal-breaker if we didn't do it. The Soviet air crews at Luanda airport who were ferrying in Cuban troops to prop up the regime told us we were mad to even contemplate it.

We made a corkscrew descent into Hwambo, coming down from directly above the airport in tight circles. We touched down, taxied to the end of the runway, turned and got the hell out of there. It was the steepest take-off I'd ever experienced.

I don't know if the government got its photograph of the A310 with the Hwambo airport sign in the background.

I do know that we didn't sell a single aircraft to Angola or any other place we visited on that six-week tour.

- NZ Herald

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