One thought ahead. Two sentences behind.



The reason people hate flying is because they have no control over the plane.  With cars, they are the navigators and are quite capable careening themselves into a ravine.  But with airplanes, it’s the pilot’s responsibility to crash the plane.  That’s what terrifies most people: the lack of participation in their own demise.  I don’t know how the situation can be resolved.  It’s not like passengers can sit in the cockpit with the flight crew for consultation.


CAPTAIN:  What do you think, Bill?  Final approach… radio ahead for clearance?

BILL:  Sounds good.

CAPTAIN:  Put the landing gear down?

BILL:  Let’s order some more beer nuts first.


I think the main reason people hate to fly is because they have no idea what going on.  As the great Albert Einstein may have said:  DEPRIVATION + ANTICIPATION = A WET T-SHIRT

The act of moving without seeing is a terrifying form of travel.  When people drive, they have a full, uninhibited view of the road.  But what kind of view do people in an airplane have besides the back of someone’s head?

I have a simple solution. Install tiny monitors to show what the flight crew sees.  So along with the pilot, passengers can see the amber waves of grain, the purple seas, the wild blue yonder and, hopefully, no planes trying to merge.

Why do we keep forgetting that airline flights are the safest form of travel?  Statistically speaking, I have a greater chance of hurting myself writing this essay, but still we grasp onto the irrational.  Why?

It all boils down to trust.  Trust in the airlines making a flight more of a commute and less of an adventure.  It doesn’t help that the public has unusually high expectations.  When someone crashes a car on the freeway, every driver thinks, “I’m never going to get home.”  But when a pilot crashes a jet on that same stretch of asphalt, everybody screams, “National disaster!”

Airlines are well aware of this and that is why they check, double-check, then triple-check before grounding a plane due to mechanical failure.  Airlines always use the excuse of “mechanical failure”.  Even if other events prevent a flight from departing, you are never going to hear: “Flight 385 to Cancun, Mexico has been cancelled due to the fact that the captain is currently leading a conga line in the Walla Walla Lounge.”

Airlines will always remain short on details.  Even in the air, you are never going to hear:


Attention all passengers, this is your captain, Bob Frigate.  I wanted to let you know that our plane has lost most of its hydraulic fluid, and for you passengers on the right side of the plane, not only will you see the lovely Missouri River, you will also notice the plane’s number two engine engulfed in flames.

I’m looking for a quick landing here if I can get by this farmer and his combine…  His harvest looks bountiful…  Ears of corn as big as baseball bats from this point of view…

Quick update!  The farmer is now on top of his combine and appears to be diverting me to his neighbor’s soybean field. 

Will do, partner!


I appreciate the lengths the airlines go to put safety first such as the flight attendant going over the basics of putting on a safety belt, applying an oxygen mask and how to disable a terrorist with an in-flight magazine.  (I may have seen the last part in a movie.)

Airlines are diligent, but there is one thing that they can never fully eliminate.  Human error can be pared down and almost eliminated, but that does not mean it can’t come close to scaring the bejesus out of you like the time my buddy, Marco, and I were flying to Portland, Oregon.

At the moment I had seen my share of flights.  Marco, on the other hand, hadn’t flown in years.  So he quickly developed a habit of looking out the window, looking to me and asking, “Are we going to die?”

I tried to alleviate Marco’s fear by telling him he had a greater chance of getting hurt if I started writing next to him, but still he continued to look out the window.

I knew our flight was going to be a long one.  So I made a dramatic move to test our friendship:


ME:  Marco, how long have we been friends?

MARCO:  A long time.

ME: And what do friends do?

MARCO:  Lend money?

ME:  No, they trust each other.

MARCO:  Trust to lend money?


I told Marco to put his fear of crashing on hold until it was time to panic. The pep talk worked.  And why not?  It was a smooth-sailing flight.  No flight could have been smoother: no turbulence, no wind sheer, no severe drops in altitude or flight attendants ramming their beverage carts into our seats.  In fact, the flight was so uneventful an abnormal amount of chatter filled the cabin.  Passengers talked with new friends like they were at an ice cream social.  The chatter raised and overlapped with topics ranging from the importance of the French horn in a Motown Revue Band (I may have not caught the whole conversation) to the best place to find sea bass on the Eastern Seaboard (I held no opinion).

And as we began our descent, Marco looked over and asked if it was time to panic, but I said, “Why bother?”  Soon the pilot would wake up from his nap and final preparations would begin.  The plane would land, Marco and I would get a rental car and proceed to careen into a ravine 4.6 miles from the airport.

But first, the trays went up and the seats were returned to their upright position.  The flight attendants cross-checked; then settled into their seats.  The airport appeared.  The plane started to land and then: VVVRRROOOOOOOM!!!  The plane returned to the clouds and pinned us to our seats with a dramatic move usually reserved for aerial stunt shows.

I quickly looked around, searching for any reason why we were flying past the airport.  I glanced over to Marco.  With a surprisingly calm voice he asked, “Can I panic now?”

It was a legitimate question.  Was the pilot about to come on the intercom and say, “Sorry about that.  We almost touched down in Seattle.”

After a terrifying interlude of radio silence, the intercom crackled, and in a low murmur the captain apologized for the aborted landing for he saw something on the ground he did not like.

What? A flock of seagulls?  Another plane?  Luggage handlers playing volleyball on the runway?

But the pilot said he was going to circle back and make another attempt.

Then radio silence returned.

What was an ice cream social moments before turned into a mass for the dead.  A harrowing stillness hovered throughout.  Half the passengers had yet to breathe.  No one blinked.  No one wanted to do anything but wait for what was to happen next.  And as the plane took a lazy arc back to the city, the cabin delved into a deeper level of quiet, the kind of quiet a Buddhist monk hears in the middle of the night, a faint echo so still one could almost hear the rumble of the earth’s core.

We remained frozen in our seats because we were searching for any clues.  And in our collective silence we heard the clunky landing gear being lowered for what may have been the first time.


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