One thought ahead. Two sentences behind.

Flying

 

The reason people hate flying is because they have no control over the plane.  With cars, they are they navigators and are quite capable careening into a ravine.  But with airplanes, it’s the pilot’s responsibility to crash.  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. Have tiny monitors show what the flight crew sees.  So, along with the pilot, passengers can see the receding city, the amber waves of grain, the purple seas and the wild blue yonder with no other 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 in time for dinner.”  But when a pilot crashes a jet on that same stretch of road, everybody screams, “National disaster!”

Airlines are well aware of this and that is why they seek to avoid accidents by checking, double-checking and triple-checking before grounding the 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 the captain say: “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 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 west to Portland, Oregon.

At the moment I had seen my share of flights and wasn’t worried.  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 if Marco didn’t relax.  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.  Marco relaxed 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 and no 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 didn’t catch the complete conversation) to the best place to find sea bass on the Eastern Seaboard (I held no opinion).

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 from his nap and final preparations would begin.  Then 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 seats returned.  The flight attendants cross-checked; then settled into their seats.  The airport appeared.  The plane prepared to land and then: VVVVVVRROOOOOOOOOOOM!!!    The plane jerked back into the clouds with a move usually reserved for an aerial stunt show.

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.  Even I was about to lose it if the pilot didn’t come over the intercom and say, “Sorry about that.  We almost touched down in Seattle.”

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 only said he was going to circle back and make another attempt.

What was an ice cream social moments before turned into a mass for the dead.  A silence hovered throughout the cabin.  Half the passengers had yet to breathe.  No one blinked.  Nobody wanted to miss what was going to happen next.

As the plane took a long arc around the city, the cabin moved into a more revered silence, the kind of silence a Buddhist monk hears in the middle of the night, a hush so still one can almost hear the earth’s core.

We remained frozen in flight because we were still searching for any clue as to what went wrong.  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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