Fear of Crashing

(Note to readers: This piece is magazine-length, not column-length.)

    I usually donít begin thinking about death until the morning of the flight. Itís kind of like dieting---I have tremendous resolve, right up until the time Iím hungry. Flying is similar---Iím a big, strong, brave soul, until I wake up and face the fact that Iím going to climb into a mass of metal and hurdle through the air at 30,000 feet.
   Making the reservations is actually kind of exciting. I like to do it the old-fashioned way. Dial a few numbers, get your travel agent or the airline on the phone, and the world is yours for the asking. Las Vegas, New York, Paris, Istanbul, Nairobi, Calcutta, VladivistokÖanywhere you want to go, it can be booked in a matter of minutes. I am incredibly brave while talking on the phone making the reservation. When I learn that there are no non-stops between San Francisco and Barcelona, thereby requiring FOUR miserable plane rides rather than the hoped-for two, I handle it like a big boy. I calmly remind myself that flying is, without question, the safest form of travel, especially when it is still weeks away.
    I do wonder for a moment how my travel agent will handle the news that the flight on which she casually booked me plunged to the earth in a fiery heap. Will she feel any guilt? Will she continue to book flights for unsuspecting clients, or will she move on to another career where she doesnít have the responsibility of deciding who will live and who will die. What do I care, I think, hanging up the phone after completing my reservations. Iíll be dead.
   Once the booking has been made, I hardly give the flights another thought. Itís done. Que sera sera. What will be will be. You make your choices in life and live (or die) with them. I chose to fly, and Iím excited about the prospect of going somewhere. While thereís little doubt that I was administering my own death sentence when I told the travel agent to book the flights she suggested, the actual departure day was still weeks away, so I might as well enjoy life until then. I try, and generally succeed, to not think about flying.
   Inevitably, though, the day comes and I begin my transformation. The bravado I exhibited in making the reservation is replaced by a sense of resignation. I still have a sense of que sera sera, but Iím quickly realizing I donít like what will be. I understand fate, but why does it have to come in the form of a plane crash? I begin to question the need to go wherever Iím going. Business? Thereís got to be a better way to make a living. Pleasure? There is absolutely nothing pleasurable about the way Iím beginning to feel.
   The fight begins. One part of me is telling me that flying is safe, safe, safe. Donít be a sniveling wimp. Youíre a fairly intelligent guy, capable of weighing risks. Get on the plane and toughen up. What are the chances that anything will happen to you while flying on a respectable American commercial airline?
   The other side of me sees headlines.
   Weíve all seen them before. The airline, the location, the number of DEAD. In big, bold type, spread across the front pages of every newspaper in the country, usually accompanied by a picture of what is left of the so-called magnificent flying machine---a twisted, charred piece of metal. On the ground, where it belongs.
   With my amazing clairvoyance, I see even further. I see the first paragraph, where the first details of the fateful flight are spelled out for all the fortunate readers who chose not to fly that day on that particular flight. The smart people. The lucky people. And then I take it another step further. I see the follow-up stories, where the profiles on the passengers are detailed by some morbid reporter, including what they did on the morning of the fateful flight.
   "He woke up, showered and shaved as usual and had a light breakfast with his wife. And then, on his way to the airport, he dropped his children off at school, telling them heíd see them in a few days."
   GOOD GOD, THATíS ME!!! Iím now driving my car to the airport, my kids safely ensconced in school (lucky buggers) and that goddamned smug reporter had my morning down to the last detail. People are going to read about me, knowing more than I did this morning. Theyíll know I never should have got on this flight. Theyíll know I spent my last morning as an ignoramus, oblivious to my impending doom. Everyone will know, except me. I spent my morning as though it was just another morning, and now Iíll never see my kids again. What a fool.
   As I near the airport, I can see a plane rising from the runway and struggling to climb into the air. Its nose is pointed skyward, but its tail seems to be dragging it down. Iím pretty certain itís not going to make it. Any moment its preposterous jet engines will realize the job is simply too big for them to handle and they will simply quit. Iíll watch, horrified, as the nose turns from skyward to earthward and the plane plunges into a residential area next to the freeway on which I am safely driving, scattering debris over a 12 block radius. I think of the passengers on that plane. Poor bastards. I wonder what they did this morning. Iíll be reading about it soon.
   But, miraculously, the plane does not drop. It climbs, and then climbs some more, and I watch as it disappears into the distance. It seems to have had the power to make it up into the sky, and soon it will be leveling off and cruising towards its destination with a much better chance of making it than I would have given it a few moments ago. I think again of the passengers on that plane. Lucky bastards.
   I get a little butterfly in my stomach. In a very short time, that will be me struggling to climb into the air. I try to be brave. If that tub of lard that just disappeared made it, then my plane has a good shot at success as well. This is my rational side taking over, attempting to convince me that everything will be okay, despite the perceived logic that says otherwise. There is no question Iíll get on the plane. Iíve never walked away, never panicked, never gave up. My rational side always wins, and Iím always happy it does. As soon as the trip is over.
   But until then, my rational side has a lot of work to do. As I pull into the airport parking lot, I tell myself the most dangerous part of my journey is over---the car ride down the freeway (especially when Iím looking for planes to fall out of the sky). And I have one answer for that---nice try. Deep down inside, I know itís true, but youíll have to dig down to the nail of my baby toe before I even begin to consider any truth in that statement.
   I walk into the terminal and notice all the people, none of whom were likely to die in a plane crash, at least that day. I look at all the different check-in lines for all the different airlines, none of which have had a crash lately. I stroll over to the arrival and departure screen and marvel at the number of flights that will land and take off in the next few hours. And this is only one airport of thousands around the world. How in Orville Wrightís name could I possibly be scared of flying?
    Iíll tell you why---because that plane I watched from my car on the freeway made it into the sky, thatís why. Had that plane gone down, as I expected, I wouldnít have to worry so much about my plane making it. Iím not stupid enough to think that two planes from the same airport would crash on the same day. But not only did that plane make it, but there hadnít been a crash anywhere in the world for weeks, or maybe months. And there has NEVER been a crash of a flight originating from my home airport, San Francisco.
   In other words, itís way overdue to happen, and it was just my pathetic luck that I was flying that day.
   Nevertheless, I took my place in the check-in line along with the other doomed patrons. Of course, not all of us would perish, as many were checking in for flights to other destinations. But I couldnít tell who was going where, so I spent my time scanning the faces to see which one had the bomb in their luggage. My only hope was that my plane would be delayed and the bomb, scheduled to go off twenty minutes into the flight, would explode harmlessly during the pre-boarding procedure, with only a handful of first-class casualties. Finally, a non-economic reason to fly coach.
    I reach the check-in counter and hand the agent my ticket. He treats me like any other passenger. Again I wonder how heíll feel when the plane goes down. Unlike the travel agent, he played no role in the decision to take the fateful flight. But will he ever be the same? Will he show more compassion to his future check-in passengers? Maybe a pat on the back as he hands them their boarding passes? Maybe less of a sneer when they ask for a seat near the exit? Maybe a little more understanding that this is not a plane ride, this is a life and death struggle? Iíll never know.
    All checked in, I now have a little over an hour to kill. I head for the gate, but first I must pass through security, always a good way to calm my nerves. As always, they find nothing in my carry-on bag or on me that can take down an airplane or hijack it to unknown destinations. I feel much better. Of course, they found nothing on anyone else, either, and Iíve read all the stories about their incompetence. Iím not feeling that much better. Maybe a little worse.
    Then itís on to the newsstands, where I buy a couple of papers and hope thereís no sensationalistic stories on airline safety, then to the waiting area and the rigorous job of evaluating the passengers that will actually be on my plane.
    First I look for infants. For some ridiculous reason I feel more comfortable when there are very young children on the plane. I have come to the thoroughly illogical conclusion that there is less chance of a disaster when the potential victims are not all adults. Obviously, this makes no sense, but since most flights do indeed have infants or young children on board, Iíll take what I can get.
    Then I look for terrorists, and generally I spot one or two. Once Iíve identified him (havenít picked a woman yet, but give me time) I watch him out of the corner of my eye. I check to see if heís wearing a wedding ring (could be a ploy), reading a newspaper (could be a ploy), drinking coffee (could be a ploy), or anything else which could fool me and the authorities into thinking he was a relatively normal guy.
   When the call for boarding comes, my stomach does a couple of flips. But my rational side pushes me towards the gate. I hand my boarding pass to the gate agent, wondering if sheíll feel bad knowing she was the last person (still living) to see me alive. Then I make the long, lonely walk down the jetway to my final resting place.
   I look out the little holes in the jetway and look at the plane that will attempt to take me to my destination. It almost always looks like a nice plane. I donít see any wires dangling, the tires arenít flat, thereís no dents or burns on the metal, and the engines look like theyíre working. But as always, the plane looks like it weighs thousands of pounds and thatís not good. And the engines are hanging from the wing or the tail as though one good bump will send them falling from the sky. My confidence isnít shot, but nor is it inspired.
   The flight attendants greet me at the door with a smile. I check their age, some young, some older, and all still alive. Thatís a good sign. Occasionally, the pilot or co-pilot will be there to greet me as well, which is a good touch other than the fact that he must have something better to do, like perhaps preparing for the flight. But heís all smiles, and he doesnít have a shot of tequila in his hand, so I give him the benefit of the doubt and smile back.
   I find my seat, stow my carry-on, and try to relax as cargo doors are being slammed shut all around me. As more passengers file in, I naturally begin to become concerned about too much weight. When the flight attendant announces that it is indeed a full flight, I convince myself that there is very little chance this big pig will get off the ground. I consider lightening the load by taking my 198 pounds and exiting the aircraft, thereby saving all the other passengers, but I decide to take the chance those engines can find enough juice to make their engineers proud. I also remind myself there are children on board, and they donít weigh as much.
   The plane pulls back from the gate, and the captain starts the engines. If itís a morning flight, Iím naturally worried about the warm-up. Iím pretty sure theyíre supposed to idle the engines for about two minutes before taxiing, and Iím timing it. Iíve started many a car in my lifetime, and one morning about twenty years ago I took off (in my car) without properly warming it up and the damn thing stalled on me. Donít think for a minute I forget about things like that.
   The engines properly warmed, itís time to taxi to the runway. The captain gives the big lug some gas to get it going. And we donít even move. So he gives it some more, and then more still. Finally, with the engines practically screaming, the plane moves. And Iím of course thinking if it takes that much power to get this behemoth to move a few feet, how in the hell is it ever going to get in the air?
   The flight attendants go into their safety spiel. This does not help. If flying is so safe, why do they have to prepare me for every conceivable disaster. They donít do this when I get on buses, or in taxis, and theyíre supposed to be 20 times more dangerous than commercial jets. Whatís the deal here? Iím supposed to relax when all I hear about are emergency exits, water landings and oxygen masks? I donít like it, so I try not to listen. But I canít help overhearing bits and pieces, and Iím not happy. My palms begin to sweat.
   Other than the doomsayer flight attendants, the taxiing, as always, goes okay. Wouldnít it be nice if we could just taxi to our destination, albeit at 500 miles an hour? I would be very comfortable, encased in steel and catered to by taxi attendants. But it was not to be. We were coming to the beginning of the runway, and there was no turning back. That passenger in that plane I saw struggling to climb into the sky while I was comfortably driving on the freeway---that passenger was about to be me. Yuck.
   The engines, so happy at their idle speed, are now engaged. The captain leans on the throttle to get them going and then seemingly throws his entire weight into pressing the throttle to its ultimate limit as the engines suddenly roar with power. The G-force pushes me back into my seat and I realize that these engines do indeed have some muscle. Theyíll have to, I think, if theyíre going to get this elephant into the sky.
   We pick up speed and I listen as the engines strain to reach their maximum output. I have an image of the captain pushing the throttle down with both hands, making sure heís getting every ounce of power out of the jets. All sounds seem normal, but I know that any second one or both of the engines could break under the incredible strain, and thereís probably still time to abort the takeoff. If itís going to happen, it had better happen in the next five or six seconds.
   Nothing happens. Now itís clearly too late to abort. Lose an engine now and weíre goners. The captain will be forced to make a pathetic attempt to get into the sky, and weíll have no time to make an emergency landing. Iíd rather he abort and run off the end of the runway but Iím clearly not in charge. Itís his decision---I just pay the price. It looks as though weíll be rudely interrupting someoneís breakfast in that residential neighborhood next to the airport. The good news is that it will be over fast, no long drawn-out fall from the sky. Maybe even a slim chance of survival. Very slim. In fact, pretty much non-existent.
   My heart is pounding and my palms are moist, but no one knows. Iím very much like the terrorist in the waiting area, trying to look as normal as possible. The only visible signs of distress are my fidgeting in my seat, trying to get comfortable. I would probably be most comfortable if I could assume the crash position, but that is out of the question, although I do reach down a few times to pick something off the floor, just in case I need a head start.
   Weíre running out of runway. At the last possible second, the captain gets the nose into the air, but thatís the easy part. As everyone knows, the weight of the plane is in its butt and the big butt of this plane is still on the ground, dragging us right off the end of the runway. I can picture the sparks flying as the nose goes higher and the butt goes lower. The engines are roaring but the butt is too heavy. Weíre not going to make it. I reach down to pick something off the floor.
   Just then I feel the butt of the plane leave the ground, but Iím still unsure if it will get more than ten or twenty feet into the air before it comes crashing back to earth. Only when I hear the landing gear being retracted do I realize we are indeed climbing. Iím always amazed at how quickly after takeoff the landing gear comes up. My only thought is that someone in the cockpit has more confidence than I, and thatís probably a good thing. Of course, landing gear wonít do you much good when landing in a residential neighborhood. Maybe the pilot is having similar thoughts.
   Amazingly, the plane continues to climb. I venture a glance out the window and, sure enough, weíre already way up in the air. This is mostly good news. Everything seems to be going smoothly. I take a couple of deep breaths, lean my head back into the headrest, and try to relax. Thatís when that sadistic son of a bitch captain cuts the engines.
   No warning, nothing. No announcement over the intercom, "Ladies and gentlemen, air traffic control has directed us to maintain an altitude of 8000 feet for the next two minutes, after which we will continue our climb to 30,000 feet. Please donít be alarmed at what surely must sound like engine failure to many of you. There is nothing to worry about." Something like that would be nice.
    Instead, we get a grinning pilot who says to his co-pilot as he reaches to pull back on the throttle, "Watch this. This ought to scare the living crap out of all those wimps back there."
   And it does. As I hear the engines dying and the plane coming to a gradual halt, I grip my arm rests and start looking on the floor again for something to pick up. We were doing so well, but it was folly to think that we could make it to 30,000 feet with no engine trouble. No mechanism made by man could withstand the continual pressure of lifting six thousand tons of metal into the air.
   Expecting the nose to begin its dip towards the ground at any second, I look around at my fellow passengers. Iím amazed to see that there is no panic. In fact, some of the fools are still reading their newspapers or books, oblivious to the impending disaster. I glance at the flight attendants, expecting a bustle of activity in preparation for the emergency landing. Nothing. They look calm, but theyíre trained to look calm. Itís the clueless passengers reading their newspapers that amaze me. I am struck with an enormous sense of envy.
   The nose doesnít dip any further, and after a couple of minutes the engines accelerate and the climb resumes. My confidence is boosted somewhat by the fact the engines werenít fully engaged and we still managed to stay in the air and actually didnít seem to lose any altitude at all. Not only that, but the engines got a nice rest before resuming their excruciating exertion. I begin to relax a little, settling into my seat and closing my eyes. I feel a little ridiculous about my nervousness. Flying is extremely safe, I remind myself for the thousandth time. Iíll be fine.
   Inevitably, thatís when the turbulence hits. My eyes snap open, my hands put a death grip on the armrests and I begin the ritual of crossing and uncrossing my legs as I fidget in my seat. Iím not certain what I expect to be the results of turbulence. I suppose the flimsy little engine supports would be the first to go, given the severity of the bumps. These huge engines are hanging from the wing like a piŮata. It obviously wouldnít take much of a jolt to knock them from their perch. But itís probably a moot point, because Iím fairly certain the next big bump will be enough to snap the entire wing from the fuselage, sending us all to a spiraling death.
    Miraculously, the plane withstands the constant pounding and reaches cruising altitude. The engines scale back to cruising speed, the most demanding part of their mission complete. The turbulence subsides and the wings and engines are still attached. The captain gets on the intercom and announces weíve reached our cruising altitude and heís expecting a smooth flight so heís turning off the fasten seat belt sign.
   As I listen to his calm, professional voice, I truly relax for the first time. Iím in contact with my captain and he is assuring me, at that moment, that everything is fine. The engines are working perfectly, all gauges are normal, the bumps on the way up didnít knock anything loose and my captain sounds mature, professional and confident.. Itís a beautiful day and weíre cruising. He tells me to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. Thinking once again that communication is a beautiful thing, I do just that.
   It doesnít last long. As soon as I hear one unusual noise, usually a change in pitch from the engines, or I feel a few bumps, the anxiety returns. The memory of the captainís stately voice fades into oblivion. For that brief, shining moment when the captain was talking to me, I knew exactly what was going on. No longer. One blip from normalcy and Iím back to imagining various scenarios of airborne disaster.
   Iím not nearly as troubled as I was during the takeoff and climb, but Iím not exactly a pillar of strength. Iíll read a newspaper or magazine, but my senses are on full-scale alert. And when the bumps hit, or the whirr of the engines changes its tone, Iíll long for the captainís voice to tell me everything is okay. When I get nothing but silence from the intercom, I assume heís too busy trying to fix the problem to be bothered with communicating with the hapless passengers. Or worse, heís blissfully unaware of the new noise emanating from the engines. Heís way up in the cockpit, far from the engines. Only my ears are attuned to the degree necessary to warn of impending disaster.
   But I say nothing. I sweat it out, knowing that any second a new noise, a louder noise, could resound through the plane. I have no idea what it will be, or where it will come from, but it could come any second. Maybe an explosion, maybe the silence of an engine shutting down. Any second, and my whole world will be turned upside down.
   Nothing happens. The noises return to normal, and I begin to relax again. The meal is served, and I devour it all with the repressed knowledge that it could very easily be the last food Iíll ever taste. I love airplane meals. Iíve never failed to finish every last crumb. Iíll eat pastries I wouldnít touch in any other forum. Iíll eat green peppers. Iíll eat anything. Iím really not sure why, but it must have something to do with my anxiety. My guess is that when the meals are served itís usually during a calm period of the flight and eating a meal is somewhat of a return to normalcy. Iím thrilled to still be alive, and Iím gratified to be doing something normal, like eating. So I savor the feeling right down to the last crumb. And quite often the wine doesnít hurt, either.
   The rest of the flight at cruising altitude is spent drifting in and out of periods of relaxation and periods of anxiety. Some flights are obviously better than others, but none are good. Itís always something, but usually itís turbulence. The seat belt sign goes on, and usually nary a word from the captain. Only a compulsory announcement from the flight attendant, who knows nothing of substance about what is going on. Sometimes the captain will come on the intercom and direct the passengers to put on their seat belt, but it is always short, almost rushed. Heís obviously busy trying to control our out-of-control bucking bronco.
   Finally, about twenty to twenty-five minutes before our scheduled landing, the engines decelerate and the nose dips, signaling a beginning of our descent. I like that. For the first time, flying begins to make sense. While I have major trouble understanding how a big, heavy plane can climb into the air, I have no trouble comprehending how a plane can come back down to earth. Iím very clear on the concept of gliding, and I recognize that gliders always end up back on the ground. 
    So Iím thrilled when the plane begins its descent because 1) it makes sense, and 2) this whole miserable experience is coming to an end, one way or another.
   If Iíve been reading, I stop. Iíve got a job to do. Iíve got a plane to land and it is unthinkable that the captain could do it without my help. Iíve got to get through the clouds, make sure the flaps are engaged, watch out for any little single-engine private planes that might stray into our airspace and, most importantly, make absolutely certain we donít forget to put our landing gear down.
    Iím up to the task, but Iím not positive the captain is. Weíre dropping fast, a little too fast. My heart starts beating quicker as I realize our airspeed is too great. We need to slow down, take it in smoother. Where are the flaps? Engage the flaps!! A few moments later I hear the whirr of the flaps and I look out the window to see the movement on the wings. Itís about time. I would have done it a couple of minutes sooner, but at least itís done. I feel the plane slowing down.
   As we near the airport, the captain comes on the intercom and calmly tells the flight attendants to be seated for landing. He banks the airplane to the left and I lean to the right to balance things out. As the bank becomes steeper, Iím practically out of my seat, getting as much of my weight to the right as possible. For a split second I worry about the plane doing a barrel roll, but the plane begins to level out before I can complete my dose of fear.
   I now know weíre on final approach, and the words "final approach" conjure up a myriad of headlines and first paragraphs for me. I try to put them out of my head, but my palms are sweating again because of all the activity around me. The ground is coming up fast, which is a good thing, but it also means thereís no room for error, especially at 300 miles per hour. And while Iím excited about landing, Iím not very happy about the fact I havenít yet heard the landing gear going down.
   This is getting serious. Weíre not far from the airport and these stupid, idiotic pilots forgot to put the landing gear down. Damn. This is not good. I heard a noise a little earlier but Iím pretty sure it was the adjustment of the flaps. It could have been the landing gear, but I donít think so. I know what landing gear sounds like, and that noise was way too quiet. Iím pretty sure they simply forgot to put it down.
   Great. Weíre going to land with no landing gear. I read about this happening to a plane landing in San Francisco. The air traffic controller happened to notice it and informed the pilot, who still had time to abort the landing. No such luck here. Weíre going to land on our frigging belly, catapulting down the runway, because our stupid pilot was so calm, professional and cocky that he just expected everything to be just fine.
   I look out the window and see the runway appear, normally a welcome sight when Iíve heard the landing gear go down. Not this time. I cringe as the plane lowers itself down, waiting to hear that excruciating sound of metal on pavement. Then the captain, realizing his ignorant error, will try to avert disaster by gunning the engines and attempting to takeoff, another fatal mistake. He certainly wonít be flying again, and nor will I.
    The moment Iím positive the belly is about to hit, I feel the rear wheels touch the ground, and then the soothing feeling of the nose wheel touching down, and the engines reversing. I breathe a huge sigh of relief and silently apologize to the captain for calling him a blithering idiot. The man saved my life, and I will be eternally grateful.
   As we taxi to the gate, I am the happiest man in the world. I am back on terra firma, where I belong, and I am alive and well. I survived. As I exit the plane I give a heartfelt thank you to the flight attendant who is wishing me a nice day. I walk up the jetway and into the terminal, each step a joyous reminder of how wonderful life can be.
    In the back of my mind I know that in four days time Iíll get on another airplane for the return trip home. But I donít think about it. I walk past the waiting area and look at the poor bastards waiting to board their flight. I wish them luck as I head the other way, towards those beautiful highways and the safety of cars, separated by about eight feet, heading at each other at 60 or 70 miles per hour, driven by 16 year olds and 80 years old, and drunks.
   I feel safe, and in control.

 

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