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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.