I admit that I have a lot of irrational fears–plants, the sun, those disturbingly frequent times when my daughter looks like she’s forming a complicated plot–but I don’t think that my fear of flying is one of them. I understand how flying works–I know the physics–that’s why it scares me. When I look out my airplane window and see the plane’s wings wavering the way I do about important decisions, I understand the forces involved. I understand what would be involved if that wing broke off, too. I know the physics that would drop us out of the sky like a giant metal sack of screaming watermelons, and the likely fate of those watermelons upon contact with the earth. None of this knowledge is comforting to me.
People tell me that flying is statistically the safest way to travel, but I have two objections. First, I’m convinced that most of these people have never seen any statistics about the issue and are just quoting Superman. If our world were protected by heroic aliens, even ones who make questionable fashion choices, I might reconsider my position. Probably not, but it’s a possibility.
Second, I don’t think that people are looking at the right statistics. Let me give some relevant examples:
- If I open the door of a car, even while I’m driving, there is a zero percent chance of finding myself in the stratosphere.
- Zero cars have ever cart-wheeled explosively down a runway.
- Zero cars are required to greet passengers with a detailed safety briefing, including instructions for the enclosed oxygen masks.
- Zero cars require oxygen masks.
Also, I can pretty much assure you that, if I die in a fiery plane crash, I’m going to derive absolutely no comfort from thinking, “Wow, this death is unlikely.”
My trouble isn’t really the notion of crashing itself, though. It isn’t even the idea of dying. My trouble is with the “plane” part of the “plane crash.” I don’t like the idea of falling out of the sky. I don’t like the idea of being in the sky. I like the ground and I prefer to keep it close by. If planes stayed on the ground, I wouldn’t mind them because they’d be trains: large poorly designed trains.
Frankly, my chances of being involved in a plane crash decrease dramatically if I never get on a plane in the first place. Meanwhile, my chances of being in a plane crash while on a plane seem to be disturbingly high.
I was once on a plane that came within a single inch of tumbling end over end. I know because I was staring out my window at the time, glued there by a blend of fascination and terror. Gusting winds were throwing the plane hither and yon at disturbing angles, but the pilot decided to make a hurried landing anyway. (Perhaps he had to use the restroom, but felt the same about airplane restrooms as I do.) We descended crookedly and tilted heavily to one side. I saw the end of the wing glide just an inch above the runway. I figure that, had it dropped that one inch lower, it would have really ruined my day.
Nevertheless, my family and I needed to fly. Superman assured us that we were likely to be fine, so I boarded the plane with as much confidence as I could muster. Sure, one of the stewardesses and I had a slight altercation, but I didn’t suspect that she would doom the flight just to spite me. We took our seats; we buckled out seatbelts; I recited most of the Book of Common Prayer. Everything started normally.
In fact it was going as well as we could possibly have hoped. Aside from a fiery death, engine shrapnel, impromptu falls from altitude, and hypothermic asphyxia, our biggest worry was about how our daughter would handle the flight. In general she doesn’t like sitting still for even a few minutes–I blame her mother, because she definitely didn’t get her energy from me–and our flight was something close to a hundred times longer than her patience. We scheduled our flight during her naptime, but most of the variables were outside our control. If events transpired as planned, she would sleep the entire flight and be none the wiser. In every other scenario, adults would cry and plane crashes might start to look attractive.
As soon as the plane accelerated down the runway though, she curled up on my belly, asked for her pacifier, and shut her eyes. Then, in part because worrying about aeronautical catastrophes is exhausting and in part because my little darling is some sort of natural sleep aid, I decided to take a nap as well. I was momentarily optimistic enough to ignore the departing scenery below us.
Then came the thud.
We might have dismissed it as one of those unsettling noises that usually accompany mankind trying to do something unnatural and wrongheaded–such as flying–except that the captain announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ll be making an emergency landing.” He said it in the same tone with which he might have announced our flight time or the name of the in-flight movie, which probably made it more intimidating. If someone is going to talk about doing something with ’emergency’ in its name, I think it’s fine for him or her to sound as though it doesn’t happen all the time. Doing anything else just makes it seem like the person is trying to prevent a panic by hiding something truly dreadful.
For example, and I’m not saying this happened, perhaps one of the engines was destroyed in a high-speed collision with wildlife. Ok, now I’m saying that happened. We hit a bird of some kind, apparently one the size of a pterosaur. Ultimately the bird lost the confrontation, but the plane didn’t exactly win it.
I think I responded well: I kept my eyes shut and ferociously clung to the fiction that nothing serious was happening. My daughter slept through the entire business, although her nap ultimately ended early when we got off the plane a few minutes later. (She’s not happy when her naps are shortened, but cranky toddlers on the ground aren’t as much trouble as cranky toddlers in cramped airplane seating.) My wife’s biggest complaint revolved around the delay which our plane’s destruction caused. She doesn’t like delays.
I did a bit of research later that night. (I’m the sort of person who can’t help researching information even if I know it’s going to terrify me.) Apparently “bird strikes,” as they’re called in fancy aviation parlance, are fairly common. The understanding I got from eavesdropping was that they’re more common than reported, because airlines don’t want people to panic. I admit that I was less likely to panic before hearing that.
I also read an article about the airport where this happened. It had pioneered a program specifically to combat bird strikes: it bought a dog. I’m not sure how anyone thought this would help, because I’m pretty sure that birds take flight when a dog scares them and taking flight is the least helpful option, but I’m not an expert on planes.
In any event the airline canceled our flight because it’s hard to complete flights without a plane. That’s the next part of my story however. Curiously, it also involves a dog.