My Complicated Relationship With Flight

I fly a decent amount. I’m not jet-setting around the world once a week, but I do board a plane more than a couple times a year, and my feelings toward flying and airplanes is best summed up as an uneasy affection. I’m fascinated with flight and all the advances we’ve made to put humans thousands of feet in the air, but every time I board a plane I do so with the knowledge that humans and the things we make are fallible, and in the past our ambitions have outreached our capabilities.

IcarusAmbition outreaching capabilities.

Flight isn’t perfect, and it likely never will be, and despite the statistics that say flying is one of, if not the safest way to travel, I can’t help thinking, ‘Yes, but we are still 35,000 feet in the air, and a mechanical failure on a car, or an error made by a driver doesn’t tend to cause the death of hundreds of people in one go.’ Likewise, if something does go terribly wrong in a car, and say, you hit a guard rail and flip over a couple times and land upside-down in a ditch, the chances that you will survive that sort of accident are, in my mind, much higher than if the same thing happens in a plane. What I’m saying is, I tend to view whipping through the air on wings filled with several hundred pounds of highly explosive jet fuel with some healthy suspicion. On average, small dogs bite people way more often than larger dogs, but it only takes one nasty bite from a larger breed to seriously affect someone’s quality of life.

Totally the same thing.

That said, call me crazy, but I still do love flying. The very mechanics, the years of engineering, skill and passion that goes and has gone into making and operating aircraft delights me. Think of it: the average weight of an empty Boeing 747 is about 400,000 pounds. That’s 200 tons of airplane flying with relative ease at heights that are difficult to imagine on one’s own. The fact that that much weight can even get off the ground is miraculous. Airplanes do so with such a complicated arrangement of parts that I couldn’t even begin to explain with any detailed comprehension how it happens. My knowledge is one step above ‘it’s magic’ and several below knowing the difference between a flap, an aileron, and an elevator.

airplane anatomyWords I somehow know, but don’t understand.

When I’m in a jet, taxiing to the runway, I’m made acutely aware of all the tiny yet essential things that make flight possible. Each part of the plane and its crew must work together harmoniously to ensure a safe takeoff and landing. Any chink in the armor or series of errors can put that in jeopardy. During takeoff my first and only thought, consistently is, Humans were never meant to do this. We’re not meant to be in the air. This is freaking incredible! Oddly enough, I rarely think about the dangers in those moments.

Except when something brings it to my attention.

Like the time my flight from SFO to YVR hit its rear end on the runway during take off. Tailstrikes, as they’re known, are common enough to have a name, but don’t usually pose significant, immediate threat to an aircraft. They happen when a plane takes off or lands at too steep of an angle. I didn’t know what was happening at the time. I heard a huge thud just after we started angling up. I thought some luggage that hadn’t been secured properly had been thrown into the back of the plane. It wasn’t until later that I’d realized the plane itself had hit something.

Fortunately that’s the most danger I’ve ever been in while inside an airplane. That I know of. Who’s to say that one of those twenty minute long instances of turbulence wasn’t wind, but something else going wrong with the plane? Certainly the cabin crew isn’t going to mention something’s wrong until it becomes an honest to god emergency.

"Austrian Crew" by Austrian Airlines (www.austrian.com). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Austrian_Crew.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Austrian_Crew.jpg

Nerves of steel, secured by a fashionable ascot.

In general, I trust airplanes and their various operators, in part because I have no choice. I have to fly to get where I need to go, and when I’m in an airplane my life and subsequently my faith is one hundred percent in the hands of the pilots and the structure and performance of the craft. It doesn’t do me any good to doubt. I don’t have any control in that situation. I must trust that everything is being handled capably, and I trust so hard in airplanes and their crews that if faith alone could fly a plane I could bring us to the Moon and back.

But every once in a while something happens that rattles that trust. Last year, unfortunately, was a particularly devastating year in recent aviation history. The disappearance of Malaysia flight 370, the destruction of Malaysia flight 17, and finally the crash of AirAsia flight 8501 reminded me, and probably many others that even today things can go tragically wrong. The AirAsia flight in particular hit me hard. Perhaps because I was in Canada at the time, due to fly again in less than two weeks. Perhaps because I take low cost airlines on vacations, and the AirAsia incident highlighted some of the real safety concerns of these flights based out of Asia.

I have a bit of a morbid fascination with plane crashes which I blame on my overactive imagination and my terrible fear of being a part of one. Since the plane’s disappearance, I’ve followed the story and the developments in its recovery daily. I don’t know why. I’m not personally invested in the crash, it doesn’t make me safer to know the details. It’s not going to change my decision to fly in the future. It’s a compulsion I think, tied in with equal parts fear, curiosity, and respect. I want to know why it happened, why so many people lost their lives, and remember that everyone of us has limits.

We’ve come a very long way since 1903, and every accident, incident and fatality since then has made flight safer for the people who have come afterward. I love flying and I’m terrified of it. Airplanes and all their miraculous parts and configurations that produce flight are marvels to watch and ride in. Engineers, pilots, air traffic controllers, maintenance personnel and more all have fantastically stressful jobs with enormous responsibility on their shoulders. When I disembark from an airplane, I wish it were possible to thank more people than just the cabin crew for a successful flight. Certainly, my continued love of airplanes and flight are because of the work of many dedicated people.

Thank you, to all of them.

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15 thoughts on “My Complicated Relationship With Flight

  1. Nearly 27 years in the air traffic control business and I still am fascinated by the physical dynamics that allow aircraft to fly. I understand it but don’t think about it, (except when flying myself). Know your “thank you” has been received.

    • Honestly, I think air traffic control is a really cool job… and one I am entirely unqualified for. When I think about all the bits of information that need to be tracked, accounted for, and double checked, all in fast paced, real time, my mind stalls. I couldn’t do it, and I have tremendous respect for those who can.

  2. I know how you feel! We had to turn back once for a “mechanical problem” which I found a bit unnerving, but another time I slept through a storm that even the crew looked worried about! If you give in to fear, you never go anywhere so we just get on with it I guess!

    • Goodness! I’m glad everything turned out well in the end. At least you turned back. better to be safe than sorry. As far as storms are concerned, I know they’re dangerous to flight. I’ve fortunately never flown through one myself, but I was on one flight where I counted five in the distance. That was unnerving, too.

  3. Dear HOFNM (Hesitant of Flying)
    I had a few thoughts this morning being one that had travelled nearly each and every week all around the US and Europe for over 20 years.
    I laugh when people complain of board a small or “Prop” plane. They fail to realize that small planes, even if the propulsion fails, can at least glide and a skilled pilot is able to still dead-stick their landing every from 25,000 feet. It is possible to land a large jet dead-stick but…When all else fails, fly the airplane. Losing an engine doesn’t kill pilots, panic does. Far too many pilots forget that when good old panic sets in.
    Another thought was that your craft was purchased by your travel provider as a used aircraft the original buyer wanted to retire from their fleet for a variety of reasons. Most discount airlines purchase used craft. But also remember that when the craft was new, it was purchased from the lowest bidder who required to make a profit to meet the pressures of the Board and purchased by the Airline from the lowest bidder to meet the profit margins and the pressures of the Board.
    Plane fails…Blame the weather, the freaked out pilot who wants to get in his or her last confession and the damn Board!
    Finally, my Father who art not in Heaven ( he is still alive), said that a nuclear reactor was designed and built by the greatest scientists, engineers and builders that the world could offer. A true pinnacle of a machine, the finest example of human brilliance and blend of creativity and scientific principles (just like a 767 etc.)
    Then the Company hires the lowest paid people they can find to run the reactor and in many cases, fly the plane. Many smaller or discount airline pilots earn less than 25,000, 20,000 even 15,000 USD per year. A crash of a plane in New York in the last 5 years revealed that the Pilot and co-pilot combined earned least than 35,000 USD a year.
    That is combined income.
    Thanks for sharing and happy travels!

    • Yes, that is all very true. It’s never just one thing that brings down a plane. It’s several. And pilot pay is a very big issue. To know that some pilots are barely skimming the poverty line is horrifying, honestly. 😦 I try not to think about all the parts that could go wrong on the plane (is it in good working order, was maintenance done thoroughly and correctly, is the pilot healthy, alert and properly trained, is the weather good, do the controllers have a manageable work load?) I’d probably go crazy on a 10 hour flight otherwise.

  4. I’ve had the same thoughts about flying – amazement and the occasional qualm. Of course I live in the state where flying began – with the Wright Brothers – and looking at the sepia-colored, staggering film of their first flights, I am overwhelmed at how far we’ve come. My first adventures flying were in small planes, something I still love to do, and in propeller driven commercial flights. Not sure I’m happy about the idea of only having one pilot in the cockpit though – something American Airlines is proposing.

    • I don’t think I’d be happy about having only one pilot either! If that’s what American Airlines wants to do, I don’t know if I’ll ever fly American again! Even if the co-pilot’s job becomes automated and redundant, it is still better to have another actual human in there, if something does go wrong, or the pilot becomes somehow incapacitated.

  5. Lovely post about the magic of flight, NJ–and coming from a person who possesses a pilot’s license, I can verify–half of it really is due to magic. I’ve also worked with a lot of magicians, so I’m doubly convinced. I suppose rereading all my physics textbooks would refresh my memory on weight, lift, drag and thrust, but that stuff can be so dry, and I truly prefer the sensation of awe that ripples through my head and heart as I pull back the stick and detach myself from the earth. Yep. Magic answers so many of those pesky questions of ‘how.’
    And now my daughter is learning to fly as well–and this is where I feel like the rest of the sky’s inhabitants should be given forewarning. Although, to be fair, she is one of those people who truly understand her physics textbooks cover to cover, so I may give her a tiny bit of slack. Except I’ve seen her drive. We’ll see how it pans out.

    • I think I’d prefer to ride in a plane, rather than fly one. I don’t even have a driver’s license yet. I’m what you would call an overly cautious and somewhat head-in-the-clouds individual. It’s not such a good idea for me to be put in charge of thousands of pounds of heavy, fast moving material.
      Whenever I’m on an airplane, my favorite place to be is at a window, beside a wing, even though I know that if something goes wrong and the wing lights up my goose is cooked. When I see the flaps extend or the ailerons or spoilers lift, I’m sitting in my seat going “Oooo~ What does that part do?” I actually Googled once why some planes have wing tips that are curved up, and what that’s called. (I’ve forgotten it now–information tends to float away when your head is in the clouds.)
      The airplane we flew home in was a 787 and oh my gosh what a beautiful plane it is! So tall and wide on the inside, and the lighting wonderfully simulates the rising and setting sun, so circadian rhythms can be maintained during flight, allowing for easeful rest. The window shades, even, are tinted blue, instead of having a blind to pull down. As the glare from the sun gets too great, the tint becomes darker. All in all, it’s just a beautiful plane.

      • The fancy name for the curved up tips is “winglet.” They basically cut back on drag and boost fuel efficiency. I just think they’re pretty.
        And the new aircraft? Good heavens, it’s like flying a building. Hard to comprehend that much weight supported by nothing more than the invisible forces of physics, isn’t it?
        Magic.
        Glad you had a chance to take a trip on the newest aviation toy.

  6. For years, I was terrified of the prospect of flying overseas, and couldn’t be convinced of how safe it was given how many planes fly over the ocean every single day. I obviously got over it, since I’ve gone overseas thrice, but there’s also that nerve-wracking state while you’re in the air for hours. It’s even worse during serious turbulence.

    In spite of my old fears, it’s still beautiful to watch the European cities all lit up at night and wonder which city in particular the plane is passing over. I also love seeing the coastlines and telltale shapes of borders, and watching Tel Aviv coming closer and closer into view as the plane lands. What I don’t like is how a lot of people clap when an El Al plane lands. That’s so corny and stupid!

    • I’ve never actually flown over too many borders; I’ve never been to Europe, so the only land border I’ve crossed is the Canada/US one, but it is nice to see how the coastlines melt into the sea on the Canadian Pacific, and how they abruptly stop on the Japanese Pacific.

      Clapping for a landing isn’t something I’m used to either, though in Japan, ground workers will wave and bow to in bound and out bound planes. It’s a nice feeling.

  7. Flying is amazing. But I found flying in Russia to be a little more unnerving for me. I wasn’t used to everyone on the plane applauding when the plane landed. I suppose it’s a good practice to show appreciation for a safe landing, but it did make me wonder how the tradition started.

    • The closest I’ve ever been to flying in Russia was the time the ancient 474 I was in few from Vancouver to Shanghai via the coast(s). It was the first and only time I’d ever taken a trans-pacific flight that seemed phobic of open water. It really made me doubt the air-worthiness of the plane, given its age (It still deployed old tube-TV sets to give the safety announcements). Fortunately nothing happened, except a flight that should have been 11 hours max turned into 14 and a half. 😦

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