Flying Fears

It happens each time I fly. In the run up to departure, I become obsessed with reading about great accidents in aviation. I like reading determinations of causes. What failed? What went wrong from there? Did anyone survive?

It’s oddly comforting, as if the possibility of understanding why the plane I’m on is falling might improve the experience if not the odds.

Yesterday at work I spent some time reading about plane crashes. Some crashed through the fog into mountains. Some plummeted into the sea. Others fell at steep angles into neighborhoods and farms and forests. But I think the worst and scariest would be a disintegration of the plane in midair, causing an explosive decompression. This happened in the early 80s, in Taiwan. People sucked in every which direction at 30,000 feet.

Imagine what a 500-mph jet stream does to your face!

Not pretty.

Aside from a brief ride in a small Cessna flown by my late uncle, I didn’t fly until I was 27. It never seemed worth it. I’m a road dog at heart, so if anything I’d just take a bus or train. But living 1,000 miles from home, road or rail travel for short visits is neither practical nor cheap.

Still, I’ve only flown a handful of times. One of those times the craft fell for the briefest of moments. That weightless sensation of your insides disappearing caused me to reflexively clutch the backrest of the seat in front of me. The girl next to me giggled, explaining the pilot dropped the plane a little to dodge turbulence.

Every flight, I read the New Yorker. Philly to Madison is about two hours, the same amount of time it takes me to get through most of the issue (I normally save the short story and reviews for the flight home). I can predict with surprising accuracy the time I’ve been in the air by where I am in the magazine.

What began as a way to pass the time became a ritual and now verges on a superstition. I once nearly missed a flight because I was waiting for the airport bookstore to open, even though I’m fully aware that planes don’t crash because people break from private traditions.

At least I hope not.

Last night I set out to do some last minute Christmas shopping. I stopped first at Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy of the New Yorker to read on my flight today. After, I went upstairs to the cafe, got coffee and took a minute to warm up. Three hours later I realized that my sit-and-skim session resulted in me reading the core articles right then and there, leaving me without much of a magazine to read today.

Now I need to find a new something to read, something with the preternatural power to prevent planes from crashing and to obscure the intrusive fact that they sometimes do.


  1. Josh says:

    A buddy an I flew into a bad storm comming home from seeing Brody in Portland.  The lightning was flashing, the wind was blowing, the plane was bouncing.  We would enter a rough spot and everybody would hold thier breath, followed by huge sighs of relief when things would calm down.  I found it amusing.  You’re truly “along for the ride” and you might as well enjoy it! 

  2. Mark says:

    As the pilot ran up the engines for take-off on a flight I took to Puerto Rico almost every passenger crossed themselves, bowed their heads and prayed fervently until the plane was in the air. They repeated this on landing and followed the ritual with a standing ovation for the pilot as the plane rolled to a stop. Somehow, it didn’t make me feel one bit safer.Thanks for another very nice post.

  3. Annie Dean says:

    My first overseas flight from Chicago to Paris I was so nervous I kept asking the flight attendants to repeat the water landing instructions. I was afraid of being an annoyance but afterwards one of the attendants told me it was nice to have someone pay attention for once! I say if reading the New Yorker helps, stick with it!

  4. Nathan says:

    Thanks for sharing your stories! 

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