Maybe Mayday

A few years ago, Liam Neeson starred in an absurd action thriller called The Grey, where among other things he fought a pack of wolves with shards of glass taped to his knuckles. It was just another silly installment in Neeson’s late-career tough guy renaissance, but I’ll never forget The Grey, and not because of its lupine melee. It will stay with me because it contains one of the most harrowing plane-crash scenes of all time. Outside of my own dreams, that is.

God, I fuckin’ hate flying. Not because of the time spent in those non-places called airports, or the rigmarole of the security theater, or the food. Those are quotidian inconveniences, like waiting in line at the grocery store, or diarrhea. No, I hate flying because every time I step onto an airplane I’m convinced I’m going to die. Every creak in the fuselage, every whine of the engines or groan of the hydraulics sounds to me like Death’s scythe rapping the door. The flight attendants smiling during turbulence are no salve; they’re all part of a suicide cult and are expert in soothing their doomed charges.

Before each flight, I look up the model of plane I’ll be on and study its notable hull-loss accidents. I check the number of fatalities, cause of accident, and what changes regulators or manufacturers made in response. My favorite accidents are ones like Air France Flight 447, brought down by baffling pilot error, whose cockpit recordings provide a gripping transcript to hundreds of souls’ final moments. Or flights like United 232, a crash that claimed 111 lives, but still had 185 people live to tell their tale; its nightmarish crash footage is just a bonus for my morbid fascination.

God, I fuckin’ love planes. They are just the coolest thing. Seeing them and reading about them makes me feel like a little boy again. It’s the sheer scale of the things, you know? The size and speed, the principles at work, the thrust and lift and drag. I know about Bernoulli, and angle of attack, and different types of wings, and glide ratio. I know about the little cushion of air that forms between the plane and the ground during landing. I know about the flight envelope, and how routine flights never put the aircraft anywhere near exceeding it. I know of the multiple redundancies in every system. My good friend David is a pilot for British Airways and flies a Boeing 737 and every time I see him I have to swallow a thousand questions about planes. He was my pilot once, for a flight from Glasgow to London, and he let me sit in the cockpit during boarding. It was the thrill of a lifetime. Then I went back to my seat and for an hour imagined David impacting the ground in the Midlands slightly before me.

I know I’m unlikely to ever make up some fraction of a victim count, but I know a lot of things intellectually that I can never convince myself of emotionally. It’s the consequence of our highfalutin’ primate brains being built upon an edifice of raw, reptilian instinct and terror, of neurology recapitulating phylogeny. I know the dull ache in my testicles likely isn’t cancer, but I better have an ultrasound anyway. I know my train stopping in the middle of the Chunnel doesn’t mean it’s about to turn into my briny grave, and still my palms sweat. I know I’m more likely to die driving to or from the airport than on the plane in between (especially when, during a recent trip, my Czech taxi driver did 115mph on the freeway.) Knowing all of this doesn’t help one bit.

It’s crazy, but more than that it’s acute egomania. It’s the necessary and poisonous self-centeredness of all of us taken to an extreme. It’s a fear that says yes, I know the odds of dying in a plane crash are one in millions, but I am certainly that one. Plane crashes are rare and special, just like me. No, my fellow passengers aren’t special, they’re merely party to my exceptionality. If anything, their mundane and forgettable deaths tarnish the grand tragedy of my own. This egomania is similar to the irrational conviction of religious fundamentalists that The End is Nigh, who think that of all the people who have ever lived, surely we’ll be the ones to receive God’s wrath.

Another reason fear of flying is so common, and why I can’t shake mine, is because it’s really several fears packaged into one, like a phobia variety pack. You get, for the low price of a ticket: fear of falling, claustrophobia, fear of asphyxiation, fear of burning, even fear of drowning. Add in terrorism and you have the fear of being murdered; for the hypochondriacs, the fear of a medical emergency far from a hospital. Flying is the best phobic bargain on the market. And there’s the understanding that if any of these fears were to become realized, it wouldn’t be a quick affair. You don’t have to be a physicist to calculate how long it takes for an airliner to plummet from 30,000 feet: too fuckin’ long. You may get lucky, like TWA 800 passengers, and die instantly to an explosion, or be oblivious to your fate like passengers on Air France 447. More likely, you’ll have some time to comprehend what is coming, though hopefully not as much as the 509 passengers aboard Japan Airlines Flight 123, who had thirty minutes to write farewell notes to loved ones on napkins before impacting a mountainside (four survived.)

In some ways I wish my fear were more severe. After all, I’ve chosen to live my life straddling the Atlantic, so I have plenty more flights in my future. If I were more afraid, maybe I’d move back to America and pull a John Madden, driving everywhere I ever wanted to go and resigning myself to never seeing far-off locales. Suppressing a healthy wanderlust is probably easier than suppressing all-consuming thoughts of oblivion. Alas, I’m stuck having a few days of constant, low-grade panic attack each year, waiting for the moment when this center of the universe’s plane inevitably succumbs to gravity, against all odds.

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