I’m halfway between Hawaii and Seattle, at 34,000 ft., in a Boeing 737-800, typing on my flashy new Android G2 phone’s keyboard; my grandmother doesn’t understand how I can possibly type on and read from a device so tiny, but actually it’s quite easy to use. I have also just been informed we’re about to fly into a storm and that the pilot reckons there will be “severe turbulence.” A few things with that.
Before leaving, I swear I saw a nice little gap in the red blob in the turbulence map (red, of course, denotes “severe” turbulence) on www.turbulenceforecast.com that the pilots would be able to neatly squeeze through with room to spare. Severe turbulence I have not encountered before, at least as confirmed by the flight crew. And since severe turbulence means you’re definitely going to die, this seems worthy of a blog post, if only for morose and melodramatic reasons, and also prospective, posthumous viral entertainment purposes. And, the only music on my phone is Mumford and Sons, which is more conducive to emphatic jumping at an organic blueberry farm mountain bike festival concert at dusk, not synthesizing my entire life story in a way that both justifies and honors my atheistic proclivities while at the same time honoring the potential for other unknowable ontologies in a horrifying vertiginous death spiral. So: writing it is!
Also, spoiler alert, but I’ve survived, if you’re reading this. Because even in the unlikely situation that they hire professional divers to locate and float the plane and then find my phone and then float it to the surface, and then realized I had been in fact writing this as a mere Gmail “draft,” they still wouldn’t know where to “post” it, since Facebook and Google require federal subpoenas to release user data, and even then, what would they do with it? This is terrible logic really, but basically what I’m trying to say is that I am alive.
Over the flight attendants’ PA (always so much clearer than that of the pilots, a question as befuddling as how we can get away with not providing infants their own true seats), a ten minute break was provided for us to linger about and use the lavatories. So I and 50 passengers leapt up altogether, everyone making jokes, perhaps akin to the mood on the Titanic post-iceberg, when everyone (on the top decks) was still incredulous and festive. When the flight attendants said we needed to sit down again, because the plane had begun to slant in a way not indicative of the pilots’ choice, they shouted in the same voice they’re probably trained to use in all but earnest emergencies: EVERYONE SIT. DOWN. NOW. In all-caps, but without an exclamation point (an excellent tool for making things sound less creepy). With everyone buckled again, a sheet of silence draped over everyone, and the cabin lights clicked off, which made us more scared, not coaxed into somnolence. All heads pointed forward, diligently and robotically, with the flight attendants in the back facing backwards, for which I always feel slightly guilty. My neighbor, a hefty Canadian realtor dude, has inquired flatly about Shmalaska Airlines’ safety record. I chimed in with, “well, Shmalaska pilots fly in some pretty hairy stuff up in the Aleutians, so they’re on-the-whole better equipped to handle storms than pilots of other airlines.” I’m not sure of the veracity of that statement, but it seemed to me a helpful thing to say nevertheless to a man whose wrist I might grasp in our final pre-impact moments together out of fraternal bond. (I don’t think he would initiate.)
Luckily, no one is joking or asking about the dreaded C-word, because crashing into an ocean, at night, making finding and inflating your life jackets a total pain in the ass, is surely fatal, whereas at least with your standard lower-48 flights, there is probably a grassy farm nearby into which to gently delve. I suppose I could have also mentioned, though, that in the 50s, a Pan Am flight successfully ditched into the ocean between Hawaii and San Francisco; the pilot circled for hours, serving the dual purpose of burning fuel to lighten the plane for a more maneuverable landing and of allowing time for a Coast Guard cutter to make its way to the destined impact site; about half the passengers survived, which is astonishing. Even still, and as my neighbor agreed, a 737 feels much too small a craft in which to venture out over the Pacific; we further agreed Shmalaska should use a “much bigger plane” for this particular journey, but not really knowing why this would make a difference, and that “this run has 2-3 years tops before people start complaining.” Take that, Shmalaska!
This is what the pilot said, approximately:
[bing… bing, chhh ch ch] “[inaudible] and gentlemen, we do have a large storm ahead, and, well, looks like we can’t fly any higher now, and we can’t really go around it. And we don’t have enough fuel to turn around to Hawaii, so, not really sure what to tell you, exactly. So just, well, hang on, please, and we’re going to try to push through this.”
Of course, followed by the perfunctory:
“So I’m going to go ahead and leave the seatbelt sign on for the time being.” [Bing]
While I admire pilots’ blithe demeanor in general, they just seem a little too relaxed, like might they let things fly that otherwise shouldn’t [pun intended]. You don’t get a So… that sound good to you guys? as we’re all kind of captive; it’s what we signed up for. You can’t really vote with a show of hands and come around with credit card machines and have everyone pitch in an extra $25 fee to fly around the storm.
The imminence of our storm experience is thoroughly palpable now. I’ve started thinking about the physical sensation of plummeting, and if there’s anything I can actually do to save all our lives. I know this sounds dramatic, but it is a true feeling. I typically refuse to accept final decisions as they are; I love appealing and the general malleability of our lives’ vicissitudes, the ability to redetermine the outward meaning of our past through our present actions; such is what I believe to be the essence of freedom. Moreover, I tend to want to know all the details of everything and to discern the raison d’etre of each particularized twist and turn in the thread of events leading up to the hand I’m dealt. As a child I often asked “why?” in interminable succession, irritating my parents profusely. This has made me a bit difficult to handle at times, but my willingness to stubbornly negotiate with the world’s gatekeepers can, sometimes, help me get to where I want to be. Mainly when buying mattresses or getting my car repaired, though.
That in mind, I wonder if it’s possible to ever really communicate with a pilot to gain more knowledge, via the flight attendant, e.g., if he thinks there’s a 30% instead of a .0005% chance we’re going to crash, or what other planes who’ve gone through it have experienced, or how many similar storms he’s triumphantly plowed through in his life. I suppose it doesn’t matter, in the sense that I suppose all meaning is elusive once you’ve stepped on the plane, but I think I and perhaps others would find it calming. Maybe there are things we could all do ahead of time, like figure out how to actually get the life vests on, or someone could play guitar to allay the tension. But I don’t think there’s any code of professional responsibility for pilots as to this type of disclosure, and maybe they’re holier-than-thou and just don’t think it would really benefit us to let us know what our chances are.
Moreover, unlike doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, plumbers — basically every other type of professional service provider, you can’t to my knowledge “Google” ahead of time for “pilot reviews,” because you don’t know their names and most everyone is generally pleased with their pilots provided they landed the plane and didn’t fall asleep on the job. You can peruse airline reviews, yes, but such most likely exculpate pilots for storms and weather, presuming their utmost due diligence and care.
My point is, what if you get a particularly ballsy pilot, willing to risk things a bit — the kind of dude who goes hang-gliding ironically on the weekends, followed by a few laps around some mountains in his glider, capped off with a little jaunt to the San Juans in his private Cessna. Or one brimming with unrealized avionic vitriol: underpaid, demoted from the run to San Diego, living alone, no pets, having done two back-to-back runs and no sleep in 36 hours, just craving a nice, clean bed somewhere? We can’t know. We take every precaution against unwittingly allowing a terrorist on board by making sure to put our shoes in different containers than our laptops, drinking entire Nalgenes of water before hundreds of parched queuing onlookers, and saying goodbye to our most prized shaving lotions and creams since they’re more than 3.6 ounces and it would be somewhat asinine to check them in as luggage (as suggested by one TSA agent). And even if a terrorist slips through, we still have air marshals, and the bulletproof doors, and former frat bros with rippling musculature sitting there waiting to come out of the woodwork and steamroll the cabin door with a coffee cart if necessary. Do you remember when, as a kid, if you were overzealous enough, you could just… approach the cockpit, knock on the door, chat up the pilots and… freaking FLY THE PLANE? Well, I did. Really, no one else did that? Anyway, such an act would now be considered boorish and stultifying by most, not to mention a federal crime.
What if the pilots love flying but are just innately misanthropic? While we hope it true they want to make it back as much as anyone, perhaps they are more prone to taking the same risks any of us might take, such as texting while walking or driving. We have to trust that these pilots are going to make the most perspicacious decision under the circumstances, even still notwithstanding any technical failure. But there’s no real web “app” of which I’m aware that lets you know ahead of time if your plane had almost crashed where a newer plane would have gone soaring along unscathed, or whether the frequency of near-death-experience flights for a particular airline is trending upwards or downwards. Our transportation system is effective in most situations, particularly for non-human cargo, because peripatetic movement hinges on the binary of presence and absence; you can’t be be really present or really absent (although Skype might prove an adequate exception) — it’s all or nothing, and this informs the logic of transport. Similarly, the aircraft is either compliant with federal aviation regulations or, quite simply, not. We know when it’s not, because you get on the plane and they fix it while you wait. But there’s no way of which I’m aware to determine where each plane falls on the safety spectrum. This might be important as humans are more cognizant of and influenced by gradations and increments of lived experience than are pallets of containerized jeans. Perhaps this what people mean when they tell you to have a safe flight, which thus far has proven an empty, if well-intentioned and affable, phrase, in my mind, because what can ya do? But perhaps we can, and should, take more responsibility for something over which everyone believes we have no control.
I’m fully coming to terms with the bargain I made. I paid $364 for this flight, because it was the cheapest one available for my itinerary. There were more expensive ones, but why would anyone choose one of those. Admittedly, I’m getting too old for red-eye flights before a workday, but that’s probably my only limitation. So, $452 United flight, perhaps on a gleaming, immaculate 767 with a 100% safety record, why would I ever choose you? You’re $88 more. It defeats my own modern rational sense. And perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference, but in this seat, awaiting that first little anticipatory bump before the whole craft drops and tunnels its way down through the clouds, I’m thinking it might be nice to be able to evaluate your odds a bit, and then make price decisions from there.
Alternatively, we can become deeply superstitious about stepping on a flight when there’s a lightning storm overhead and the ominousness seems all-too-prescient, avoid all flights on used ex-Soviet Tupolev aircraft, and maybe just try and bicycle more. But this theory that there’s nothing you can do, well, I don’t want it to be true. Yet, I’ll probably keep buying the cheapest flight, because the marginal safety increases might not parallel those of the marginal cost increases, and because I’ve never, to this day, crashed in an airplane. The individual flights we take — the physical act of stepping aboard and strapping ourselves to the thing — seem exempt from the same transparency and accountability we expect from everything else we choose in our lives. We’ve become alarmingly cavalier; too many air passengers wear what essentially amount to pajamas on board, and they’re far too preoccupied (myself included) with whether the plane has WIFI over the Seattle to Hawaii flights, since it does have WIFI on some other flights and why does everything have to be so unfair. Most likely, if we were presented with more detail about the particular risk levels, we might consider reconditioning our ways of thinking about booking flights and flying altogether.
It’s a bit difficult at this point for me to really articulate a thesis here besides that I really, really don’t want this plane to crash. I feel, for the first time in a while, aware of the vast potential the rest of my life portends, and don’t want it to end. I’m not following that conventional near-death narrative where your whole life is represented consummately through a video montage, The National’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio” playing in the background; luckily I’m not at that point yet. I’m in the near-death anticipation zone; people are shooting meek, half-second smiles at each other, not out of custom but out of respect for the gravity and tragedy of the situation. All is part of the product we purchased months ago, online and alone. The truth remains that if you attain a certain number of flights in your life, the chances that one of them will be harrowing goes up. And some planes just crash.
But wait! News! The pilot has come on, and apparently we have made it through the storm! Nothing has even happened — no turbulence really so speak of. Ahh…. You know I feel a bit guilty that nothing ended up happening. This could have been much more interesting and action-packed. You probably feel slightly deceived, but perhaps you were not in the mood to be scared, just guided through my thoughts in a circuitous way.
I shook the pilot’s hand as I deplaned, and the only thing I could think to say was “Thank you for not letting us crash.” After I said it, I realized how dumb that sounded, but it came out earnestly. In hindsight, it was perhaps slightly caustic thing to say, if taken to mean that he could have done more to minimize the risk of us running into the storm in the first place. But I meant it. I have tremendous respect and admiration for what pilots do and how they face those near-death moments probably every day. I don’t think I could handle such; in fact, let’s just be honest and say I could not.
I didn’t exactly kiss the ground reaching the airport; I took the light rail home and edited this blog post. And it all could have been a lot worse. I’ve heard some terrible turbulence stories and this was not one of them. But there I was, and am, as cheesy and cliché as it sounds, simply delighted to still get to be here.