By Mordechai Schmutter
We live in an exciting age of air travel. A plane that just a few years ago could hold only 50 people now holds 200. And it’s not even bigger. It just holds more people.
Yet despite all the advancements, 40% of people still have some flying anxiety. Which means that if it’s not you, it’s definitely one of the people crammed into one of the two seats immediately next to you, gripping your shared armrest in a panic every time the plane does anything. And this might affect your enjoyment of air travel, because you’re all basically sharing the same seat. The entire row is exactly the size of your chair at home, but with armrests down the middle.
And who wouldn’t be scared of flying? It combines all of the major fears—heights, small spaces, strangers, foreigners, social situations, germs, drowning, and clowns. You come to a real understanding of how clown cars work.
Everyone has advice on how not to be scared. For example, they’ll tell you, “Don’t worry, air travel is actually safer than driving.” This is true. You’re statistically safer in a plane than in a car, provided that the plane hasn’t left the ground. We have to compare apples to apples here. Not only that, but you’re also statistically safer in a plane that has left the ground than in a car that has left the ground, particularly one 30,000 feet up in the air. So we don’t even know what you’re worried about.
One reason you feel less safe on planes is that you have no control. You can’t even tell the pilot to pull over and let you walk the rest of the way. You don’t have the same feeling of helplessness in cars, because in a car, even if you’re not driving, there’s always backseat driving. You can’t backseat drive on a plane. They don’t let you into the cockpit. And for just this reason. The last thing the pilot wants is for everyone to see what he’s doing, and weigh in: “This is the way you’re going? I know a shortcut.” “You’re going too fast.” “Yeah, the airport is up there on the left.” “Can you turn down the heat?” “Can I play with the radio?” “I think our airport was back there.” “I feel like we’re going in circles.”
It also happens to be—people point out—that plane crashes are very rare. Sure, you hear about them on the news, but that’s how you know they’re rare. When you stop hearing about plane crashes on the news, that’s the time to worry. Or be really confident. We don’t know.
One reason it’s very rare is that, on the road, most crashes are due to other people, but in the air, there aren’t as many other people. For the pilot to contend with, we mean. You still have to contend with them inside the plane. As far as you’re concerned, you’re basically just sitting in traffic, because you’re sitting still with nothing to do and you’re not allowed to use your cell phone or text and you’re between two other people who keep trying to get into your lane and right behind a guy who isn’t going anywhere either. And seems to be backing up. It’s like you have the freedom of being up in the air, and you’re experiencing it pressed into a dense wad of people.
Some people also suggest that you learn the science behind airplanes so that you understand that they don’t just plummet out of the sky like a stone. But learning the science won’t help. You can know all the science, like that if you throw a paper airplane, which has no motor at all, it’s still not going to drop like a stone; it’s going to soar and come to a nice landing, unless it hits a wall. Or it’s the kind of plane that just takes a nosedive. Plus paper’s pretty light. So it’s not a comforting thought.
There’s always a safety lecture, though that in itself is scary, because you’re sitting there wondering, “What do they know that I don’t?” But realize this: That flight safety demonstration is actually built in to pass the time while the pilots go over a 200-point safety checklist. That’s 200 points. They’re flicking every switch (“Okay, so that’s what this one does . . .”) and making sure the plane has all the pieces and that none of them fell off at the last airport. So we all know that by the time they get the plane up in the air, those guys are going to be exhausted.
Another piece of advice people give is to take some kind of medication. Great. You’re scared of flying because you don’t want to crash into the side of a mountain. How on earth are pills going to prevent this from happening?
My point is that there are lots of good reasons not to be scared, but if you want to be scared, you’re going to be scared. Nothing people say to calm you down is going to calm you down because you’re going to keep poking holes in it. So what do you do?
Here’s my idea: I’m going to give you more reasons to be scared. And hopefully you’ll be scared of these things and not the big things. For example:
Your plane might hit a cow.
This is a real concern. Recently, a plane containing 117 passengers and flying into Indonesia actually hit a cow. This wasn’t in midair, though. It hit the cow on the runway. Supposedly, there were 3 cows on the runway at the time, so it actually missed over 60% of the cows. Optimism.
I’m not sure why cows are allowed on the runway. Where is the air security over there? Don’t they have to go through metal detectors and get patted down? I can’t even get onto the plane with shampoo.
(I make a big deal about shampoo in a lot of articles. I don’t know what exactly I think I’m going to do on a plane with shampoo. Those bathrooms are small enough. Am I dying to wash my hair in the sink?)
You might land at the wrong airport.
This actually happens. There was a recent news story about a 747 from JFK that landed at Colonel James Jabara Airport in Wichita, Kansas, and then realized it was the wrong airport. The airport he was aiming for, McConnell Air Force Base, was actually 12 miles away.
You can’t blame him. Sure, the airport looks smaller than he thought it would be, but it’s up in the air. Everything’s too small. He’s within range; he’s getting the right guy on the intercom. He’s like, “Can I land?” and they say, “You can,” and he’s like, “I landed,” and they’re like, “Where are you?” And he goes, “Um, I’m at the wrong airport.”
They didn’t realize they made a mistake until after they landed, at which point they thought they were actually at a third airport—Beech Factory Airport, which is also in the vicinity. Apparently, Wichita has 11 airports in a 10-mile radius. This is what happens when you have a lot of wide open land.
And guess what happened next? That’s right. The plane hit a cow. Kansas.
Ok, so it didn’t hit a cow. Or maybe it did, but it’s so common over there that that part didn’t make the news.
What happened was that the plane got stuck.
It turns out that the plane needed a 9,000-foot runway to take off again, and Jabara only has 6,000. Jabara doesn’t normally handle jumbo jets. It doesn’t even have a control tower; it’s more like a barn.
See, the way a plane takes off is that it goes straight down a runway faster and faster, until it’s about to hit the highway, at which point the pilot and copilot both pull back on their controls and go, “Nooooo!” and the plane surges into the air at the last minute. And if the plane is too heavy, it needs more space to get up to speed.
So the engineers were up all night making calculations until they figured out that the plane actually could take off from that airport, because it didn’t have a lot of fuel left, so the plane was lighter. So they said, “We have good news and bad news. The bad news is you don’t have a lot of fuel.”
“That’s okay. I’m only flying 12 miles.”
So they flew the 12 miles, which took them 19 minutes. And they had to get to the airport two hours early.
But my point is that the safety lecture doesn’t cover any of these things. What on earth are you supposed to do when the plane hits a cow or lands at the wrong airport? I hope the pilots at least added these things to a checklist.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.