Now that my flight to Portland is sufficiently in the past, I can attempt to discuss airplanes without openly taunting the forces of disaster. Yes, of course, I realize that I am neglecting the potential of an airplane disaster which does not actually involve my presence on the flight. For instance, I work less than one mile away from the local airport, and there's just no telling whether a metaphysical lasso could fling an airplane down upon me. One can be the flingee or flung-upon—to the same net effect, I suppose. Alternately, perhaps my untapped psychic powers, unable to work violence directly upon me through whatever technicality of fate, might seek an outlet in the flights of friends and family. (Probably the same ones who were theoretically on the news waxing-glib about my hypothetically ill-fated flight.) But once thought becomes overly scrupulous, exhaustion sets in—and the whims of fate seem almost preferable to the agency of a ruthless human mind.
Now where was I?
Oh, yes. Airplanes. As recently as three days ago, I was a passenger on a 3-hour flight on an Airbus plane, the model of which I don't recall. Three hours is a lot of time to think about many things: the surliness of the flight attendants, the griminess of the seatbacks, and of course the complete implausibility of air travel. No matter how much science insists that if given processes are followed in the construction, maintenance, and operation of a given airplane, that airplane will (without question) fly successfully, airplane travel remains intuitively impossible. The human mind does not directly apprehend the principles of physics which tell us that an airplane should and necessarily will fly. On the other hand, the human mind does (endlessly) absorb the fact that heavy things fall. According to Wikipedia, that hallowed knower of all worth knowing, the Boeing 747-8 series plane has a maximum take-off weight of 485 tons (970,000 pounds). To an average schmo, 485 tons is pretty inconceivable; I had enough of a problem maneuvering the largest-size kitty litter bag into my shopping cart. The very mental image of a 485-ton behemoth somehow managing to escape the laws of intuition and climb tens of thousands of feet into the sky makes me more than a little nervous. While I certainly appreciate the convenience of air travel—and wouldn't necessarily prefer riding steerage on passenger ships to get to Europe—sometimes I wonder if technology hasn't contributed to a dangerous bravado. When I fly on an airplane, I think to myself, not in so many words, 'I am doing the impossible.' And this is absolutely true. From the vantage of my limited, immanent understanding of the world, flying in an airplane is utterly impossible. And yet... here I am, 30,000 feet up, nervously sipping a cup of club soda while manually trying to counteract the effects of turbulence by pressing my feet on the floor and gripping the arm rest.
The vocation of flight attendance is bizarre (to me). These people—by choice, it would seem—have decided to radically increase their odds of being in an airplane crash and to live shoulder-to-shoulder with the impossible on a daily basis (and not as a matter of special exception) in order to serve fat, rude slobs for (what one can only assume are) insufficient wages. This shouldn't imply, by the way, that there is some theoretical wage that would be sufficiently compensatory for playing Icarus all day while cajoling the unwashed to shut off all portable personal electronics. I enjoy watching the flight attendants—morbidly fascinated that they seem bored and rather perfunctory in the knowledge that they are regularly orbiting the earth so that a bunch of dumb fucks can go to Disney World. I can only conclude that the ideal aptitude for this calling is a particular combination of bravery and mental derangement—two traits which may be more closely related than we dare to admit.
Nowhere is the malaise of the flight attendant more apparent than when he or she is forced to perform a pantomime of the safety features of the airplane for an audience that is too busy sleeping or plotting a terrorist attack to notice. Have you ever really seen the lowering of the air masks mimicked with any dramatic gusto? (No, of course not. You were browsing the selection of electric depilators in the Sky Mall catalog.) If we had only the safety skit to go by, it would seem that the loss of cabin pressure might be the result of the flight attendant's ennui. Behind the blank, placid face, one also suspects that the flight attendant might thrill at your unawareness that the seatback doubles as a flotation device. Picture her—still neatly coiffed, grinning in satisfaction—as she floats past your drowned, water-logged body in a stew of wreckage in the Indian Ocean. The ultimate retaliation of the flight attendant—better admittedly in theory than in practice—is that she lives to see the day when you filthy coach fliers regret your neglect of her mimetic arts.
My worst flying experience happened in April of this year. I was returning from Florida on a mid-sized jet belonging to a budget airline, and we attempted to land during a high-wind advisory. The airplane, now fully conforming to the expectations of human intuition, flopped around the sky like a tit at a wet t-shirt contest. What made me really nervous though is that other people around me also seemed really nervous—which I don't think I've seen before. Usually, it seems, an airplane could hurtle downward toward the earth and most passengers would remain typically unfazed, not even taking out their ear buds. But not this time. I looked around and saw most of the passengers, quiet, peering out the windows—the way a desperado might peer out of an old time saloon just before a sheriff wastes him. Mostly during turbulence, I try to retain an impassive expression even though I'm screaming like a white woman on the inside, but I think my resolve failed me this time. Who has time for keeping up appearances when your plane is breakdancing across the sky?
Well, needless to say, the plane landed without incident, but as I drove up to the booth to pay for my airport parking, the cashier said, 'Hey, were you on that Orlando flight? I heard you had a scary landing.' This certainly didn't help to encourage the revisionist history I was developing in my mind that the flight had been normal, uneventful, and a matter of course. Then the cashier, blithely sadistic, went on to explain that she'd heard that the flight was having landing gear issues too. (Thankfully the budget airline I flew was not transparent with this information during the flight. Otherwise they'd still be scraping me off the ceiling.)
It was right then and there that I decided that I would never ever fly in an airplane again. Or at least not until July. Fate has a way of rebooting itself over a few month's time...