Do you imagine the worst when you fly? You don’t necessarily have to dwell on it–an unexpected what if or a quick flashback to the disaster movie of your choice both count.
Maybe you get the jitters while waiting at the gate. Maybe you slap the side of the craft as you step through the cabin door, making sure it’s sturdy. Maybe the butterflies swirl when you buckle your seatbelt.
It’s not a newbie thing, either. Ross Garnaut admits to wracked nerves even after 3,000+ flights. I don’t think anyone’s immune to at least a second of creeping irrationality.
Below, I’ve posted a pretty comprehensive what if? passage from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Enjoy… (Photo of Nepal’s Lukla Airport by Ilker Ender)
>>>At the airport we waited in a mist of plaster dust, among exposed wires,
mounds of rubble. Half an hour before Bee was due to arrive, the passengers
from another flight began filing through a drafty tunnel into the arrivals
area. They were gray and stricken, they were stooped over in weariness and shock, dragging their hand luggage across the floor. Twenty, thirty, forty people came out, without a word or look, keeping their eyes to the ground.
Some limped, some wept. More came through the tunnel, adults with whimpering children, old people trembling, a black minister with his collar askew, one shoe missing. Tweedy helped a woman with two small kids. I approached a young man, a stocky fellow with a mailman’s cap and beer belly, wearing a down vest, and he looked at me as if I didn’t belong in his space-time dimension but had crossed over illegally, made a rude incursion. I forced him to stop and face me, asked him what had happened up there. As people kept filing past, he exhaled wearily. Then he nodded, his eyes steady on mine, full of a gentle resignation.
The plane had lost power in all three engines, dropped from thirty-four
thousand feet to twelve thousand feet. Something like four miles. When the
steep glide began, people rose, fell, collided, swam in their seats. Then
the serious screaming and moaning began. Almost immediately a voice from the flight deck was heard on the intercom: “We’re falling out of the sky! We’re going down! We’re a silver gleaming death machine!” This outburst struck
the passengers as an all but total breakdown of authority, competence and
command presence and it brought on a round of fresh and desperate wailing.
Objects were rolling out of the galley, the aisles were full of drinking
glasses, utensils, coats and blankets. A stewardess pinned to the bulkhead
by the sharp angle of descent was trying to find the relevant passage in a handbook titled “Manual of Disasters.” Then there was a second male voice from the flight deck, this one remarkably calm and precise, making the passengers believe there was someone in charge after all, an element of hope: “This is American two-one-three to the cockpit voice recorder. Now we know what it’s like. It is worse than we’d ever imagined. They didn’t prepare us for this at the death simulator in Denver. Our fear is pure, so totally stripped of
distractions and pressures as to be a form of transcendental meditation. In
less than three minutes we will touch down, so to speak. They will find our
bodies in some smoking field, strewn about in the grisly attitudes of death. I love you, Lance.” This time there was a brief pause before the mass wailing recommenced. Lance? What kind of people were in control of this aircraft? The crying took on a bitter and disillusioned tone.
As the man in the down vest told the story, passengers from the tunnel began gathering around us. No one spoke, interrupted, tried to embellish the account.
Aboard the gliding craft, a stewardess crawled down the aisle, over bodies and debris, telling people in each row to remove their shoes, remove sharp objects from their pockets, assume a fetal position. At the other end of the plane, someone was wrestling with a flotation device. Certain elements in
the crew had decided to pretend that it was not a crash but a crash landing
that was seconds away. After all, the difference between the two is only one word. Didn’t this suggest that the two forms of flight termination were more or less interchangeable? How much could one word matter? An encouraging question under the circumstances, if you didn’t think about it too long, and
there was no time to think right now. The basic difference between a crash and a crash landing seemed to be that you could sensibly prepare for a crash
landing, which is exactly what they were trying to do. The news spread through the plane, the term was repeated in row after row. “Crash landing, crash landing.” They saw how easy it was, by adding one word, to maintain a grip on the future, to extend it in consciousness if not in actual fact. They patted themselves for ballpoint pens, went fetal in their seats.
By the time the narrator reached this point in his account, many people
were crowded around, not only people who’d just emerged from the tunnel but also those who’d been among the first to disembark. They’d come back to listen. They were not yet ready to disperse, to reinhabit their earthbound bodies, but wanted to linger with their terror, keep it separate and intact for just a while longer. More people drifted toward us, milled about, close to the entire planeload. They were content to let the capped and vested man speak
on their behalf. No one disputed his account or tried to add individual testimony. It was as though they were being told of an event they hadn’t personally been involved in. They were interested in what he said, even curious, but also clearly detached. They trusted him to tell them what they’d said and felt.
It was at this point in the descent, as the term “crash landing” spread
through the plane, with a pronounced vocal stress on the second word, that passengers in first class came scrambling and clawing through the curtains, literally climbing their way into the tourist section in order to avoid being
the first to strike the ground. There were those in tourist who felt they ought to be made to go back. This sentiment was expressed not so much in words and actions as in terrible and inarticulate sounds, mainly cattle noises, an urgent and force-fed lowing. Suddenly the engines restarted. Just like that. Power, stability, control. The passengers, prepared for impact, were slow to adjust to the new wave of information. New sounds, a different flight path, a sense of being encased in solid tubing and not some polyurethane wrap. The smoking sign went on, an international hand with a cigarette. Stewardesses appeared with scented towelettes for cleaning blood and vomit. People slowly came out of their fetal positions, sat back limply. Four miles of prime-time terror. No one knew what to say. Being alive was a richness of sensation. Dozens of things, hundreds of things. The first officer walked down the aisle, smiling and chatting in an empty pleasant corporate way. His face had the rosy and confident polish that is familiar in handlers of large passenger aircraft. They looked at him and wondered why they’d been afraid.
I’d been pushed away from the narrator by people crowding in to listen,
well over a hundred of them, dragging their shoulder bags and garment bags
across the dusty floor. Just as I realized I was almost out of hearing range, I saw Bee standing next to me, her small face smooth and white in a mass of kinky hair. She jumped up into my embrace, smelling of jet exhaust.
“Where’s the media?” she said.
“There is no media in Iron City.”
‘They went through all that for nothing?”
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