I have a friend, Reed, who is a field engineer with my company. He travels more than anyone I know, and we swap travel stories on the rare occasion that we have time for a phone conversation that isn’t a fire drill or for dinner when our paths cross.
Before I started with my company, I was terrified of flying. I savored soaring above the clouds when I was a kid but, at some point, I became too aware of my mortality. While I know the stats (“You’re 800,000 times more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash!”), I didn’t like the odds of recovering from something going wrong at 30,000 feet. I also tend to be a little controlling – shut up – and ceding complete control of my life to two strangers bumping fists in the cockpit didn’t set well with me. (I always imagine pilots bumping fists, saying things like “Smooth takeoff, bro! Hey, why don’t we simulate some violent turbulence and freak the passengers out for a laugh. Aw, yeah.” *Fist bump*)
Of course, during my interview when I was asked if I minded traveling up to 75% of the time, I lied my ass off and said, “Of course not. That sounds lovely,” and thought I would just deal with it if I got the job, which was unlikely. No point in alerting my potential employer of my paranoia for no reason.
I got the job.
The first year or so, I had a lot of cocktails on a lot of flights. (A statistic for you: at the rate I was going, my liver would likely give out before my plane fell out of the sky). I am happy to say I have evolved and can travel clean these days without the need for booze.
In one of our early conversations, I mentioned my fear of flying to Reed. He proceeded to throw out additional statistics about how most people survive plane crashes or emergency landings, quoting scenarios from a program about plane crashes on the history channel. He told me about Aloha 243 in the 80’s which, until then, I was blissfully unaware of. He said the roof blew off and only one flight attendant died when she was swept out of the hole. He then cheerfully mimicked sitting in a plane seat and looking all around you as if there was nothing there – no wall, no little plane window, just sky- and said “can you imagine?”, shaking his head and laughing.
My eyes were the size of saucers. No. No, I cannot imagine. Thank you, Reed. I know better than to watch plane crash shows on the history channel but, after his description, I had no choice but to google Aloha 243 for pictures of the plane. Oh. My. God.
Reed said some passenger had noticed a crack in the fuselage when she was boarding on the jetway, but didn’t think it was a big deal and didn’t mention it to the crew. As a precaution, Reed spends his time in line to board doing a thorough visual inspection of the plane – I imagine Reed running his hand over bolts, squatting down to check a different angle, and sticking his head in the cockpit saying, “Guys, I found something I think you need to see. Come with me.”
I spend my time on the jetway staring at the console at the end, biting my lip and talking myself out of pushing the tempting big red button. (“Don’t do it, Jamie. It’s not worth it. You’ll be arrested, never allowed to fly again, lose your job as a result, and become destitute and smelly. No, you can’t get away with pretending the kid behind you tripped you and you just ‘fell’ into the console. There are witnesses. Think. THINK!!”)
Thanks to Reed, the big red button is no longer my biggest distraction. I now catch myself looking out the plane window in flight, and having heart palpatations if I think one of the flaps isn’t flapping correctly or – worse – wondering if some careless airline worker has stepped where it says “NO STEP”.
I hope that guy can’t sleep at night when a plane goes down with his footprints on the wing! There should be a “CSI: Plane Crash” where they dust for footprints on any delicate parts of the plane that survive the blazing inferno – I picture them storming into the unassuming airport guy’s room in the middle of the night to place him under arrest, ending the episode with some smartass quip.
While my paralyzing fear of flying has ebbed and I no longer have to drink heavily to stop myself from yelling “We’re all going to die!!!” when the plane hits a particularly bumpy patch of turbulence, I do still occasionally break into a cold sweat and fight the urge to grab the arm of the stranger next to me. And, when that happens, I think of Reed. I think of the likelihood that he has inspected the very plane I’m on. Keeping the skies safer for all of us…