Shaken

Environmental Control

Usually, when you grow up with something, like a childhood of enjoying not-so-pleasant looking ripe bananas–speckled oxidation brown, far from a pristine green or yellow–it becomes normalcy, a state of comfort and not-surprise.

It’s eating around the mold. It’s sleeping without worrying that your body will roll out of bed onto the floor. Or like totally trusting that the strawberry yogurt you just opened does not contain rocks or pocket lint or potatoes.

This feeling, this trust in the certainty of an outcome, is not how I feel about flying. (Or eating ripe bananas for that matter: the greener the better.)

I don’t remember my first flight, but it surely occurred when my family moved to San Francisco, California from the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. And since my extended family still lived in the Midwest, flying was incorporated into our traveling tools.

Years later, when we moved to England, the normalcy of flying became more normal. I flew around Europe with family and schoolmates. I flew past Europe, to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Then we left England for Shanghai, China, and it became our hub to experience the rest of Asia. And since Australia was closer than it had ever been, we went there too.

I started flying alone when I went back to the States for college. I flew around America. I flew to Thailand to visit my parents.

You know what, I continue to fly. My wife and I just got back from Oregon.

The only reason not to fly, for any normal person: the environment. Money too.

But I have somehow worked myself out of the normalcy of flying.

Before buying plane tickets, I sometimes find myself in fantastical inner monologues concerning circumventing air travel. Of going the long way.

If only one could drive across oceans.

It wasn’t anything like 9/11 that groomed my fear of flying. Even though I remember clearly when TWA Flight 800 mysteriously went down in the Atlantic from an apparent explosion. Or that I’ve read the cabin transcript of the tragic crash of Air France Flight 447, the most awful hindsight to read.

Like any other human, I like to have control over my environment. I like a good safe place, and one that I myself have affirmed is safe. We all do this. It’s probably what’s kept us in the evolutionary pot, now boiling over.

Fear Management

I think the real fear stems from the fact that planes can crash. That there is such a very weird and incomprehensible–at least to a layman like me–margin of error when one flies.

When you drive a car, you at least have a flat and mostly sturdy plane beneath you in the form of a spherical giant rock 24,901 miles in circumference.

When you are flying, the ground is the thing you must leave. You must leave it drastically, sometimes more than 35,000 feet between you and the planet’s surface. But not too far, for even the solidity of air has its limits.

In the beginning, I worried about the integrity of planes. All humans are builders, and sometimes we equate our own amateur-ish skill of building and designing things–like patching drywall or trying to get a cake to rise in the oven–with the professional realms of science, design, and engineering that goes into pretty intense things like planes or boats or buildings.

Perhaps cars and their frequent-seeming problems have spoiled me. Planes are treated better, scrutinized by mechanics more thoroughly than cars.

Planes have two drivers.

But we all know what it is like to breakdown, to be left stranded. It’s easy to translate that to another vehicle, one that can’t pull over to the side of the sky.

I remember being a bit scared flying in McDonnell Douglas planes when I lived in China in the nineties: Was a plane whose manufacturer no longer existed still worthy of staying in the air?

But you do your research, and I did–picture thousands of browser tabs with an extensive Google search history on all sorts of aviation keywords, so much so that I must have perplexed the algorithm gods–and you find that like many things, it’s all usually user error. Like, say, with cars.

Once flights get up in the air, 10 minutes after takeoff, they usually stay there until they are directed by the pilots to come back down. It’s the takeoff and landings that one needs to worry about, but, really, one does not really need to worry about that either.

I have far more of a chance perishing while driving my own vehicle with my own faculties than sitting in a metal tube going faster than I will ever drive myself, being driven by someone who I don’t know.

Behold these layers of fear.

The Feint of Turbulence

Three years ago, I was doing some night-before-flying googling and found websites and apps that forecast turbulence.

The next morning, I flew to Arizona with a bunch of my family to visit my aunt and uncle. I hardly remember it; nothing notable to report.

On the flight back, the websites and apps forecasted turbulence.

“Okay,” I thought. “I know what to expect.”

It started somewhere over Kansas. The plane shot into clouds, making its own tunnel through the whiteness. A rather long tunnel, from Kansas to Ohio. The plane shook uncessingly. I kept looking out the window at the blankness of what everyone in the plane was seeing, including the pilots, and wondering if the cloud would part to show a witch riding on a broomstick.

It was not the turbulence that bugged me. Nor the visibility. Each shake was a harbinger for the shark of the sky: the air pocket.

Air pockets are more descriptive than real. The term exists because it describes a sort of clean version of turbulence, when the plane seems to lose all traction with the air and drops like you had just pushed the button of a very efficient elevator.

I’ve been through some hefty air pockets, and I didn’t very much like it or the theme park gasps the humans around me made.

It was an hour or two of turbulence, that flight over Kansas and all the way into Cincinnati. No awful air pockets, but the turbulence was too strong for me to relax even a bit.

I should have known that such websites and apps weren’t perfect. No one has that sort of clarity about the weather. We’ve only really started having quasi-accurate weather forecasts in the last 30 years.

Thus, my fear of turbulence is related to that age old question: “Are we there yet?”

I know how long the trip will be. I’m not squirming in the backseat, not knowing how to handle the boredom. But I don’t know how bad I’m going to get shaken up during it.

You’d think that I’d be comforted by the outward-showing postures of monotony from the other passengers: the blank faces of sleepers, readers, or film viewers. I look at these people for comfort–or signs of panic–and then I continue to quietly white-knuckle whatever arm rests I was able to stake-out when I was seated.

Most flights don’t have such turbulence, such air pockets. That doesn’t matter. That’s the problem.

An Example

We were flying home, and I sat in a window seat on a clear day. I watched the Utah desert turn into the Wyoming flatlands, to the farm fields of Nebraska and of Iowa.

I found myself pushing myself to enjoy the experience, like I was on a tram over the largest panorama of the world ever made.

When else are you ever hurtling through the air at such speeds with such a broad spread laid out, seeing vast things below you move increments at a time? Seeing a context that puts into perspective the size of the world we all live in, which we continually forget?

Then a bumpy whiteness enveloped us.

Before the flight, I had learned on one of my apps that there would be turbulence. And when it didn’t materialize as planned, over Nebraska, I relaxed. And then when turbulence materialized, not as planned, over the Indiana and Ohio border, I went back into a quiet sort of panic.

Randomness had struck.

Rewind back two flights and ten days, and I serenely, in non-turbulent air, sat on a smaller plane while flying down a Northwest corridor from Seattle to Portland, awing at Mount Rainier.

And then, in that same awed state, almost flying over Mount St. Helens, with Mount Adams off in the distance.

Before I took the above photo, I said, “That’s too small to be Mount St. Helens.” I was wrong.

Even though the ex-volcano was totally hollowed out, one side cleanly collapsed, like a kid kicking out one side of a sand volcano made on a beach, I couldn’t believe that it had once looked like this:

Source: USGS

This is the whimsy that only occurs when the mind is not narrowed in anxiety. This is my potential.

A Normal

The summer, I hear, is responsible for more turbulence than the winter air. Warmth being the source of air volatility. And I’m assuming such will only get worse as the climate tilts toward warmer and more drastic weather.

I’m sure airlines want to keep their customers less stressed, but I’m the outlier. There is so much transparency I’d yet love to have on a flight, and so far, the market doesn’t seem to need such a thing. Turbulence is normal; my fears of it are not.

That flight I was on that amplified my fears the most, where the aircraft dropped like an elevator, was the better experience on that day. Hours later, on a similar flight over the Pacific, turbulence caused a flight to drop some 500 feet in the air.

To our poetic brains, our conclusions to this can be totally illogical. We can describe those few seconds, that 500 feet of seeming free-fall, as the plane falling out of the sky. They can’t really. But they do just for a little bit.

What do you do when you are too imaginative for your own good?

Distraction, of course. We work, we play, we tire ourselves out.

Yet when there is something in your environment that will literally move you around, it’s pretty hard to put your brain into another container of thinking.

Tamping down my fear of flying to my current levels has been one of my life’s Fear Super Journeys. There are other things I have feared–past tense being important here–and there are things I will probably always fear but with that low, almost nonexistent level of anxiety. Like getting a book wet or stubbing my toe in the dark.

When I sit there on an airplane, feeling the jostling of turbulence, I try to harmonize my mind with the mechanics of what’s happening: A really sturdy plane with good aerodynamics and more than fast enough speed gets impacted by uneven forces that will at least keep the plane in said forces if speed and structure remain intact. You are on a plane that has been flying almost non-stop for like 15 years with no major issues. The humans who run the plane probably like their jobs. They don’t want to die. A whole industry exists to make this plane fly. People’s livelihoods, money and otherwise, are tied up in this venture.

Then again, flying has not been without its accidents.

Nothing is without its accidents.

It’s all a game of the mind. Pulled by forces unseen, just like that air above our heads, just like mechanisms that propel a jet engine.

You forget how much you trust things each day.

But we are a gigantic conglomeration of rock and metals, hurtling at 67,000 miles per hour through space, attached to a star through its gravity that is itself traveling 483,000 miles per hour.

The thing around our planet isn’t some sort of solid matter but general space. Vast space.

There is so much out of our control in our lives, in everything. Yet, forces do not exist without rules.

We live in happiness and in sadness through it all. The point, is to control at least that.

But, seriously, let’s get this turbulence thing under control.