Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fear of Falling

It’s not so much that I’m afraid of flying; I’m afraid of falling, rapidly, from a very great height.

It hasn’t always been that way. I love airplanes. As a young boy, I spent hours pouring over books about aircraft –Spitfires and Mustangs, Sopwiths and Electras. I thrilled to the Blue Angels at the annual air show in Corpus Christi.

And later, after those first nervous, tentative steps skyward, I remember the sheer joy of swooping through the skies with cousin John in his Mooney; the excitement of taking the controls of a Bell Jet Ranger bound for a super tanker anchored in the Gulf; the ease of those first hops on Southwest Airlines, and the fun David Robertson and I had cadging maintenance test flights off PHI pilots at the Aransas County Airport.

Youngsters just don’t know any better.

Later, after college, I took a part-time job with US Airways just so I could avail myself of the company’s generous travel benefits. For more than a year I made the D.C.-Austin roundtrip on an almost weekly basis, often in first class. Air travel was a mundane, unremarkable part of my life.

Somewhere along the way, something changed. It could have been the commuter flight from Chicago to La Crosse, Wisconsin in a blizzard. We circled and circled in the blinding snowstorm; laughably, the pilot told us we had an air traffic delay. Really, he was just dumping fuel. I could see the flashing blue and red of emergency vehicles lining the runway, and I remember feeling very calm, and slightly disgusted, that I was going to die with a bunch of very large, very white Wisconsinites all wearing polyester and barfing into little bags.

Or maybe it started with that engine fire on the ramp at McGuire AFB. A mechanic had left the oil fill cap off the number four engine of the C-141 we were taking to Germany. We left on the same plane the next morning.

In Bosnia, on a UH-60 Blackhawk with the Sergeant Major of the Army, we circled and marked an undeclared Serb surface-to-air radar site and lost an engine. It was a long, careful glide back to Tuzla Air Base.

On another trip to Bosnia, we lost the number two engine on a C-130H Hercules somewhere over the Czech Republic, forcing a return to Germany. When we finally did make it into Bosnian airspace that trip, the combat descent (think: falling, precipitously, from a very great height) was terrifying. A captain from Maryland suffered a ruptured dental abscess on the way down and was escorted sobbing from the aircraft.

Later, on a return flight from Ecuador to Howard AFB in Panama, the sturdy little C-27 “Spartan” in which I was the only passenger lost an engine high over the mountains of a particularly unfriendly portion of Columbia. On another flight, hopping back to Texas from Honduras aboard a C-23 Sherpa, an airliner smeared itself across the only runway at Phillip S.W. Goldson International Airport near Belize City minutes before we were to land. It was our mid-point fuel stop, and that was a problem: military aircraft can’t just put down at the nearest airstrip without causing a diplomatic hoo-ha.

Then there was the American Airlines flight from Austin to Miami, on the way back down to Panama. Somewhere over the swamps of southwestern Louisiana, we heard a sharp bang* from the rear of the plane. Suddenly the aircraft – an MD-80, or perhaps an MD-90 – began see-sawing through the air in the same way a boat would roll in heavy seas. Then the cabin suddenly depressurized and the masks dropped.

“Don’t worry,” I told the terrified spring breaker on my left, “I’m sure they’ll get us back down in one piece.” And they did, in New Orleans, and then tried to put me back on the same plane later that night. I declined.

Returning from that same trip aboard a brand-new Airbus A-300 which had just gone into service with American, in blue skies over the Caribbean, we suddenly dropped hundreds – perhaps even thousands -- of feet in just a few seconds. Food service carts hovered in the air. Unbuckled passengers and flight attendants shot to the ceiling. The pretty perfume buyer seated next to me dug her French-manicure into my left arm. It’s a phenomenon called “clear air turbulence,” and typically is caused by vertical wind shear.

It’s scary as hell, but somehow better with a pretty, tri-lingual brunette clinging to your arm.

Once, near Patuca, Ecuador, I volunteered for a flight into the disputed zone between Ecuador and Peru. It was Brazil’s turn to take the aviation part of the peacekeeping mission that year, and we flew aboard the $4 million version of the UH-60 Blackhawk. It was like the base model of a mid-sized SUV. Where I was used to seeing GPS and myriad other electronics, there were huge blank spaces in the cockpit dash.

We got weathered-in somewhere in the foothills of the Andes; it was the rainy season, and feathery cascades poured off the cliff faces and peaks around us as clouds enveloped the aircraft. The Brazilian pilot held the helicopter in a hover over a jungle river and waited for visibility to improve. As he did, I carefully watched the twin row of LEDs that indicated fuel levels blink down to almost nothing. But I did see a flock of macaws below us. That was cool.

I’ve taken steps to overcome what I know is an irrational fear of falling when I’m supposed to be flying. Despite frequent propulsion issues, I’ve always been more comfortable on military flights because I typically knew or got to meet the crews, even hang-out in the cockpit or at least listen-in to the chatter. When I discovered that United Airlines actually offered a channel with pilot-tower comms on their complimentary headsets, I jumped at the chance.

I remember well the day we took off from the airport in Boise, Idaho; a pall of dirty brown hung all around the city (fields were burning), and the 737 had to make a particularly steep climb to get over the mountains. In my cushioned headphones, I suddenly heard the TCAS (Traffic and Collision Avoidance System) alarm go off. I was familiar with the computer voice from military flights. The pilot queried air traffic control. ATC insisted the plane was fine and there was nothing in our way. The captain, though, wasn’t taking any chances, and stood that big jet on its wing. It was an exciting moment.

Look, I know the stats: only a one in 10 million chance of dying in an airline crash; five times as many people die in boating accidents, and the risk of travel by automobile is something like 20 times greater. And, indeed: I think many aircraft are beautiful; form follows function, and anything that harnesses lift in the atmosphere (planes, sails, windmills) is likely to be pretty to my eyes. And I still fly, because sometimes it’s the only way to get where I want to go.

But I don’t often fly sober.

*My boss at the time, USAF Maj. Gen. Danny James III, an experienced military and civil aviator, told me that was the sound of the “yaw damper” going out, and the cabin depressurization was unrelated. To see what the yaw damper is supposed to prevent, go here.


Denis Ryan said...

Aaron, I fly every week...thanks for this, it brings no peace to me. I will say it is well written and I am thankful to have not had as many "encounters" as you. I would prefer the trains of Europe if they were available her in the U.S. That is only an option in the N.E. portion of this great country.

Take care.


Aaron Reed said...

Denis, wouldn't it be cool if we at least had high-speed rail for the San Antonio (Austin)-Dallas-Houston triangle? Can't you make that happen.

Hey, good luck flying. Have a drink for me.


Jim said...

Aaron, Please warn me when and where you fly. I want to make sure I can't come to work. Better yet, I hear Southwest has some really good fares now!!! I have over 18,000 hours and the worst I've had was losing an engine on a Herk. And it has three more!! I have also flown the Sherpa and 737. I just want to make sure you're not on my plane!! LOL

Aaron Reed said...

See, all this time I *have* suspected it might be just me. lol. Thanks for that!