What to read if you're afraid of flying.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 23 2008 6:17 PM

Way Up in the Sky

What to read if you're afraid of flying.

(Continued from Page 1)

Nothing about an accident is taken for granted, because a major airplane accident is usually a complex, unique event, often without a single cause but with several; it's usually a combination of technical factors, as well as a special sequence of events, that explains why a plane crashes. Moreover, there's the psychological dimension of the cockpit: What, if anything, has the pilot, or the first officer, done that might have made a crash an inevitable outcome—at what point is an accident irreversible? Some plane crashes share characteristics with others, but the NTSB's reports show the circumstances peculiar to each one. They theorize, but they draw no conclusion when there isn't the evidence to support one. It wouldn't surprise me if one of the reasons why flying has become so safe is because its accidents have been so well-investigated.

Back inside the cabin, what did this knowledge add up to? Did the NTSB's reports make flying seem safer? Not at first: On a trans-Atlantic flight, I'd spend the seven hours reacting to every reverberation, eyes peeled at the window and at the plane's wing or engine. But slowly, I began to find long stretches of flights when I felt no fear. These stretches grew longer, until the only part of flying that I disliked, and remain unsettled by, was from the moment when a plane began its takeoff roll to the moment when the pilot turns off the seat-belt sign.

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There was, and still is, a lot of staring at the wing, at how sooted or stained it is, and not long ago these preflight checks produced a bit of a jolt when I was looking out of the window at John F. Kennedy International Airport. One of the fairings, the conelike casings that protrude backward from the wing, housing the machinery that extends and retracts the wing's flaps, was missing. Where an aerodynamic cone should have been, there was a rusty piece of metal that resembled an over-roasted chicken leg. I waved at one of the cabin attendants and explained. At first she didn't understand what I was talking about, but then after seeing the chicken leg, she disappeared. She returned from the front of the plane some minutes later and asked if I'd come this way; the pilot wanted a word. I got up, walked with her through business class, and then up the stairs of the 747. She knocked at the cockpit door.

"James Wood," the pilot said as he put his hand forward to shake mine. "This is Samir. He's the first officer."

"Well-spotted!" Captain Wood said. He explained that the missing fairing wasn't essential. It had come off some flights earlier. The only problem posed by its absence was that the plane would require 1 to 2 percent more fuel for the journey across the Atlantic. There was no reason to worry.

"A million things can go wrong with a plane this size," Wood said. Don't I know, I was about to say when Wood pulled the plane's manual from a nearby shelf. "Our Bible," said Wood. It was as fat as a Tom Wolfe novel, and a single yellow sticky marked the page about fairings.

I spent some time at the beginning of that flight looking at the roasted chicken leg. It was an uneventful journey. I counted the number of times I'd had flown across the Atlantic, and tried to work out my carbon imprint. (My 28 flights across the Atlantic have a produced as much CO2 as a fuel-efficient car would produce in 47 years.) There's nothing like an argument against flying to make it more bearable. The flaps extended before takeoff and retracted soon afterward. Captain Wood told the passengers that we'd make landfall over Cork, Ireland. Flying, and fearing it, has many contradictions, but it's become more bearable not because those contradictions are resolved. Flying—and not fearing it—depends on what you can appreciate in terms such as landfall, which is by far the most beguiling of aeronautical phrases and doesn't mean what you might think it meant if you didn't know anything about flight.

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