Into Grim Air

Despite this week’s close call at the Toronto airport, statistics confirm that flying is the safest form of travel. But try telling that to your irrational mind.

Saturday, August 6, 2005, The Toronto Globe and Mail, Updated at 10:00 AM EDT

No casualties. That was a good breath out, when the news came two hours after the Air France Airbus A-340 slid off the runway in Toronto this week — though it must have been terrifying to be in that plane, the smoke, the fire, the pushing, the non-opening slides under the emergency doors, the slides you seldom think about even during the safety presentation at the beginning of the flight.

I was watching the early reports on television when I remembered it was Albert Camus, the best travel writer of all time, a permanent vacationist, who said that fear lies at the heart of travel — that we fear leaving (or, metaphorically speaking, dying) as much as we fear staying (surviving and having to face the pain of life, which ends in death), and only embarking on the journey anyway brings us any resolution. He was a barrel of laughs, Albert was.

I also remembered that I was leaving on a plane myself in a few days, and a few days after that on another one. Never a good time to be hearing about a plane crash.

Because then I remembered Monday, July 5, 1970, when I saw the thick black pour of smoke from another plane crash. I was 16, on my way to work at my first summer job, in a scrap yard. My father and I were alone for the summer. It was early, there was still haze in the morning air, sunny and hot.

My father was driving east, near the airport; I’d fallen asleep, guiltily, leaving him to silence. Then I noticed a smell of burning rubber, a slurry of smoke rising to the north, and traffic slowing. “I think a plane’s crashed,” I said to my father. At first, he didn’t believe me. The next day the newspaper carried the headline, “TORONTO DC-8 CRASH KILLS 108.”

I suppose that could be the psychological source of my fear of flying — seeing the smoke, feeling the impulse to look, and yet wanting it not to be true, being so close to that apocalyptic scene. (Not for nothing does Steven Spielberg stage a scene in War of the Worlds amid the strewn and burning wreckage of a fallen airliner.)

It’s the emotional and logical claustrophobia of crashes I find upsetting: Unavoidable because you’re on the plane, your fate depicted as an aluminum tube with a logo on it, the events no one can avoid, whether or not you’re ready. And so I’m a mess of tics and rituals whenever I fly — breathing in on my last glimpseof my loved ones as I say goodbye, sucking air at unexpected bumps and noises, secretly kissing my wallet photographs of my kids on takeoff, trying to hold their image in mind if something went wrong, if we went down. The kind of guy you don’t want to sit beside on the plane.

I know it’s irrational: I know how safe commercial aviation is. For years, I’ve kept a file marked Fear of Flying. It’s full of numbers. I know the chances of getting on a commercial flight and dying are roughly one in seven million, one 100,000th of 1 per cent, and that this is true whether you fly once every three years or every day for three years. I know that if you flew on a scheduled commercial airliner every day of your life, you’d likely have to fly for 19,000 years before you succumbed to a fatal accident. I know that you are more likely to die of a bee sting. I know flying coast to coast is 10 times safer than taking a trip by train, 19 times safer than a car, and that flying non-stop and choosing larger aircraft increase your odds of survival.

But I also know that things end before you want them to; that 70 per cent of all airplane accidents are caused by flight crew error; that 16 per cent occur on takeoff, 36 per cent on landing. I know where the interfaith chapel is in the airport, and have seen how serious people are when they go there. I know these facts are not equivalent. But they weigh the same in my irrational mind.

Years later, surfing the Internet, I came upon that hot July morning again by accident, on an airline-safety website that carries transcripts of the black-box conversations that occur before fatal airline accidents. It was pornographic, a snuff site, in effect, horrible to read but impossible not to, men meeting their unexpected fates with their eyes open.

The transcripts were like a play, the same scene repeated over and over again, calmer than you would expect, often hopelessly noble. The cause of the accident I had seen as a teenager was “premature spoiler deployment” — spoilers being the flaps that pop up when the plane lands, to force it down and slow it. Until then, nothing was wrong:

First Officer: Nice day.

Captain: Beautiful.

First Officer: That’s where old [unintelligible] lives there, I guess. What did they call it? High Park?

Captain: Oh.

First Officer: Those apartments there. See them? The high-rise there.

Captain: Yes, it looks over the [unintelligible]. It’s quite a good view out over the lake there.

Second Officer: The housing in Toronto is out of this world. Expensive, yeah.

An ordinary conversation. Then they begin to bear in on the runway. They make jokes about the flight path, about when to arm the spoilers — a recent directive had instructed crew to make spoilers ready for action while the plane was still in the air, a procedure several pilots disagreed with and often countermanded (as was discovered in a subsequent inquiry). The tower asks the crew to check that their landing gear is down; the first officer confirms. They’re still joking, confident in the way technically competent people can be.

Captain: My IFR approach here unknown, heh heh heh.

First Officer: Here we have a green. The VASIS appear to be a little bit high, but you are low on the glide path. Takes a whole airfield that way.

Captain: Yeah. Okay.

An apparent power reduction, as the first officer mistakenly deploys the spoilers 60 feet above the ground.

Captain: No. No. No.

First Officer: Sorry, oh sorry, Pete!

Apparent power increase. Noise of impact.

First Officer: Sorry Pete!

Captain: Okay, we have lost our power. [Exclamation.]

But they’re back in the air, and they seem to be all right. They’ll give it another try.

Captain: We’ll go around. I think we are all right.

But it is not all right. The bump on the ground has jammed an engine. They lose another on the fly-around.

Captain: There it is. The whole thing is jammed.

Crackling noise.

First Officer: What was that? What happened there, Peter?

Captain: That’s number 4 [unintelligible]. Something’s happened.

First Officer: Oh, look, we’ve got a [unintelligible . . .]

Loud sound of explosion.

First Officer: Pete, sorry.

Louder sound of explosion.

Captain: All right.

Toronto Departure Control: 621. The status of your aircraft, please.

Sound of metal tearing.

Captain: We’ve got an explosion.

First Officer: Oh look, we’ve got [unintelligible] flame. Oh, gosh.

[Unknown voice]: We’ve lost a wing.

End of transcript.

One hundred and eight people died. I can’t stop thinking of the first officer apologizing: Sorry, sorry, sorry. His name was Donald Rowland.

Of course I will try not to think about any of that when my planes take off. I will remember what Albert Camus suggested, that you can only take the journey and hope. I will be a modern traveller. I will hold my daughter’s sweet hand and tell her not to worry, that those are just noises the plane makes. I will pray under my breath anyway. I will try to remember that deadly bee sting, and all the things I actually should be afraid of in the furiously modern world. I will think about the fortunate outcome for the 309 passengers who clambered off the Air France flight this week, safe and sound and grateful.

No casualties. Blessed, this time.

My email to Ian Brown

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