It’s common for travelers to complain about flying, while writers and comedians make rueful comedy about it. George Carlin most notably dissected airline P. A. announcements, from the idiocy of “pre-boarding” to the jaw-droppingly naïve instruction to “breathe normally” when an emergency oxygen mask drops ominously in front of your face.
I like to travel by air. I fly my own airplane for fun, but I travel by commercial airliner. I won’t try to convince you that all aspects of it are pleasant; you know better. But I have convinced myself that any unpleasantness is much magnified—or greatly improved—by attitude. Take, for example, the matter of luggage. A car encourages you to fill its trunk. Trains and buses suggest by their size that they have room for anything you can bring. Only air travel demands that you ask yourself what is necessary for you to pack. I realized long ago that the pilots’ and flight attendants’ tote on top of a small rolling case made all kind of sense and was probably a restriction arrived at through compromise: what the crews absolutely needed for stays that could be unpredictably long versus the airlines’ necessity to provide space for the paying rather than the paid souls on board. I may be odd in enjoying the challenge of choice or rejection of that stylin’ sweater, and I positively enjoy the game of reducing weight and bulk in my shaving and medication kit.
When a jet leaves the ground, the pilot raises the nose to a steep attitude for the climb out. To a person like myself trained to fly in small non-jet planes, it’s an impossible angle that I know will result in a stall, after which the plane will drop immediately several hundred feet; since we are so near the ground, we will crash. It doesn’t happen, of course, because the thrust of these jet airplanes allows them to practically stand on their tails, but for me, it’s one of several moments in commercial flying when I am forced to think about the imminence of death. Another such moment is the landing, which in a jet takes place at a speed entirely too close to two hundred miles an hour. Again, landing my own small plane is different: it is an exhilarating feeling of being the only one responsible for getting this puppy safely onto the ground, but it takes place at speeds that quickly slow from less than a hundred miles an hour to less than fifty.
I should make clear that I don’t think occasionally imagining that one’s death is close a bad thing. We don’t do it often enough, I believe. Those who don’t fly or those fliers who are utterly indifferent to the experience never feel those moments of near-terror that others of us do: the volaphobes—I think I just made up a word—or those of us who don’t fear flying, but who carefully observe the stages of flight that are the most dangerous moments. Most automobile drivers, I suspect, have had a near-crash experience when they do momentarily feel the brush of the dark angel’s wing. Flying is exhilarating for me partly because of such moments in the air, brief as they may be.
But most of the exhilaration of flying commercial is in the sheer unlikelihood of it all. That feeling when the wheels leave the ground and their unpleasant vibration gives way to smoothness and freedom, for example, is always increased for me when I’m looking from the back of a 747 across eight rows of seats and forward most of a football field’s length to the front, thinking, “this is a building that’s launching itself into air!” And even at altitude, flying comfortably along, with a drink on the tray in front of me not even vibrating a bit, I often think how truly wild and strange it is to be going five hundred miles an hour six miles up in the sky without even having my hair ruffled.
No excitement attends waiting in airports, going through lines for security checks, or driving to and from airports, and any one of these chores might end up taking as long as my flight. But these tedious matters enable me to experience the flight itself, a method of travel still astonishing and as different from ordinary modes of getting across land and sea as the soaring of an eagle is from the crawling of an ant. And at the end I am deposited in a different time zone, on another continent, or even half the world away.