On Christmas Day I found myself in the air, flying from Frankfurt to San Francisco, at the same time Jasper Schuringa leaped to the rescue of 256 passengers on Northwest flight 253. Save for some turbulence my flight was uneventful but when I arrived at SFO and heard what had happened in the skies over Detroit I couldn’t help but think of a flight I was on almost 10 years ago, on January 29, 2000. I wrote an essay back then about the experience in my local paper, The Noe Valley Voice, and would like to re-post it as a tribute to the passengers on Flight 253 as well as anyone else who, like me, is still in awe of airplanes and gets sweaty palms every time these wonders of technology lift us off the ground and into thin air.
If you haven’t already, I also highly recommend Roey Rosenblith’s account of Flight 253, Over Detroit Skies.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We seem to be having some problems … aahhh … there’s a strong smell of gas or oil throughout the airplane … aahhh … we don’t really know what’s going on, but we’ve all got headaches up here in the cockpit. We’ve been cleared to dump our fuel and return to San Francisco immediately.”
This was the announcement I had dreaded all these years of flying, replacing the captain’s comforting and infallible observations about the weather with the notion that this could be our last dance.
We had been about an hour into our flight to Honolulu when the captain yanked the plane 180 degrees and the flight attendants ordered us with fickle smiles to buckle up and stow our food trays. The cabin that minutes earlier had been buzzing in anticipation of coral reefs and warm winter nights was now silent.
I have often thought about what makes people so afraid of flying. Is it the loss of control, giving you no chance to hit the brakes or dodge the bullet? Or is it simply the fact that human beings weren’t meant to fly, and that forcing hundreds of tons of metal into thin air seems like such an act of faith?
As I was sinking into my window seat, getting ready for the longest hour of my life, it became clear that I had just begun the process of finding out about the roots of this fear. Floating 30,000 feet above the ground in a defective airplane would provide a steep learning curve.
Something happened at that moment. Maybe it was the sudden turbulence accompanying our descent into a thick cover of clouds, or the strange feeling of relief the acceptance of my own mortality had evoked, but I felt compelled to pull out a notepad and pen. Hunched over like a nearsighted professor, I began to write into my lap:
As life passes on with each and every second, sending us all on our various journeys into the sweet unknown, the one thing worth holding on to is the willingness to let go. Even our most valuable possession on this planet, our body, is temporary, borrowed, waiting to move on to its next destination in the grandest forum of exchange — the universe. So ride that wondrous vehicle and see all it enables you to see. Make it big, make it small, take it fast, take it slow, look within yourself and listen to that which brings warmth and excitement to your heart. Travel light — it enables you to go further and be more receptive to everyone else’s journey.
The turbulence had subsided and our plane was releasing more gas from its wing tips into the dense fog around us. I could hear the steady hum of the engines, occasionally interrupted by the dentist-drill sounds of the landing gear.
Possessions can be of great value in the design of one’s road map, yet beyond a critical mass they tend to obstruct our view. They also get rusty and outdated. It is amazing that with all of our modern technology we are no closer to knowing why we exist than our ancestors were. In fact, I would dare to say that we are so caught up in maintaining and improving our many articles of convenience that we hardly take time to engage in the process of wondering what it is we’re trying to do and why we’re doing it.
The smell of what seemed like burnt rubber had gotten so strong that people were pulling their shirts over their noses. No further news from the cockpit. The cabin was still silent.
Are humans more significant, now that we’ve managed to circle the earth in less than 24 hours? Are we really smarter because we can store a billion bits of information in a chip the size of a fingernail? Does that make the earth revolve faster? Does it create more water, oxygen, or even joy? How can we base our entire concept of economic interaction on growth, when the planet we’re on is not expanding? What is progress? Why are we here?
Questions were shooting through my head like sonic arrows darting into wide-open spaces. The flight attendants were making sure that we were strapped into our seats, keeping their fronts professional in the face of the universal.
Not all questions demand answers. In fact, the ones without straight answers often open up more doors because they confront us with our greatest fear, the fear of not knowing. Acknowledging this fear leads me, in the strangest and most awesome of ways, to find comfort in it, exposing the vast possibilities that life in this grand universe has to offer. It’s like a huge ocean, and I’ve just left shore.
A sudden thump ripped my thoughts away from the soothing image of water. I put away the pen and lifted my head to see what had happened. All around me people were talking and fiddling with their bags.
A friendly voice rang out from the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to San Francisco. The temperature is 56 degrees with a slight drizzle. Please remain seated until we’ve reached the gate and the captain has turned off the fasten seat-belt sign.”
crossposted at daily kos