Since the fall of 2001, I’ve been terrified of flying — not for fear of a terrorist attack, but because of the violently destructive force 9/11 demonstrated planes can have. Living in Jamaica, N.Y., a mere 10 minutes from JFK, the noise of planes making their landing approach over my house frightened me. As I fell asleep, I’d hear the drone of engines getting louder and louder, and each and every time, I’d imagine that the plane was going to crash into my backyard.
My fear deepened on November 12, 2001, when, just 15 miles from my house, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into a residential neighborhood, shortly after takeoff, killing all 260 passengers and crew and an additional five people on the ground.
For months, I could not look at the clock when it read 9:11, for fear that it would doom me to die in a plane accident. And, after many sleepless nights, I worked up the courage to tell my mother I didn’t want our family to go to San Francisco the following summer. San Francisco was the site of the 2002 National Bar Association conference, which my father attended yearly, and also the destination of two of the four doomed 9/11 planes.
What bothered me so much about this series of plane-related incidents was that so many individual lives could be obliterated instantaneously in a ball of fire and metal. That, and imagining the thoughts of the passengers onboard.
What went through the minds of those on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center, as they saw the towers and realized what fate awaited them? Did they die instantly? Was there a metaphysical slowing of time before the moment of impact?
Or what about those on AA Flight 77 or United Flight 93, which were crashed into the Pentagon and a ditch in Pennsylvania, respectively? What did it feel like to plummet towards the ground, knowing there was no way out?
Air travel was and is touted as the safest way to travel, which I completely understand. What I don’t like about flying is knowing that I can’t escape if I need to, and that, while 99 percent of us will get to our destinations safely, the small percentage who were unlucky boarded their flights with the same certainty that we do.
Even though there have been no major plane crashes in the U.S. since Flight 587, I’ve kept my fear alive by reading about gruesome disasters from years past. I’ll leave you to choose whether to look these up on your own, but TWA Flight 800, EgyptAir Flight 990 (both of which also took off from JFK) and American Airlines Flight 11 bother me the most.
I’m not sure why I feed this fear. (To make myself painfully aware of my own constantly looming mortality?) Nor am I sure why I, living in New York City, chose to go to Stanford when I could’ve easily gone to a school that didn’t require flying.
Yet — and get ready for a twist — flying is one of my favorite things to do, and planes fascinate me to no end.
In New York, whenever I had time to kill between connecting trains on the Long Island Rail Road, I’d wander over to the AirTrain station in Queens and look at all the destinations of departing flights. Moving to Long Island and living directly under the landing approach for European and other westbound flights was a dream — I saw a constant stream of planes at almost every hour of the day.
I remember seeing the Concorde en route to JFK twice before it was taken out of service in 2003. I remember my first flight on a Boeing 777 and on a Boeing 747 (to this day my favorite plane.)
JetBlue and Virgin America are my favorite domestic airlines, and I live for the day when I can “Fly Emirates,” as their ads tell me to do, aboard an Airbus A380, the double-deck, four-engine behemoths that now grace the skies.
I think planes are sexy — as is everything else about flight: the three-letter airport codes that are associated with each airport; flight attendants, who always seem so professional and pristine; and even particular airlines themselves.
The larger implications of planes and flight — human ingenuity, the interconnectivity of the 21st century, and the sensation of almost being able to fly — are all fascinating to me.
The sensation of flight — the thrill of hurtling down the runway and always experiencing that moment of hesitation over whether the plane will lift off, and, once it does, whether physics will realize it was kidding and pull the plane back down; experiencing turbulence and thinking, “Is that all you’ve got?” and then praying that the plane stabilizes; and the feeling of returning back to the ground — never ceases to delight me.
So, for the foreseeable future, my irrational obsession with flight outweighs my rational fear of it, and I will continue to fly.
Kristian feels this column may have been darker than he originally intended it to be. If you want to help him lighten up, send him your favorite story of flight at kbailey ‘at’ stanford.edu.