Musings on a Plane

I like to write horror, so I can appreciate that some scary noises are fun. Creaky hinges or crisp October evenings. An echo of footsteps during a game of hide-and-seek. Whispers in the darkness around a campfire. The creaking of an airplane cabin is not one of those “fun” scary noises. But such was the atmosphere of my flight to Phoenix on June 25. The flight started out well enough. For once, I hadn’t allowed myself to get nervous ahead of time. But I did have enough foresight to bring my little notebook, into which I ended up pouring my anxieties during the flight. And here, deciphered from the bumpy blue scribbles in that notebook, is my experience on that flight:

Just after the drink service, we hit turbulence. Drinks are spilled. Kids are crying. Not only did the seatbelt light go on, but the flight attendants have been asked to sit down as well. I knew it was bad when, as a passenger tried to hand the flight attendant an empty drink container, she said, “It’ll have to wait—it’s not safe right now.” The only turbulence I’ve encountered this bad was flying home one night on the tail end of a storm.

* * *

After two hours of on-and-off turbulence, during which time I tried to stay asleep, the flight attendants are still seated. They’ve started gossiping in the back—I’m seated in the last row—and most of the passengers have acclimated to the bumpy ride. They say the human body has a mechanism allowing it to ignore repetitive or long-term environmental disruptions like buzzing or birds chirping or jarring, jolting turbulence and the creaking cabin noise resulting from it.

Not this human body.

I press my face to the window watching plots of farms in greens and browns spread beneath my like a quilt. I’m wishing I were there, in the heartland of America, perhaps, safely on the ground. I’d take anything—a pile of manure, a pig farm—whatever it took to get me safely off that plane. My husband asks if I really need the window open so wide. He, like the other passengers, is trying to sleep. The light is disruptive. I break my trance and look around: the kid next to him is sleeping, as are the people in the next two rows.

I shut the window.

My husband nods his head in sleep. The flight attendants giggle in the back at a juicy piece of gossip I cannot quite hear. The plane jolts us from side to side. No one reacts. I am in my own private nightmare. A combination of all my fears. Claustrophobia. Acrophobia. Fear of being powerless to help my immediate safety. I pull up the window, hoping for a clue to our location. I have a napkin with the airline’s various cities mapped on it, and I’ve eyeballed the trajectory, divided the flight time, and estimated where we should be by now. I peek out the sliver of light hoping for a glimpse of the Missouri River.

But there’s nothing but clouds. A mass of white. Another jolt.

A kid that looks like Ralphie from A Christmas Story ignores the seatbelt sign and scurries to the bathroom. I remember an anecdote: just before the flight, this kid and his brother were arguing about whether a McDonald’s wrapper counted as recyclable paper. They tossed it in the recycling bin anyway. My mind dashes to Lost and all the ways passengers caught random glimpses of each other’s personalities before getting only too familiar after the plane crash on the island.

The plane crash.

My mind jolts back to my Hellish reality as I wonder if turbulence can be so bad as to tear apart a plane bit by bit. I wonder what the point of seat belts is on a plane. Really. I always see pilots rolling extensive luggage behind them as they board the plane. I wonder if one of those parcels is a parachute. Is there a secret code pilots have—maybe the flight attendants are involved as well—in which they decide that the plane is done for? They announce the code over the loudspeaker, and it’s probably something innocuous so as not to frighten the passengers, something like “I heard Phoenix is hot this time of year.” And at this point, the flight attendants smile that plastered smile at the passengers and saunter to the back of the plane. And on the count of three, the doors are thrown open and the pilot jumps out followed by his harem of flight attendants, all equipped with parachutes that open to display the airplane’s logo to the suckers left above.

I wonder this as the plane jolts again. I wonder whether the pilot might provide an update on the status of the turbulence. I’m wondering why he doesn’t. And then I think to myself: why would he? If we were past the turbulence, he’d tell us so (or at least turn off the Fasten Seat Belt light). But if things were bad—scary bad—of course he’d keep quiet. Maybe he’s on the phone with his wife, telling her goodbye just in case. Or maybe he has to focus so hard on navigating through the turbulence that he can’t spare a moment to talk to the passengers.

My mind wanders one final time to an anecdote from my dad. He was on a flight, and after a bout of turbulence, the man next to him ordered a double shot.

“First time?” my dad asked. “You get used to the turbulence. It can’t really bring down a plane.”

“No,” the man said. “I’m a pilot. And if you knew what almost just happened to our plane, you’d be drinking too.” The man didn’t say anything more, and of course he could have been making it up, but it makes me wonder what pilots know/encounter/avoid that we the passengers will just never know.

* * *

POST SCRIPT

After finishing the entry above, I forced myself back into “sleep mode,” the same mode I force myself into when watching a really bad movie or TV show. Kind of like “safe mode” on a PC when starting up after a particularly bad crash. Minimal awareness. At the hotel, I researched the purpose of seat belts on planes. It turns out that in 2010, an airplane hit such bad turbulence that passengers who weren’t buckled in were injured by being thrown against the wall and ceilings of the cabin when the plane lost altitude. Lost altitude! It’s a good thing I hadn’t researched that before hand.

We encountered little “Ralphie” again on the flight home: he was sitting behind us this time. He was sitting next to a stranger who insisted in engaging the boy in conversation over the entire course of the four-and-some-change-hour flight. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that the boy had no sense of volume control or appropriateness, and I could hear every scrap of his shrill conversation. But at least there wasn’t as much turbulence. Besides, it could have been worse: if the plane had crashed on some mysterious tropical island, little Ralphie could have been my next door neighbor for years to come!