En Route: Turbulence

Though Darryl Campbell has been a lifelong frequent flyer, he’s still terrified by every rattle and bump in the airplane’s cabin.

There’s an old made-for-TV movie called Miracle Landing, which depicts an airplane whose fuselage basically disintegrates mid-flight. It’s a melodramatization of a real-life air disaster, Aloha Airlines Flight 243. By today’s standards, the acting is hammy and the special effects are thoroughly B-grade. But the film’s rendering of an “explosive decompression,” however cringe-inducing it might be to me now, was nothing short of terrifying for my seven-year-old self. From that point on, every flight I boarded — and there were many — came with at least one existential jolt. What if…?

Illustration courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Illustration courtesy of the Boston Public Library

It doesn’t help that it’s much easier to recall the bad flights over the good ones. In my head, I can still picture the flight into Cleveland in the middle of winter, where the turbulence on our final approach was so bad that the flight attendant had to stop collecting trash and stagger back to her jumpseat. During another flight over Reno, as soon as we cleared the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the airplane dropped about 50 feet (and my stomach went the opposite direction). And I remember when an airplane started diving so steeply that my book — it was The Adventures of Robin Hood — floated off of my tray table and hung in mid-air, as if I were in zero-gravity training for NASA. All those smooth, unremarkable transits have faded away; each ride I’ve taken through a thunderstorm stays with me as clear as if it had happened yesterday.

All this means that my “normal” mode of air travel is a bit different than other people’s. For one thing, I actually read the airplane safety cards and pay attention to each safety demo, right down to twisting in my seat to check whether the nearest exit is, in fact, behind me. I also have an encyclopedic knowledge of the SkyMall catalogue: during periods of moderate-to-heavy turbulence, I can’t just sit still and do nothing, but I can’t concentrate on anything I actually want to read. So I rely on Hammacher Schlemmer and company to give me enough of a dose of absurdity ($500 Lord of the Rings chess sets! $8,000 electronic massage chair!) to provide a temporary refuge.

That’s just the beginning. Over the years, my brain has developed an astonishing capacity for unpleasant or bizarre airplane-related trivia. Did you know, for example, that the part of the airplane that moves the least in turbulence is supposedly just over the wings, where most aircraft have their center of mass? Or that the National Geographic Channel’s show Seconds from Disaster has two times as many aviation-themed shows than any other topic? Or that the worst accident in aviation history is the Tenerife disaster [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenerife_airport_disaster], when two 747s collided on the runway, thanks to pilot error?

I get that all this is illogical, irrational, stupid, childish, and the classic example of the “misleading vividness fallacy,” whereby people assume that, for instance, things that are more memorable are also more frequent. The lack of control, potential for catastrophe, and disproportionate media attention given to plane crashes makes them much more horrific than heart disease or cancer. And statistically speaking, all other methods of travel — trains, bikes, cars, you name it — are riskier than riding in an airplane.

Since when has reason trumped emotion, though? Notice, for instance, that I’ve avoided certain morbidity-related words in this essay, as if using them will put a jinx on my next flight, which is in just under two weeks — one point in the irrational column. I know that my chances of being involved (euphemism again) in an accident are miniscule, and I understand that air travel is safe. But knowledge and understanding are poor containers for something so primal as fear.

On some level, they feed off of each other. Yes, I’ve learned a lot of these airplane-related facts by chance. But not all. Call it ghoulish curiosity, or anxiety-induced psychosis; either way, I’m so nervous about flying that I start to worry about my next aerial adventure weeks before I actually get to the airport. I don’t know if any of this actually helps mitigate things.

One last story, then. During that flight where my Robin Hood book floated away from my tray table, people were screaming, and more than one person started crying. All to be expected. But what I remember most vividly was the guy who was sitting in the row next to me, gripping his armrests so hard that his knuckles turned white, and laughing — not hysterically or maniacally, but in short bursts that were somewhere between a whimper and a bark. The louder people screamed, and the bumpier things got, the more he would laugh in his weird staccato fashion.

I’m not at the point where I laugh when I ought to be afraid. But I understand the perverse pleasure that comes from reveling in one’s well-cultivated fears. And I know how easily these fears force their way out in the middle of strong turbulence.

Illustration courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.