Flying soon after news of a fatal accident is disconcerting. You tell yourself that this is the safest mode of travel. You look at the statistics and convince yourself of the bubble you call your aircraft. But when an engine blows, a window shatters, and a life is lost, it takes more effort than usual to keep going.
Before my flight, I went through the ritual of telling myself I am too insignificant in the universe for good or bad to happen. I got lots of steps in the terminal and then found myself safely cocooned in seat 17B, leg dangling in the aisle. Flying simultaneously brings joy and aggravation, peace and nerves, friendliest of passengers and nasty people, harried airline staff and unsmiling TSA people. It offers a microcosm of the universe in a small space and teaches you the value of patience and gratitude.
Once the door closes, I don’t really pay attention to the aircraft. I work or do a crossword.
Not like Tarun.
He cues into every buzz, whoosh, ping, and thud. He knows when the wheels are up and down, when the flaps should move and how, if thrust is high or low, and if the plane is circling, as if he’s reading the cockpit gauges. While I watch a movie on long haul flights, he taps me on the shoulder to tell me where we are, our altitude, and our ground speed. It's like having my personal human GPS. Without him, I am rudderless.
After the flight took off I heard a loud whir from below seat 17B. Part of me was intrigued and the rest just wished for it to go away.
Wait, was that a siren wailing?
Tarun, where are you when I need you?! I looked out and took a deep breath, calmed by the view.
Humor has often been my invisible companion in the air and on the ground. Years ago, for weight-balance issues, United evicted me after I had boarded a small jet. As I left the aircraft, I turned to the passengers sitting smugly in their seats, pointed to myself and said, “I hope you guys feel safe now!” Hell hath no fury like a small woman scorned!
Fear has been tangible too. Nothing will get the adrenalin going like the words “hydraulic failure”. I don’t know as much as Tarun about planes, but enough to know those two words shouldn’t ever be uttered together. And when it did happen, I was glad that the emergency landing went smoothly. When we were routed to Halifax from somewhere over the Atlantic, the blinding flashlights of the police cars on the tarmac, and security people swarming the plane, made us thankful that the bomb scare was fake.
Then there are the memorable encounters. I once hit a co-passenger hard on the back to stop him from choking. And on another trip, the kind gentleman next to me turned out to be the CEO of Rolls Royce America. On a DC to Chicago flight, I awoke to find a note on my lap from the captain thanking me for my loyalty to the airline. He sure knew how to make my day.
Strangers have cared when I least expected them to. Once, right before I caught a flight, I threw my back out. In significant pain, I called customer service to reroute me home. The rep who took the call sensed my discomfort and offered to call 911. For a moment, she dulled my pain.
In the end, the joys outweigh the stresses. The joys of meeting people, going places, closing deals, delivering well. The delays, cancellations, weather, unprofessionalism frustrate me, but never fully take control. The uninterrupted vistas make me whole again.
As we landed accompanied by the familiar hum, I felt grateful for the nerves of jello that keep me sane and make me smile. I would definitely rather be wiggly than set when I am flying the friendly skies.