Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fear of Flying

This plane caused my fear of flying. It's now been turned into beer cans and razor blades, and good riddance. But I'll get to why I hate this particular plane in a bit.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pilot. Loved planes. Loved flying! My family was spread across the country so I did a lot of flying in those days, much of it alone. It was a different era - just after deregulation, so service was a lot better and the planes (and airports) were a lot less full. Flying was exciting and fun. Heck, there were still upper deck lounges in 747's and pubs on DC-10's.

But in 1979, this happened:

I know, scary image. That's a real photo of American Airlines flight 191, a DC-10 that crashed on takeoff in 1979 when one of its engines detached from the aircraft, severing hydraulic lines and making the plane uncontrollable at the speed the pilots were trained to fly it at in that situation. It was tragic and shocking and the worst air disaster in the United States, still today. I was a little kid, but I flew a lot so I understood what had happened to some degree, and it shook me up.

The FAA grounded the entire fleet of DC-10's for a while, a move that was unprecedented then and has never again happened to an entire aircraft type. There were a lot of news reports about safety problems with the DC-10, and the FAA became concerned about a potentially widespread issue with cracked engine pylons. I used to fly DC-10's on United a lot going from Newark to Oakland, and now I was back on the older DC-8 for the most part instead. (I liked DC-8's anyway, and I was happy to not be flying on a scary airplane that had just crashed.)

In 1980, the DC-10 airworthiness certificate was restored. But I was still scared of them; I didn't know or understand the whole story. I remember walking with my dad to the gate on my first flight after that, and seeing a DC-10 sitting there, I almost refused to go. I only didn't because I thought he'd be mad. Well, that flight turned out fine. The return flight? Not so much.

The first thing I remember from that flight was a distant "pop", then a bunch of people screaming on the other side of the plane. It was just after takeoff. I also remember seeing a bright orange and then a bright blue glow out the windows, though I couldn't see what was going on because the passengers over there were all looking out. The stewardess (still called them that back then!) came running up the aisle to look out the windows, then ran to the cockpit.

I was 8 years old, and flying by myself. I had no idea what was going on, but all I could think about was what had happened the year before.

The plane slowed and we leveled off. I heard what sounded like both engines spooling down. I was convinced we were all going to die. No announcement was made. I started crying. Several other people were doing the same, both kids and adults. That freaked me out even more. Eventually, after what was probably about five minutes but seemed like forever, the pilot came on the intercom and said we'd "blown an engine" and "had a little fire back there" (as near as I remember it, those were his exact words) but that they'd shut it down and put the fire out and we were heading back to Newark. He said we'd be on the ground in about 20 minutes.

We were at around 2,000 feet, and every turn we made seemed too sharp, going too slow. I had that image above in my head all the way back. I had nobody to tell me it was going to be ok. I had a row of seats to myself so not even any strangers around me, and the stewardesses were all busy preparing the cabin for an emergency landing. Obviously, we made it back or I probably wouldn't be writing this. We were trailed down the runway by a bunch of ambulances and fire trucks like in one of the "Airport" movies. It was a sight to see. Honestly, when I saw the airport below us I started to relax a little, so once I saw all those vehicles with their flashing lights, my reaction was more wonderment than anything.

This was the exact plane involved - not just the same type, this is the plane:

How do I know? I have the incident report, which includes the airplane's registration number. The report's pretty innocuous - here's what it says happened:


I swear, it was a little more dramatic than that. They don't typically "change engines" due to a compressor stall, anymore than you change your engine in your car when it stalls - there was more to it. The pilot did obviously declare an emergency and all. But the point is my perception of what was happening, while it may not have entirely matched reality, ended up changing my love of flying into a deep-seated fear of flying. I was eight. I no longer felt like when I got on a plane, getting off again was a foregone conclusion. I no longer wanted to be a pilot. In fact, I never wanted to fly again. And I still feel that way. These things that happen to you when you're a kid, you don't just get over them. Even if you know later that things weren't quite what they seemed. I still remember the panic on board that plane. That's what I remember, not how minor of an incident the report says it was.

My family actually had other brushes with plane crash infamy. The most eerie was probably a flight we took from Denver to Portland, also on United and on a DC-8. We flew first class, as we sometimes did back then, because domestic first class in those days was not completely out of reach for average people as it is now (don't let anyone tell you that deregulation has lowered fares across the board; first class back then was only about double the economy fare). Well, that flight landed fine. The same flight the next day? Crashed. All of the people that died were in first class, where a large tree sliced through the cabin. You can read the accident report here (PDF link).

But it was that DC-10 flight that really scarred me for life. Since then, I've secretly wished I could be an accident investigator, though you need to live in Washington, DC and it helps to have some sort of engineering background (I've checked). I do have an unnatural fascination with plane crashes, though. I know almost everything about every major domestic plane crash that's ever happened, and even many overseas ones. It's actually not particularly morbid, or at least I don't find it morbid. I'm not interested in the actual method of death, I'm interested in how the passengers must have felt in the moments leading up to the crash, and the ways the crew tried to save and comfort them. I'm also interested in the mystery of most accidents, and how that mystery gets solved. But I feel a sort of connection to the people who go through it. I want to know about people who felt how I felt, even though I didn't go through all of what they went through. But it's those feelings of confusion and terror that interest me, not the violence of the crash. It's purely an empathic thing.

The accident that has always haunted me the most on that basis is Japan Airlines flight 123. I've always had a fascination with Japan anyway, and felt a brotherhood with the people there, and this accident came just five years after my DC-10 incident. It happened to what is still my favorite airplane, the 747 (in this case, a 747SR, the special short-range version of the plane built only for JAL and ANA). It remains the deadliest single aircraft accident in history, but that's not why I'm haunted by it. I'm haunted by it because after the rear pressure bulkhead blew and severed the airplane's hydraulic lines, the passengers had a full 30 minutes of foundering around the mountains to accept their fate. They knew what was happening. Many of them wrote farewell notes to loved ones.

This is a photo that makes me really sad whenever I look at it:

That's an amazing and rare thing - a surviving photo taken inside a plane that's about to crash. Somewhere between 1 and 30 minutes after this photo was taken, this airplane hit Mount Osutaka. The photographer, along with everyone else in this photo, most likely did not survive.

Four people did survive. Four out of 524. One of them was an off-duty flight attendant named Yumi Ochiai. She spent the last 30 minutes of the flight trying to help the passengers, even though she was really just one of them on that flight. For all I know, that could be her standing in the photo. The original is titled with her name, and I found it in a Google search under a detailed first-hand account of the accident that was either written by her or taken from an interview with her. You can see it here, although it's all Japanese. You can use an auto-translator from Google or Altavista or whoever you like to get the gist of it. It's a harrowing account.

The really sickening thing about this accident was that there were actually many survivors, and U.S. Air Force helicopters found them quickly. But they weren't actually rescued until the next morning, about 12 hours later, due to a series of errors in judgment and departmental in-fighting among various Japanese governmental agencies, who ordered the USAF out of the area and then waited until daylight to begin the rescue. During the night, most of the survivors died. We know this because of the accounts given by Yumi Ochiai and the other survivors, who all heard many people groaning and screaming after the crash. Gradually through the night, most fell silent.

There have been other accidents similar to this one, including one involving a DC-10 painted in the same colors as my nemesis above. UAL flight 232, which crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, had a similar loss of all hydraulic fluid (though for different reasons), with a superficially similar result. But that accident is steeped in heroism and luck, as the pilots were over flat land and managed to bring the plane down at an airport - resulting in the quick rescue of 185 of the 296 passengers and crew members aboard. The deaths of 111 people are always tragic, but it could have been a lot worse. Makes you wonder how many people could have survived JAL 123, if only rescuers had reached the plane sooner.

I'm getting a little bit better when I fly. I used to have to take medication, often self-prescribed - Ambien usually, and Oxycontin a few times. (The oxycontin was actually a legit prescription for pain, but I doubled up on it when flying to knock myself out.) Hey, whatever works, right? But I don't need these anymore. Living near an airport definitely helps - it's hard to see an endless stream of airplanes successfully taking off and landing and then convince yourself that you're going to be unlucky enough to be on that one that doesn't make it. There's something almost egotistical and selfish about that - the world doesn't wait for me to have a plane crash. But still, takeoffs and landings are pretty tough. Not a fan of turbulence either. Even the sounds that airplanes make still freak me out a little bit. I don't mean stuff like landing gear and flaps - it's not a fear of anything specifically mechanical - I mean the constant sounds that make flying feel alien and unnatural. The whine of the APU when you step onto a plane at the gate, for example - that's a signal to me that I'm entering a different world, and I'm now captive on this tube of doom. I don't feel that way on other modes of transportation.

Somebody famous - I think it was Mark Twain - said we'd all have been better off if somebody had shot down the Wright Brothers first flight. I share that sentiment. I can fly now if I have to, and I often do, but I will never enjoy it and I wonder at what kind of world we'd live in if flying simply didn't exist. No doubt there'd be less globalization, less mingling of cultures. First of all, I'm not sure that's an entirely bad thing. Nobody has yet convinced me why globalization is a net positive for the world - it's simply an integration of cultures and commerce for its own sake, at the expense of cultural uniqueness. Worse, globalization is responsible for most of the ongoing conflicts (ie. wars) going on in the world today. Most conflicts arise through cultural misunderstandings (and defensiveness) or forced redistribution of wealth from one region of the world to another. I think it's naive to think the solution to that is more forced cultural integration. The solution is the opposite! (In other words, everybody should be minding their own damn business.)

But second, I'm sure the world would have adapted without flight, and I doubt our lives today would really be all that much different. Ocean travel and rail would have progressed to the point where you'd probably be able to take a high-speed train all the way around the world by now, and ships would be fast, safe, cheap and plentiful. There'd be a rail line stretching from the United States, up through Canada, across Alaska and Russia, down through East Asia, connecting to Japan via tunnel and other countries throughout Asia and Europe over land. Without the airlines, the domestic rail carriers would never have left the business and would still be profitable, so by now we'd have a large and state-of-the-art network of high-speed rail in this country. Not for nothing, it wouldn't be dependent on foreign oil, as the airlines are. Sure, it might take 36 hours to get to Japan by train vs. 13 by air, but again, is there really ever a *need* to be in Japan that fast? Seriously. Is the world going to end if everybody just slows down a little bit?


  1. Anonymous3:39 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Anonymous8:12 AM

    For some inexplicable reason I also have a morbid fascination with airline incidents, especially Flight 571 which came to grief in the Andes back in 1972.

    Still, I'll never again hear Sakamoto Kyu's song Ue o Muite Aruko without thinking of Flight 123...

  3. Anonymous4:25 PM

    Excellent article, I feel the same way about the tubes of doom, and those poor people who don't land safely.

  4. Anonymous10:18 PM

    I cannot believe that helicopters on scene we're ordered to NOT aid in the rescue 20 minutes after the crash of JAL 123. I am shocked by how little commotion I have found on the internet regarding this decision. Why on earth would Japan refuse aid from the US military, especially during the period this occurred?

    Moments like this make me feel that human life is cheap.

  5. your awesome..love your article..i have the same fascination and have read all plane crashes through history..its really sad..im acually terrified of commercial jets..but recently took my fear to the test and flew from seattle wa to the middle east..I was taking valium which helped alot.i was on a 777 united arab emerates..very nice aircraft..but not sure if i can do this again..thanks much

  6. Anonymous5:49 PM

    I am not afraid of flying, I love to get on and see airplanes. I want to learn to fly them in the cockpit one day.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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