Stewardesses are required to wear makeup. Lipstick, nail polish, the works. Of all the things I learned at a recent seminar on overcoming a fear of flying, this was the most disturbing–that in our allegedly modern society an employer other than a pimp can still order employees to apply thick layers of expensive cosmetics. And get away with it.
That fact wasn’t technically part of the seminar. But these two were: (1) It would take a 747 crashing and killing everyone on board every day for a year to equal the number of people who die in car accidents every year. (2) You could fly every day for 29,000 years before dying in a plane crash.
All well and good, but I buy $5 of lottery tickets every week against odds equally insane, and I plan to win one of these days, call up everyone I hated in high school and laugh.
Which made me a prime candidate for this two-day seminar at O’Hare sponsored by American Airlines, which included a graduation flight on a regularly scheduled run to Grand Rapids, Michigan. American calls the course “AAchieving Flight.” I don’t know if the two capital As stand for “American Airlines” or just get them a better listing in the yellow pages.
Along with approximately 25 million other Americans, I am suspicious of any industry whose heading in a newspaper index features dense columns of titles like “Horror in the Skies,” “Death in the Skies,” and “Mass Murder in the Clouds.” You can look up “White Supremacist Hate Groups, Pacific Northwest” and find cheerier reading.
Yet friends and family consider it quaint that, when possible, I prefer Amtrak. “What about all those Amtrak crashes?” they say. “What about all those pot-head Amtrak engineers?” So, what about them?
Even the most unfortunate Amtrak passengers don’t plunge thousands of feet to grisly deaths. If a train tips over, we’re talking a fall of what–six feet? My brothers and I used to jump out of trees higher than that for fun. In fact, Amtrak passengers hardly ever actually die. Compare that to the typical plane crash featuring a miraculous single survivor–usually a baby protected by a parent’s dead body. I don’t travel with my parents much anymore, and when I do, they don’t let me sit on their laps.
That leaves the apparently widespread belief that Amtrak engineers pack portable bongs in their shaving kits. Just remember that even if an Amtrak engineer hangs around at the Union Station bar and downs 19 rum and Cokes, he’s still not likely to wreck a train. After all, countless drug-impaired people drive cars every day without incident, and with a train you don’t even have to steer.
Still, I don’t consider myself afraid to fly per se. I do it often, aided only by a blaring Walkman. It’s not the bizarre physics of the undertaking that bothers me, it’s the venal and incompetent nature of the human race–the greedy aircraft executive covering up costly structural defects, the clumsy pilot bumping into power switches. Basic airline safety. The seminar brochure promised to cover that topic in full.
John Calder, an American Airlines employee who had volunteered for weekend seminar duty, met me at O’Hare and led the way to a seminar conference room, chatting nonstop. “I’ve been looking for you and another person,” he said. “There’s always one no-show. Today, one woman called in sick. She probably wasn’t. Somebody always calls in sick, but they’re not really. And one guy didn’t call at all. You know, it’s always the men who don’t call.”
On our way we hooked up with the seminar’s first guest speaker, Harith Razaa. A seminar graduate from last year, he already had about 100,000 miles on his gold frequent-flier card. He took the card out of his wallet and flashed it proudly. “I’m going to Rio,” he told us. “I was there once before, but I was terrified.”
The conference room held about 25 people seated in a large circle around Reid Wilson, a clinical psychologist, and Libby Wilson, a counselor. (They were related but not married.) Both were from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and had slight, pleasant accents that were somehow very comforting. They also exuded a sense of competency and calm.
By the time I got there, they were listing on giant sketch pads everyone’s reasons for “What Stops You From Flying Comfortably Now?” They already had “won’t fly in a DC-10” and “I don’t want to crash and die.”
“Did you write down ‘fear of death’?” someone asked.
“Well, is ‘I don’t want to crash and die’ close enough?” Reid asked. His voice was kind rather than sarcastic.
“I’m thinking about a disgruntled employee on the ground, and he’s the one filling the gas and tightening the bolts. That’s what blows my mind,” said Frank Bexes.
Reid asked how many people experienced panic attacks, and nearly everyone but me raised his or her hand.
There were other differences between me and my fellow seminar participants. They were all paying $295 to attend the seminar; I was a freeloading observer. Most of them hadn’t flown for years; I had flown to London last spring. (The day before I left, I watched a 60 Minutes piece about substandard airplane parts, which included a former FAA investigator saying he thought it was only a matter of time before a bogus airplane part caused a major crash. The day I boarded British Airways to come home, a British Airways pilot was sucked three-quarters of the way through his windshield because some mechanic used the wrong bolt somewhere.) And everyone but me accepted the contention that distrusting airline safety is irrational.
Libby explained that the first day would be spent going over our safety concerns, basically because if we didn’t intellectually believe flying is safer than taking a bath, then the program’s anxiety-reduction techniques wouldn’t work.
“Try to stay in the moment with us,” Libby advised. “This is going to be an emotional roller coaster–one minute you might think, ‘Yeah, that’s great, let’s get on the plane now.’ Then ten minutes later you’ll crash–uh, that might be a bad word to use.” It was Libby’s only gaffe of the weekend.
Harith took a center seat and started commiserating with the group. “I’ve been there,” he assured us. “I was on a flight one day, and when they closed the door, suddenly I knew I had to get off. So I went up to the flight attendant and just tapped her on the shoulder–because you want people to think you’re calm–and I said, ‘Miss, please open the door because I’m getting off.’ And she looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Sir, please sit down.’ So I said, ‘If you don’t let me off this plane, I’m gonna start tearing some shit up.’ And I started ripping open an overhead storage bin. I guess the idea of having some berserk black man running around the plane didn’t appeal to them, so they let me off.”
After that little incident, Harith said, he instituted some new personal preflight procedures–such as getting drunk and tracking the weather for days beforehand. “I got to the airport hours early to watch the people servicing the plane–did they look like jerks? I’d want to look in the cockpit at the pilot–was he crazy? Was he writing a farewell note?”
After Harith left, another American Airlines volunteer, stewardess Susan Ciaciura of Hanover Park, shook her head and said, “People act strange sometimes. Now I know why.”
We spent much of that afternoon with Captain Jim Henderson, who looked almost exactly like Bob Newhart. The physical likeness was compounded by his tendency to repeat the last few words of a person’s question before answering it, sometimes with a slight stammer. “C-can the plane fly without one of its engines? Oh yes, absolutely.”
The earnest Captain Jim, with his honest blue eyes, was wasting his time on me. There was no way he could allay my suspicions. If my dead grandfather appeared to me and assured me that air-traffic controllers are every bit as experienced now as before the PATCO strike, I wouldn’t believe him. Moreover, I knew Captain Jim would be a passenger on the graduation flight, not the pilot.
Captain Jim gave us a rundown on his background–Air Force ROTC in college in the 60s, tours in Vietnam, training that he said cost the Air Force about $1 million. “I have six children, and they all depend on me,” he finished. “I tell you this because I want you to know that when I go out and open the cockpit door, I do intend on coming back and taking care of things at home.” Not like all those kamikaze pilots at the other airlines.
We then saw slides of the American Airlines pilot-training center, of pilots in classrooms, of different kinds of clouds–you name it. Meanwhile, we peppered Captain Jim with nervous questions. What about the air-traffic controllers’ computers going down, someone asked. He’d heard that the Aurora computers have failed several times.
“They’ll go to extreme separation, put the planes 20 miles apart instead of maybe 5,” Captain Jim explained.
But how do you know how far apart you are without the computers?
“We have navigational systems in the plane. And of course we can look out the window.”
I was thinking about the cursory bit of research I’d done on airline safety (enough to suggest to me entirely new and creative ways to die in an airplane). What had bothered me most were the constant contradictions: just about every article would first describe record death tolls from the past year, then declare that airline safety was getting better all the time. The reason flying has gotten so safe, they all said, is that the accident rate is lower. Thanks to deregulation, the overall number of passengers is up, which means the overall number of dead passengers doesn’t look so bad as a percentage per 100,000 flights. This began to sound reasonable, until I came across a Washington Post piece noting that the FAA “expects the number of flights to increase by a third over the next decade. If the accident rate stays flat, there will be a third more fatal crashes as well.”
No, when you come right down to it, the skies are full of birds flying into engines, disappearing cargo doors, and severed hydraulic systems. None of which are nearly as dangerous as pilots, who cause 67 percent of all crashes. Pilots forget to set their wing flaps before takeoff, they run out of gas, and, if they fly for Delta, they land on the wrong runway, or land in Frankfort, Kentucky, thinking it’s Lexington, Kentucky, or plunge to within 600 feet of the Pacific Ocean after accidentally shutting off an engine. There’s also the middle-aged-business-executive factor. These days, they all have to be amateur pilots so they can climb into their single-engine Piper Cherokees and suffer fatal heart attacks in busy airspace.
Not wishing to alarm everyone else, however, I didn’t question Captain Jim about any of these things. I didn’t ask anything, in fact, until he started talking about airplane maintenance. Then I thought: bogus airplane parts.
“I’m not going to say we’re the very best airline in the world, although I personally would think so,” Captain Jim was saying, when I raised my hand and summed up the 60 Minutes bit.
Captain Jim widened his blue eyes and paused. “The FAA is right on top of that.” His eyes were very wide. “If that’s happening, it’s not in the U.S.”
“I’m in the automotive industry,” said Frank Bexes. “We see after-product parts all the time. They’re not made by the manufacturer–they’re made by Joe Blow’s Nuts and Bolts or whatever. So if that’s happening in automotive, what about the airlines?”
“But what oversight does your industry have, besides Ralph Nader?” said Captain Jim. “We have the FAA. The FAA is right on top of it.” Then he added, “The FAA spends a lot of your tax money. It really does.”
We broke for lunch. Marvin and Beverly Hill of Lockport sat at my table, and Marvin told an airplane horror story. One of his buddies had frozen a large trophy from a fishing trip and stowed it in his overhead bin. Extended circling over O’Hare thawed the fish and covered everyone in fish juice.
It was Marvin who was afraid to fly, and it was flying with Marvin that made Beverly nervous. “If he has an 8 AM flight, he starts drinking at five,” she said, sighing. “He starts with Kahlua and coffee. Then it’s vodka and orange juice, and then straight scotch.” Later she added, “We try to take four-day trips because of our business. And with this drinking the first day is shit, and the last day he isn’t good for anything either.”
That afternoon we had our cockpit tour. Captain Jim took about five of us through at a time. Cockpits are about the size of a grammar-school locker. They defy physical laws–the inside is impossibly smaller than the outside suggests. No wonder pilots are forever hitting the wrong buttons.
Captain Jim fiddled with the various knobs and handles. He was moving the steering wheel when one man asked, “Uh, is that disengaged now, or is that really doing stuff?”
“That’s really doing stuff.”
“Oh,” said the man nervously.
“Do you ever worry about getting sucked out of the windshield?” I asked.
Captain Jim’s eyes widened. “No, no. I mean, I can’t say it never happens–how can I say that? But no, I don’t worry.” He paused. “I always wear my seat belt, though.”
As Saturday afternoon waned, Reid Wilson began the psychological section. He started with some “warm-up imagery” and asked us to imagine a tomato plant the size of a two-story house.
Sunday was gray, cold, and rainy. One man hadn’t come back. All day people would look out the window and say wistfully, “Looks like it’s clearing up.” It didn’t.
Reid and Libby taught relaxation and breathing techniques. Reid explained that hyperventilating automatically shuts off within a few minutes and doesn’t cause heart attacks. He asked for a volunteer to hyperventilate as a demonstration. Somebody actually did.
Then everyone practiced breathing exercises. Reid told a claustrophobic older woman that if she was still nervous during the graduation flight, she should turn to her seatmate and tell him everything about her childhood. Now that’s what I fear most about flying–getting stuck next to somebody who wants to tell me his story.
Captain Jim joined us with a computer printout of weather conditions and described how the crew would ready our plane for takeoff. “One hour before the flight, one of the three-man crew goes out to check over the plane. Especially if it’s raining, the captain will have the flight engineer do it.” I looked out at the cold drizzle. Oh great–the coach was sending out the second string.
Captain Jim went over all the noises we’d hear on the plane, gamely imitating even the sound of the plane’s wheels taxiing over cracks in the runway’s concrete–“You’ll hear ca-thunk, ca-thunk, ca-thunk”; the sound of the landing gear closing up–“You might hear a rush of air and then a clunk”; and the gears coming down–“It’ll be a whoosh bump.”
Finally, it was time. We filed off toward our gate, everyone seemingly calm. No one’s hands had to be wrenched off the gate door. We even gained a passenger: one of our group, let’s call him Tim, hadn’t flown since 1975 and wouldn’t go up without his wife. So his wife had paid the entire seminar fee just to take the flight.
Our group boarded before the regular passengers, even before the mothers with small children. The pilot, Captain St. Peters, came into the cabin to reassure us.
“Did you check the plane yourself?” someone called out.
“Uh, no, my copilot’s doing it. It’s raining out,” he said.
“See what I mean?” crowed Captain Jim.
“Well, I don’t have an overcoat,” St. Peters said, grinning sheepishly.
We were sitting at the gate. The rest of the passengers had boarded. The flight attendants would be closing the door any minute. That’s when Tim bolted. “Sorry, sorry, I can’t do it,” he told row after row of seminarees who pleaded with him to stay on board. Tim’s wife trailed after him, looking grim. She had to be thinking about that $295.
Then we were up and on our way to Grand Rapids. Jim gave us a running commentary the whole way. “Those were the flaps,” he’d announce. “That was the landing gear. . . . This is where the pilot pulls the yoke back so we don’t climb too fast. . . . It’s leveled, it’s leveled off. . . . Yes, now we’ll climb some more.”
What’s the nuttiest thing she’s seen a passenger do, I asked Susan Ciaciura, the volunteer stewardess.
“Oh, the ashtrays on the restroom doors,” she answered immediately. “People pull the ashtray out thinking it’s a doorknob, then they stand there staring at it in their hand. That’s my favorite. You want to say, ‘Hey–it’s a doorknob. Just like at home.’ At least two people do that on every flight.”
We had about five minutes at cruising altitude, and Captain St. Peters kindly turned off the seat-belt sign so the braver among us could wander around the cabin. I joined a group around Captain Jim. “Have you ever seen any UFOs?” I asked.
His eyes widened. “Uh, no. No I haven’t.” He paused. “I did see some weird things when I was flying in Southeast Asia but–” He paused again. “I think back in the 50s, for instance, pilots would see things they couldn’t identify. But they weren’t UFOs.”
In Grand Rapids we gathered to debrief and receive seminar certificates before the return flight. Beverly limped off the plane behind Marvin. “I’ll tell ya,” she groaned. “It was worse than work.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.