Fasten Seat Belts

The Malaysian Air Tragedy Reawakens a Primal Fear

We are horrified, of course, we who are terrified of flying, but ever-so-slightly vindicated: We knew this all along. We are not in control.

Pool photo by Rob Griffith

You always see us on a flight, if you’re watching. The ones who know it’s time to swallow that small pill when the flight attendants call for first-class passengers and any who may need extra time to board. The ones who take slow, deep breaths as the engines ramp up, looking for serenity in the seatback in front of us—that in-flight magazine Sudoku that we have no capacity to complete, that $199.99 SkyMall popcorn popper that could be ours if we survive the flight.

For some of us, it started after 9/11. Others can trace it back to that harrowing flight on a puddle-jumper that lost 800 feet in a few seconds while heading through a storm front. Maybe we know someone who knew someone who was on Air France 447, or a great-uncle died before we were born and we grew up afraid.

When we step into that cylinder of dry air and certain doom, all we can think is what it will be like when it crashes. How can this tiny cylinder possibly hold its own against nature’s baleful power? How will we spend those four awful and inevitable minutes on the way down? How will it feel when we burn up? What will it sound like? We do not make good seatmates.

Then, we’re in the air but attuned to every single sound around us, as if by focusing enough anxious energy, we can keep the plane in the air through sheer terrified will. We remember that time a flight attendant told us at a barbecue that if the bell tones four times, things are serious. The bell is dinging and we’re trying to count how many times. The pilot comes on, asks us to take our seats. Did he sound scared? He definitely did. Fuck.

Turbulence begins, and the only thing in the world we want is to not be on this damn plane. Any thoughts we’d ever had of finding love, success, having children — all of it pales in comparison to our towering desire to GET TO THE GROUND SAFELY AND THEN NEVER, EVER VOLUNTARILY LEAVE IT AGAIN.

And then, by the same miraculous hand that guides 99.99 percent of all commercials flights safely to their destination, the plane touches down and we giddily disembark, having once again cheated death and our own very, very incorrect understanding of physics and jet propulsion and probability.

There are steps to take. Telling the flight attendants helps — they will fill you in on when the turbulence will happen, remind you that it’s nothing, sidle up gently during the flight to remind you that everything is fine. Sometimes, they even introduce you to the pilots, two impossibly clean-cut dudes who will patiently point out each and every control, explain the 10 backup systems, use small words and big smiles to reassure this adult-sized child who is afraid of the sky. You will feel both embarrassed and grateful for this, even as you wonder why the cockpit looks like a 1950s sci-fi set.

You to go and watch as tens of thousands of planes uneventfully make their way to their destinations. When someone you love is flying, you’ll find their little plane icon. At least they still exist, you think, then set alerts that will tell you if their squawk changes to a distress signal.

When we tell others about this fear, they all say the same thing: “But don’t you know the most dangerous part is driving to the airport?!” They say this in a optimistic, smug voice: finally, they think, they have delivered us from terror! That’s the end of that phobia!

We smile weakly, not wanting to let them down or prolong the conversation. “I guess I’d never thought of it that way!” we say. We have thought of that, many times. At least in a car crash

you don’t have to spend your last precious minutes on earth listening to hundreds of strangers scream.

Our fear — like all fear — isn’t rational. If it were rational, we’d get panic attacks about clogged arteries, carbon emissions, and whatever innovative “efficiencies” Wall Street is dreaming up these days.

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Until, all of a sudden, it does seem rational, because a plane has crashed and there is a macabre media orgy. There are slideshows, graphics, interactive maps, heartbreaking narratives, anguished family members. We know, because we look at all of it. We are horrified, and ever-so-slightly vindicated. This confirms what we have suspected all along. We are not insane. We are not in control.

When the plane goes down for the usual reasons—mechanical failure, pilot error—we have collective anguish and a few questions. But when that plane has gone down because of humans acting in bad faith, there are consequences, there is hell to pay. There is talk of World War III, and we are reminded that there are crazy people in the world who have the capacity to take down international flights but not, apparently, to distinguish between those flights and the ones they’d actually like to shoot down.

We co-opt tragedies that don’t belong to us, imagine that our phobia is a reaction to the real world rather than a neurosis that we eagerly stoke every time we click on that 14th headline about the same disaster.

My great-aunt, who has flown once in the three decades I’ve been alive, used to carry a razorblade with her on flights, the idea being that if the plane was going down, she could just slit her wrist and thus wrest back some modicum of control over fate.

At its heart, that is what the fear is about. We are out of control, going fast and high, and someone else is piloting this vessel. It’s a fear of chaos that is not of our making, which is not dissimilar to the feeling you get when distantly observing terrible things happening on the other side of the world that you cannot help or change.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that there is a difference between being legitimately curious about what’s happening in the world and rubbernecking. When we steal others’ tragedy to gird our flawed own worldview, we do a huge disservice to those who are actually a part of it. Our fear, ultimately, is not a real thing, but the pain of the families left behind is.

We don’t do anyone a favor by conflating the two. And so, on the onset of what is sure to be weeks or even months of terrible coverage and fallout, those of us who are afraid — and there’s lots of us; one in five — would do well to set aside our darker thoughts. We can’t try to find meaning and morbid confirmation where there isn’t any.

Also, for the record … Xanax does wonders. And there’s always Amtrak.