December 20, 2011

What Scares Me

I hate flying. I know, nobody really likes the whole rigmarole that is flying in the 21st century. Dashing through airports to meet connecting flights, since it’s hard, or outrageously expensive, to fly directly from one place to another.* Being crammed into a metal tube with hundreds of strangers whose theories on hygiene and personal space vary in ways unimagined in political discourse. The food sucks. No leg room. There’s always some dipshit who decided the right thing to do was to cram his grand piano in the overhead bin.

Then, of course, there’s the TSA.

But none of that is what really irks me about flying. What really makes me nervous (ask K – I gripped her hand so hard on the way to St. John last year I nearly cut off circulation) is the thought that should anything go wrong, I’m going to die. I know in my rational brain that air travel is an exceptionally safe mode of transit, more so than travel by car. But most of my car travel comes while I’m driving, which gives me some sense of agency over whatever happens. Besides, if you are actually in a crash, odds are better that you walk away from one in a car rather than one in a plane.

It’s the sense of having my destiny in someone else’s hands that really does it, I think. Particularly when you hear about things like this (via).

On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 left Rio bound for Paris. Somewhere over the Atlantic, it simply disappeared. It wasn’t shot down or blown out of the sky by a terrorist. There was no report of some kind of freak structural failure. It just went down, killing all 228 people on board. The wreckage was found two miles below the surface of the ocean.

At first, based on a little bit of data collected by tracking stations, one theory of what happened emerged:
As [Popular Mechanics] found in our cover story about the crash, published two years ago this month, the data implied that the plane had fallen afoul of a technical problem—the icing up of air-speed sensors—which in conjunction with severe weather led to a complex ‘error chain’ that ended in a crash and the loss of 228 lives.
However, once the wreckage was recovered, the black boxes were also recovered and their data able to be recovered. The picture that data paints, as set forth in the new PM article, is even more chilling than one of a “complex error chain.” It’s a story of simple human fuck ups, compounded by inexperience and fear (for the record, French authorities haven’t backed this conclusion). As the article explains:
We now understand that, indeed, AF447 passed into clouds associated with a large system of thunderstorms, its speed sensors became iced over, and the autopilot disengaged. In the ensuing confusion, the pilots lost control of the airplane because they reacted incorrectly to the loss of instrumentation and then seemed unable to comprehend the nature of the problems they had caused. Neither weather nor malfunction doomed AF447, nor a complex chain of error, but a simple but persistent mistake on the part of one of the pilots.
Ironically, there may be some blame in the very fact that commercial aircraft are become so safe that pilots have little experience to fall back on when things go wrong:
Over the decades, airliners have been built with increasingly automated flight-control functions. These have the potential to remove a great deal of uncertainty and danger from aviation. But they also remove important information from the attention of the flight crew. While the airplane's avionics track crucial parameters such as location, speed, and heading, the human beings can pay attention to something else. But when trouble suddenly springs up and the computer decides that it can no longer cope—on a dark night, perhaps, in turbulence, far from land—the humans might find themselves with a very incomplete notion of what's going on. They'll wonder: What instruments are reliable, and which can't be trusted? What's the most pressing threat? What's going on? Unfortunately, the vast majority of pilots will have little experience in finding the answers.
Thus, when I fly, my head rages with battle between my rational and irrational selves. My rational self is perfectly calm because the chances of anything really bad happening are so remote, I might as well worry about being struck by lightning. But my irrational side fights back, with the knowledge that if something does go wrong, we’re all well and truly fucked.

In other words, I’ll be in the car.

* As Brock Yates once put it, “if you want to get somewhere fast, fly. If you want to get somewhere on time, drive.”

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