For Uncle George

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I used to have one ritual at the beginning and end of every job: Putting my right palm on the fuselage. But I’ve asked for more work and have become an A-List Southwest Rapid Rewards member who flies about three times a month. Now, all these rituals must be done:

  • Place right palm on fuselage.
  • Get an aisle seat in the back of the plane.
  • Memorize how many rows I am in both directions from the exits.
  • Look around and consider whether my fellow passengers look like the type to die in a plane crash.
  • Admit that anyone can die in a plane crash.
  • Draw circles on my chest with my index finger when plane speeds down runway and softly chant “I’m not done, I’m not done,” then “Come on captain, come on captain,” until the wing slats retract.

I will always admit that my procedures don’t do anything besides attract attention, but I cannot skip them. An airplane is my foxholes, my break from atheism and logic, my chance to think I might be able to manipulate the uncontrollable.

Only once have I been called out. I thought I had the palm thing down to an art—switching my luggage to my left hand as I’m about to board and wobbling a bit so it seems necessary to steady myself by placing my right hand on the plane. I must have made it look a little forced as a nearby flight attendant smiled, then winked and said, “I do the same thing.” I repaid him for his empathetic divulge by pretending he was the freak and snapped, “Do what?” He smiled a smile that said he had me figured out, and I spent the rest of my flight in a higher than normal state of anxiety wondering what it meant when someone who flies for a living is also under the impression that our safety might as well hinge on superstitious hand gestures.

Many people have told me getting on a plane is a welcome departure from their daily life. I suspect flying levels the playing field for them somehow; that they relinquish themselves to a seat number and then recline into some kind of mid-air suspension from the person they are on Earth. A friend even told me she loves turbulence because “it’s like being rocked to sleep.” As far as I’m concerned, turbulence is like a reminder that things can go from smooth to tragic in one second, and the normal reaction to it is putting your feet up on the seat in front of you, tucking your head into your shirt, breathing heavily and whimpering.

Last week, I landed at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, ran off the plane to the gate counter and demanded that I be put on another flight. I’d just spent a half hour crying into my shirt while my plane pitched violently up and down as it circled the airport in an attempt to land in gale force winds. I was scheduled to take the same plane to Seattle in a half hour and was planning on spending those precious last minutes at the airport bar downing scotch, no ice, but during my exodus, I overheard a man calmly informing the captain that he’d noticed “something come loose on the wing and flap around.”

The next flight was the following morning, so I booked it and called my boss from a martini bar to tell her I’d be missing my morning meeting with our client, but that I’d stay someplace cheap, like Circus Circus. She understood, as she isn’t a fan of flying, either, and has excused away dozens of my missed meetings due to similar claims that I’ve nearly died.

My dad’s an aerospace engineer; he has explained to me many times how airplanes fly. He draws a cross section of a wing on graph paper with a precision ink pen, makes little vectors to indicate air flow and says something like, “As Bernoulli pointed out, the faster the air flows, the lower the pressure. The greater pressure under the wing relative to the pressure above it produces an upward force, ‘lift,’ that is sufficient to support the weight of the largest airplanes.” Then he draws a vector to me and says, “Don’t be such a wimp, Pumpkin.”

But understanding how something works hardly has anything to do with not fearing it. Actually, it can make it a lot worse. By obsessively googling plane crashes and NTSB accident reports, I’ve come to the conclusion that the factors that go into successfully completing a flight are far more complex than the physics of flight. Flying accidents have very few common threads and many of them result from a string of errors. This, to me, means there is no way to ensure a plane will not crash. Planes have crashed because of the following, or a combination of the following: wind shear, poor maintenance, failed hydraulics, ice, air traffic controller error, pilot error, hijacking, bombs, failure to latch the rear cargo door, fuel tank explosion, microbursts, frayed wiring, a 40-centimeter piece of scrap metal on the runway, too much weight, fog, engine failure, missiles, ice in the fuel feed system, wake turbulence, starlings, and geese.

Sure, it’s nice to flush a toilet at 300 mph and complain about your drink in a cloud, but how are more people not totally freaking out? Why am I the only one with my head in my shirt? You’re flying to Paris with the chance that you’ll end up in a deep ravine two miles under the Atlantic with fish pecking at your decomposing face despite the fact that it’s your honeymoon, or that you have a Ph.D, or that you’re a baby, or that you just wanted to see Paris in the springtime.

When people like to smugly assert that my chances of being in a car crash are greater than being in a plane crash, I like to point out that I’ve been in four car crashes, and I still have my head. Then I like to inform them that if they were in a plane crash, it’s highly likely that their body (parts) would only be recognizable by a DNA test or a forensic anthropologist.

If I were a true aviophobe, I’d never even get on a plane, or I’d be signed up for some workshop with the slogan “Don’t ground yourself!” I guess what I am is a terrified, yet willing, purchaser of two-way tickets that I strongly believe will become one-way tickets. Part of my fear probably stems from the fact that panic attacks and graphic, intrusive thoughts are a regular part of my life. Some people cannot really picture crashing in planes or other horrible atrocities; I can picture all of it perfectly.

Another part of my fear I attribute to United Airlines Flight 232. On July 19, 1989, the DC-10 was an uneventful hour and seven minutes into its trip from Denver to Chicago when the fan disk in tail-mounted engine number two broke. Passengers heard a loud bang and felt the aircraft shudder. Captain Al Haynes made a reassuring announcement that only one engine had been lost and not to worry, as DC-10s can fly perfectly fine with one engine. People continued eating their lunch, they drank their drinks and the in-flight movie kept playing.

But the shrapnel hadn’t just damaged the hydraulics on the number two system, more than 70 pieces of it punched through the aircraft’s tail and severed all three of the plane’s hydraulic lines. The odds of complete hydraulic failure were figured to be one in a billion, which for the FAA, is how you mathematically express “fail-safe.”

The one in a billion chance struck somewhere over Iowa, resulting in the inability to control any of the flight surfaces—wing flaps, tail, rudder, everything. The plane was, essentially, a stiff flying aluminum carcass of a bird with 37,000 feet to fall and 296 people on board. One of those people was my uncle.

Like me, and like my mother, my uncle was scared of flying. That morning, while I was at summer camp making friendship bracelets and learning “Miss Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell, Miss Susie went to heaven, the steamboat went to hell-o operator, give me number 9…” my uncle was sitting at our patio table letting my mom give him a pep talk about his flight. Like anyone would do, she told him that everything was going to be okay. He gave her a big hug, grabbed his cowboy hat and walked off the porch.

That afternoon, his flight attempted an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa. One hundred feet above the ground, the nose pitched forward and the right wing dropped, hitting the runway and causing fuel to spill, which ignited immediately. The plane broke up, and the main section skidded sideways, inverted and came to a rest in the nearby cornfield. Some passengers have recounted hanging upside down in their seats, unstrapping themselves, and stumbling out into stalks of a corn, wondering if they were the sole survivors. My uncle wasn’t one of them. He died several days later in the hospital. Probably around the time I was learning how to make things out of porcupine needles.

I don’t think of my uncle when I’m on a plane. I prefer to keep him alive in ways that remind me of life, not death. Besides, the thing about having rituals is that you do them because you think they’ll stop you from making some kind of mistake. My uncle didn’t make a mistake. Like anyone, he was just trying to get from point A to point B in life. I was 10, but if I remember correctly, at his funeral my mother said, “He did more in his 44 years than most people do in a lifetime.” This would not have been possible if he’d never walked off any porch.

So I go. Even when it seems like it’s killing me, even though I’m convinced it very well might. Sometimes, in those hours between chanting I’m not done, I’m not done, running off a plane to have a martini, then walking back to Circus Circus with gale force winds slapping my cheeks, I feel more alive than ever because I’m under the delusion that I have saved myself.