AIRPLANE!

I don’t fly well. I’m writing this at an astonishing 34,000 feet in the air – that’s almost seven miles in the sky. We are currently experiencing what is best described as “mild turbulence” – and it is mild – and I’m utterly terrified.   I keep looking out the window, as though to reassure myself that we are, in fact, still asky – like it would be possible for me to discern that we had changed altitude at all at such a preposterous height. In fact, I’m checking to make sure that the ground is still parallel to the plane’s trajectory, and we are not plummeting nose-first to our doom, or – somehow, worse – nose-up, streaking toward the moon.

This is particularly interesting, because I am, by training, a mechanical engineer*. In particular, I took a number of aerospace courses in school, and always dreamed of becoming a rocket scientist.

I was going to attempt to present a coherent blog post (for the first time ever!), but as I’m writing this, our turbulence has passed from mild to medium, the point at which I FREAK OUT. So instead please enjoy the following bullet points.

  • I always thought the scene in … I don’t remember which movie it actually is, so let’s say The Hunt for Red October, where Jack Ryan (probably played by Alec Baldwin) is on some red eye and the stewardess hands him a pillow and he’s like “No, I can’t sleep due to turbulence,” and the stewardess looks at him like “Well there’s an SAT word,” and he has to explain to her what turbulence is. What stewardess doesn’t know what turbulence is!?
  • I used to have relatively smooth flights all the time. I have not had one in at least a year, and for years before that the frequency has been decreasing; there is always some patch of rough air, as measured by the fasten seatbelt sign being on or the pilot announcing it. I don’t know if I’ve become more aware of it, or if climate change is causing increased atmospheric energy which has no choice but to punch every plane I’m on, but something in the last few years has changed, and it’s making me worse at flying, since I’m always worried it’s about to get bumpy, and I’m always right.
  • They have suspended cabin service. This is a double-whammy, since it means things are getting rougher, but it also means the cocktail I so desperately need to calm my nerves upon hearing that announcement won’t be coming.
  • We are either over the coast or North America’s largest uninhabited forest. There is nothing outside the window. I have no point of reference. I have no choice but to assume we are taking this one straight to the moon.
  • Did you know that before planes started falling out of the sky in the ‘70s due to microcracks and metal fatigue, they didn’t know that planes could fall out of the sky due to microcracks and metal fatigue? Food for thought.
  • Statistically, flying is one of the safest modes of transportation, both in terms of number of accidents and fatalities. Did you know that statistically, most planets are unable to support life? And yet here we are. Improbable things happen.
  • And while I’m on the “deaths per passenger” issue, can we talk about how much worse it would be to survive a plane crash? I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of being afraid to die, or worse – of living in unending pain. Both of those are uncomfortable. At least in death you feel nothing. All the most comfortable things feel like they’re not even there, like that scene in Communty where Troy experiences the room in which room temperature is kept, or being naked.

At this point, drink service has resumed, I have my precious cocktail, and the captain has even turned off his fasten seatbelt sign. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

But that’s the thing – do you know just how heavy a commercial airliner is? Because I do. It’s like … super heavy. Now, I understand the principal of lift – it’s pretty key to aerospace engineering — so I get that moving air quickly over an airfoil results in an upward force on the airfoil. I know that this force is (at least) proportional to the velocity over said airfoil. However, I’m also familiar with Newton’s three laws of motions (but apparently insufficiently so to number them? How embarrassing…), one of which is that an object experiencing no net force will continue to move at its current velocity, with no acceleration. Since we are cruising at constant velocity and altitude, there must be no net force on the aircraft. This means that the lift force we are experiencing is exactly equal to the weight of the aircraft, but it also means that our forward thrust is exactly equal to our drag. And drag is proportional to the square of our velocity, which as mentioned previously is essential to maintain our lift. So basically we need to push hard to move fast through the air in order to say aloft, but the harder we push, the less return we get on our additional investment due to drag. How we’re in the sky is a complete mystery to me.

Then there’s the fact that the lift manifests entirely on the wings. The wings are supporting the entire aircraft right now. THE WINGS. Have you seen those things? Those wobbly little spindly things hanging off our plane? Sure, during normal flight they seem peaceful, but hit a tiny pocket of rough air and all of a sudden they’re going “juggada-juggada-juggada-juggada-juggada” all over that foot-tall area where they’re mounted to the body. Don’t worry though, they’re probably riveted there by the most experienced child laborers in China. Mark my slurred words, the next rash of airline disasters will involve whole wings just snapping off the body of the plane and fluttering peacefully the ground behind the spiraling death plume of the main body and its other wing.

And now you understand why I’m (and I’ll admit it, unfoundedly) terrified of flying. Luckily, we’ve begun our initial descent into the Fort Lauderdale area, which means I’ll soon be safe and sound aboard a cruise ship at sweet, sweet sea level. Those things never have any problems, right?


* Legally I’m not actually allowed to say that. I trained as a mechanical engineer but never took the licensing test, having gone into energy trading after college. Therefore, I think it’s probably truer to say, “I have received mechanical engineering training.”

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