Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Air France Flight 447

When 228 people die in an airplane crash, it touches people all over the world.

It's more than a little ironic.  There are so many conflicts all over the world, people suffering torture, deprivation, dying, and few if any of them get any media attention.  When they do, it doesn't seem to cut as deep, even if there are thousands of victims.  That got me to thinking about mortality, and what touches us, and what does not, and why.

I remember when I read Tuesdays With Morrie, how Morrie felt when he read the news about the suffering of others, whether it be from hurricanes, serial killers or disease.  Mortality became real as he faced his own death in so many more ways than a healthy person with a long or at least undetermined lifespan can completely understand.  Including me.  I can't claim to be any wiser or more connected to the pain and deaths of others than anyone else in my privileged circumstances.

My family all recently flew on long international flights, including within sight of a strong storm, and watched the scramble of rerouting as a series of tornadoes swept through the south-eastern United States.  I remember clutching the arm of my seat every time the plane dropped sharply, remembered the flicker and loss and only partial return of functionality to our onboard computer entertainment center.  I remember telling my kids this was normal, and in a lot of ways, it was, and is normal, as we watched our plane circle and navigate around dangerous areas, forming U's and figure eights on our flight map.  Storms and turbulence are part of flying, and pilots deal with those situations very frequently.

That's what's making my stomach clench and what makes my heart ache every time I think about that flight, those passengers and the crew, and what they must have faced.  I know the pilots did everything possible, and I believe they did everything right with the information they had.  It's a dark and bitter truth that doing everything right doesn't always save the day, no matter how experienced the crew, or how long they have to brainstorm for solutions.

Our world is so much bigger and stronger than most people imagine.  We appear to be in total control of our environment, with our houses, our sea walls, our weather reports and air conditioning.  But we're not.  We add percentage points to our survivability in a crisis.  That's all.  

It's safer to fly than to drive.  Absolutely.  But we're monkeys, and for many of us, facing death so far above the ground with nothing to save us but the wits of the crew and a machine, no matter how magnificent and graceful, is something we can both imagine all too easily and which we dare not imagine at all, not in any detail.  I don't think there's anything to be gained from such a thing, unless you're an artist and need to express that terror so that it can be released to the sky like a prayer, or an aircraft designer doing your best to take every circumstance into consideration to give the crew and passengers a few more percentage points to hang their hopes upon.  That's what the investigation will focus on in the next few months.  They'll try to analyze the hell out of this thing in hopes of preventing an accident like this from ever happening again.  But you can't actually remove the hell entirely.  It's always there, waiting.

If we want to lead utterly safe lives, we can try, but that won't prevent us from facing our own deaths someday.  Some might decide that we have no business flying at all, that we don't belong in the sky.  I can't hold to that.  There's no safe place anyway, not even in our own beds when it comes down to it.  That's why I can't decide that I won't ever fly again, no matter how vivid the pictures in my mind are of what those people experienced before the crash.  There are too many places in the world I want to see.  Heck, if I sell a book, I plan on taking a whirlwind tour to promote it, and celebrate life.  I'm a nervous flier, but I'll do it, because I want to live my life, not exist in a dark, padded room eating a sterile, monotonous diet and running on an OSHA approved hamster wheel for fear of death.

It's such a blessing to fly.  It's beautiful to experience places beyond our backyards, where people dress differently, speak differently, think differently than we do.  The other day at a writer's group meeting, we talked about the scent of the air, how it differs from place to place.  This isn't a minor detail someone experiences in his life.  It is life.  It's living fully, and learning to appreciate who we are and what we have as a species, not just as individuals.  If we don't experience or appreciate in some way by reaching out as far as we can, whether the best we can do is try to touch our toes or whether we can aspire to fly among the stars, we may as well be inanimate.  The people on that flight lived, not nearly as long as their loved ones would have wished, but they worked and played hard.  They saw more of the world than some of our ancestors even dreamed.  

I'm so desperately sorry for their loss.  But Air France flight 447 shouldn't be a cautionary tale.  It should be a reminder of our mortality, yes, but also of our achievements, especially our ability to fly.  The people who are locked in tiny cells for the entirety of their brief, painful lives, who live in fear every moment, who perish unknown of hunger or thirst, wish they could, and I suspect that the dread of a death falling out of the sky wouldn't stop them from trying to fly away to the promise of work, or play, or coming home to a safe place.


Anonymous said...

I remember having a flight scheduled to the P.I. in December,1970. The aircraft was one of those new 747's. I didn't get to
fly in it... It didn't make it past the group 'Black September' in Lebanon. Most of the accidents are caused by acts of commision or ommision. Usually 'stupid' stuff that is an error cascade.

Here are a couple of links if you're curious.




C.S. said...

I like this:

"But you can't actually remove the hell entirely. It's always there, waiting."

and this:

"If we don't experience or appreciate in some way by reaching out as far as we can, whether the best we can do is try to touch our toes or whether we can aspire to fly among the stars, we may as well be inanimate."

Beautiful words with powerful meaning.