Way Up in the Sky

What to read if you’re afraid of flying.

An unsuccessful landing at Heathrow

The day a British Airways Boeing 777 crash-landed on what might be described as one of Heathrow Airport’s front gardens—the grassy verges under the flight paths before the runways begin—there was unusual violet lightning over London. I know this not because I was there but because a friend who knows about my fear of flying and obsession with crashes wrote to tell me that detail.

For a long time I didn’t like flying; for years, I loathed it, and equal to that dislike was the loathing for pills that would have made the fear less hard felt. The worst thing about the fear was that the more I got to know about flying, and the more I flew, the more unmanageable the fear became.

Why Airplanes Crash: Aviation in a Changing Worldby Clinton Oster, Kurt Zorn, and John Strong is an academic study of commercial aviation and the circumstances that lead to accidents. I used to have two copies of this book, in case I mislaid one, and it was for several years required reading before a trans-Atlantic flight. The chief conclusions of Why Planes Crash are the obvious ones: that the chances of dying in an airplane accident are remarkably small; that planes are less likely to be involved in an accident if they are properly maintained and if the pilots are well-trained. So it was easy to decide which airlines to take: the ones with newer planes and with reputations for looking after their planes.

I never flew one airline after a pilot announced—on the runway—that we were returning to the terminal because the gauges indicated there wasn’t sufficient fuel to get across the Atlantic. Who did the pilot think he was? Chico Marx, who in A Night at the Opera pretends to be a famous European aviator, explaining to a large audience in New York that the reason it took him so long to fly the Atlantic was because time and again he hadn’t enough gas onboard and had to return home to start over, even when he was practically in sight of his destination? Reassuring as the pilot’s statement may have been, the thought of a Chico at the helm didn’t inspire confidence.

The problem with statistical improbability of being on a plane that crashes—from the point of view of someone unable to find what could be described as safety in numbers—isn’t the millionth part of the equation but with the one. One is a small number, but the one in a million or 10 million nevertheless remains one. So, even as Why Airplanes Crash became essential preflight reading, it didn’t resolve the problem I had with flying. I read and reread Jonathan Harr’s classic New Yorker piece about a plane crash near Pittsburgh in the early 1990s—as forensic a piece about an aviation accident that anyone who doesn’t like flying could expect to read. I read and reread an article by William Langewiesche in the Atlantic Monthly about how planes bank—Langewiesche the son of a famous aviator and author, whose riveting Rudder and Stick has been in print since its publication in 1944.

I read Flying Magazine, whose best feature was the column written by a pilot. In each one, the pilot wrote about the mundane journeys he had flown. Occasionally, something interesting happened, but what was more overwhelmingly obvious was how boring most flights were. Nothing out of the ordinary happened; planes took off, they flew, they landed. Then they took off again, flew again, and landed again. I recently found the same marvelous sense of tedium in Patrick Smith’s Ask the Pilot. Smith, who is a commercial pilot, has an uncanny ability to make flying sound dull without being boring himself. Which you might think is a peculiar way to recommend a book, but the last thing you want from one about flying is for it to be too interesting.

Despite the reading, my fear of flying remained. Flying has become a routine, but planes obviously still crash. It is, however, a remarkable fact about commercial aviation that it has become ever safer, as a recent Federal Aviation Authority report emphasizes. Even the crashes seem safer, as the recent, casualty-free Heathrow incident seems to indicate. I was for a number of years an avid reader of the National Transportation Safety Board’s reports on airplane accidents, whether they were fatal or not. Reports for almost every commercial aviation accident since the early 1960s can be consulted on the NTSB’s Web site. They are some of the best examples of clear government writing I’ve come across. The reports have narratives, which have the formal properties associated with more artful writing—beginnings, middles, and ends. They offer analysis, too. There’s no authorial presence in these reports, but there’s a powerful sense of inquiry.

“Truth is knowable,” Errol Morris wrote in his remarkable New York Times blog about two photographs taken by the 19th-century war photographer, Roger Fenton. “But there are endless impediments to knowing it. One of the greatest impediments is that people tend to ignore it or reject it even when presented with it.” The writers of the NTSB’s accident reports work under the same conviction.

Nothing about an accident is taken for granted, because a major airplane accident is usually a complex, unique event, often without a single cause but with several; it’s usually a combination of technical factors, as well as a special sequence of events, that explains why a plane crashes. Moreover, there’s the psychological dimension of the cockpit: What, if anything, has the pilot, or the first officer, done that might have made a crash an inevitable outcome—at what point is an accident irreversible? Some plane crashes share characteristics with others, but the NTSB’s reports show the circumstances peculiar to each one. They theorize, but they draw no conclusion when there isn’t the evidence to support one. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the reasons why flying has become so safe is because its accidents have been so well-investigated.

Back inside the cabin, what did this knowledge add up to? Did the NTSB’s reports make flying seem safer? Not at first: On a trans-Atlantic flight, I’d spend the seven hours reacting to every reverberation, eyes peeled at the window and at the plane’s wing or engine. But slowly, I began to find long stretches of flights when I felt no fear. These stretches grew longer, until the only part of flying that I disliked, and remain unsettled by, was from the moment when a plane began its takeoff roll to the moment when the pilot turns off the seat-belt sign.

There was, and still is, a lot of staring at the wing, at how sooted or stained it is, and not long ago these preflight checks produced a bit of a jolt when I was looking out of the window at John F. Kennedy International Airport. One of the fairings, the conelike casings that protrude backward from the wing, housing the machinery that extends and retracts the wing’s flaps, was missing. Where an aerodynamic cone should have been, there was a rusty piece of metal that resembled an over-roasted chicken leg. I waved at one of the cabin attendants and explained. At first she didn’t understand what I was talking about, but then after seeing the chicken leg, she disappeared. She returned from the front of the plane some minutes later and asked if I’d come this way; the pilot wanted a word. I got up, walked with her through business class, and then up the stairs of the 747. She knocked at the cockpit door.

“James Wood,” the pilot said as he put his hand forward to shake mine. “This is Samir. He’s the first officer.”

“Well-spotted!” Captain Wood said. He explained that the missing fairing wasn’t essential. It had come off some flights earlier. The only problem posed by its absence was that the plane would require 1 to 2 percent more fuel for the journey across the Atlantic. There was no reason to worry.

“A million things can go wrong with a plane this size,” Wood said. Don’t I know, I was about to say when Wood pulled the plane’s manual from a nearby shelf. “Our Bible,” said Wood. It was as fat as a Tom Wolfe novel, and a single yellow sticky marked the page about fairings.

I spent some time at the beginning of that flight looking at the roasted chicken leg. It was an uneventful journey. I counted the number of times I’d had flown across the Atlantic, and tried to work out my carbon imprint. (My 28 flights across the Atlantic have a produced as much CO2 as a fuel-efficient car would produce in 47 years.) There’s nothing like an argument against flying to make it more bearable. The flaps extended before takeoff and retracted soon afterward. Captain Wood told the passengers that we’d make landfall over Cork, Ireland. Flying, and fearing it, has many contradictions, but it’s become more bearable not because those contradictions are resolved. Flying—and not fearing it—depends on what you can appreciate in terms such as landfall, which is by far the most beguiling of aeronautical phrases and doesn’t mean what you might think it meant if you didn’t know anything about flight.