Friday, July 19, 1996
It’s 8:03 a.m. and I’m scared to death. My fingers clutch the armrests and I can feel the pulse in my left temple. Tchaikovsky’s Voyevoda is beating through my headset. I look around me for someone to commiserate with, but everyone seems fine. The woman in the seat next to me nonchalantly reads a magazine; two guys across the aisle are absorbed in conversation.
About 30 seconds after takeoff, we hit a bump and my body convulses. This is it! The thought flashes through my mind and for a split second, I am convinced I’ll never see my family again. But, of course, everything is fine, and I feel embarrassed at having reacted–once again–to a perfectly ordinary takeoff. Has anybody noticed? There’s an etiquette about flying, certain things you just don’t do: 12A doesn’t engage 12B in conversation, you don’t get up too often, and you don’t show fear. I try to cover up by pretending I was reaching down to check my briefcase. If anybody’s noticed, they don’t let on. That’s part of the etiquette too.
It’s not the crash off Long Island, though the headlines announcing 230 dead the night before didn’t help a bit. And it’s not that I’m afraid of flying–not really. I have, after all, piloted a Cessna–a much more dangerous enterprise. It’s the total lack of control–the feeling of being Spam in a can, to borrow a compact metaphor from The Right Stuff–that gets to me. My life, the lives of my fellow passengers and crew, depends entirely on other people–invisible people–doing their jobs right. And who among us always does his job right?
Why do I put myself through this? The simple truth is that you cannot live a normal professional life without spending a good deal of time in the air. I’m a federal judge riding a circuit more or less the size of India. It stretches from Arizona to Alaska, and from Montana to Hawaii. I could decline some nonessential engagements, but how can I give in to fears that I know are irrational? I’ve seen the statistics: I’m much safer flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco for the day than driving the 27 miles to my office. I can’t–won’t–let a few minutes of terror stand in the way.
The flight is uneventful, and we land in San Francisco after 52 minutes aloft. I rush to the courthouse for a day of meetings. I had hoped to get out early to work on some of my opinions, but no luck.
It’s 5:23 p.m. and I’m scared to death. I look across the aisle. …