I had, until that point, managed to avoid spotting any references of a plane crash or incident. But here, thousands of miles away from the closest English speaking country, it had found me. Waiting in the hotel lobby of an archaic hotel in Colombia, I glimpse the Spanish headline on the table newspaper offered so generously to guests: 120 something something de aviacion something something. And a picture of a crashed plane.
I knew what it meant, even without understanding the words. I avoided staring at the picture directly, but was able to infer its contents based on the enclosing context. I was, in fact, waiting in the lobby for a taxi that would take us to the airport, whereupon I would enter into the realm of my worst fear: flying.
On this trip, I would enter in and out of six different airplanes. Six. That is six entirely too many. Six takeoffs, six sessions of invisible suspension tens of thousands of feet in the air, and six bumpy landings. I had found ways to manage my fears this time around, knowing that it would be all around impractical were I not able to find a way to contain the anxiety of having my life hang by some invisible threads based on 21st century hardware and software.
And I know software all too well.
It crashes. A lot.
And the people that write it. Ah. They’re just people.
My anxiety in airplanes stems from my ignorance in the routine operation of a flight. After takeoff, there comes a point where the engines will go from blaring loud to suddenly silent, and in that moment, my heart drops. Did the engine just stop? Are we losing speed? Is this it?
Every little sound, every little tremble—I fear it the end. I lamented to my wife some time ago that it would make the flying experience so much more tranquil were there to be a monitor communicating the exact actions the pilot is taking right now. Lowering engine capacity. Descending 500ft to avoid turbulence. Lowering wheels. Now, I clearly don’t know the right terminology for these events, but give me something. This way I know that everything is happening according to plan.
But no. We’re left to have full and utter faith in our glorious, incomprehensible captain.
The headline that I had mistakenly caught a glimpse of did nothing to ease my concerns. And avoiding unwanted news is a skill I take seriously and am proud to rank amongst the world’s top for. News today is a never ending episode of Fear Factor, so I avoid it. But it always finds a way, doesn’t it? You can go to painstaking lengths to avoid the news on your phone, computer, and TV, but inevitably, the news will find a way to harvest itself into your mind. A friend will say, have you heard? Or, I’ll need to check the Standard Notes twitter account for some customer tweet, and mistakenly cross into the Moments section, and it will catch me instantaneously: BREAKING: 5 PEOPLE HAD THEIR HEADS CHOPPED OFF LIKE 2 MILES FROM YOUR HOUSE.
I’ve actually changed my Twitter geo settings to be Japan-based, so that the moments are all in Japanese. But there seems to be some exception to this, so that the first and most “important" headline is still in English, and locale-aware. Besides Twitter, news is starting to be everywhere. It’s a great, great product for companies. Google Chrome, Snapchat, and Reddit are all getting in on the action. News is a product, and not some “for-your-own-good” supplement. News is the addicting crack all companies dream of building. And today, it’s more fashionable and in-demand than ever.
The way I justify flying is to think that there are far more important people than me who travel every day. Professional sports teams, with hundred million dollar players, fly every other day to different states and countries to play other teams. Politicians fly in and out of other countries on the daily. Even in the 70’s, it was seemingly normal for politicians to fly routinely.
So why should I be afraid?
And so I adopt the cavalier mindset. I say, I got this. I do a bunch of mental manipulation to tell myself that this will surely be ok. I run through the impossible stats of a plane crashing. I remind myself the last time a plane crashed from turbulence was in the 60’s, or something like that. I remember that Steph Curry and Lebron James fly in airplanes as often as I don’t. And most importantly, I remind myself that airplanes are very simple physics machines. Sure, it looks like an impossibly complex arrangement of heavy hardware and intricate software. One glimpse at the cockpit and any software developer will think: and it’s expected that nothing of all those controls should go awry? Yeah right. I know the fragility of software all too well.
But maybe it’s simpler than that?
After reading as much as I could about it, and watching a bunch of videos, an airplane seems very much to be only a set of engines on either side of the wings. Everything else is accessory. The engines, which are just these huge fan things, have a very simple job. They just need to spin. And when they do, trillions of unavoidable air molecules crash below and above the wing, depending on its angle. At that point, and from the way I understand it, if there are more air molecules crashing below the wing than above, lift is created. Automatically.
So it would appear that all that seeming complexity can be reduced to two fans that need to spin. If they keep spinning, regardless of any hardware or software issues, the plane will stay afloat. Simple as that.
I found that easy to digest. Easy to trust. Fans spinning—I can trust an engineer to build a fan that doesn’t stop. Easy physics. So I found some peace in that.
I also played some loud music during take off, and for most of the flight duration, to block out any sounds of engine intensity changes and other inexplicable noises. It helped quite a bit.
And if none of those tips help, the way to really cope with the fear of the worst is just to embrace the worst. If this airplane ride were to offer me my last few moments of consciousness, then that’s ok. I lived a decent life. And the last version of Standard Notes was stable enough.
Besides, I wouldn’t mind waking up in the year 3200 as some other shmuck and explore what the 33rd century has to offer. I wouldn’t be me per se, but consciousness is a process, so I am you, and you are me.
Any curious person will do.