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I’m not a big fan of air travel. I suppose I would enjoy it more if I had been bitten by a radioactive grouse and was therefore able to fly around unassisted, but I instead have to rely on airplanes to get me from point to point. And yesterday I spent six hours on a Boeing 737 as I flew from Miami to Seattle, a flight that may well be the longest possible within the continental United States.

Take-offs, in particular, freak me out. Every time a plane leaves the tarmac I mentally picture the paper airplanes I threw as a child, all of which left my hand and promptly transmogrified into Earth-seeking missiles. Once we’re in the air I’m generally fine, although turbulence will make me gasp and clutch my armrest and notify God that I was just joking about the whole being-an-atheist thing.

The main source of my unease is that, deep down inside, I don’t believe airplanes can fly. I mean have you seen them, the airplanes? They’re huge! There’s no way they can fly. And don’t give me that flummery about the Bernoulli's principle or lift coefficients or blah blah blah, because you know it’s crap as well as I do. I think the only reason planes fly is because everyone on board believes that they can. So I sit there in my seat and try as hard as I can not to disbelieve in air travel, for fear that, by entertaining doubt, I’ll be the one that causes the whole enterprise to fail.

Of course, none of this is an issue after three hours or so -- by then I’m so tired of being in the plane that I’m immune to terror. Indeed, when we hit turbulence I find myself rationally considering the fact that, were we to go into a tailspin and crash, at least that would shorten my travel time. Landings don't bother me in the least because, by the time we return to Earth, I’m pretty much numb, which is exactly the state I prefer to be in while flying.

My ideal airline would actually knock the passengers unconscious before take-off, and revive them upon landing. Wouldn’t that be great? You sit in your assigned seat, the "oxygen masks" drop down, you suck down halothane until you’re out cold, and you wake up six hours later, slumped against a post in the baggage claim area. That would rule. And think about the cost savings for the carrier: no need for movies, no need for food or beverages – they wouldn’t even have to put windows in the plane. I’m telling you, when they launch Insensate Air I’ll be the first one to purchase a ticket.

Posted on March 13, 2003 to Great Ideas


I'm always just happy that the wings stay on.

Posted by: rick on March 13, 2003 9:43 PM

The other great thing about Insensate Air is that they could stack us six high in bunk beds. No waking up at the other end feeling like a twisted up pretzel, and no DVT. Perfect!

Posted by: szechuan on March 13, 2003 9:52 PM

No reference to B.A. Baracus? (I'm kidding.)

Posted by: Brett on March 13, 2003 10:04 PM

Here Matthew, drink this glass of milk...

Posted by: Hannibal on March 14, 2003 1:16 AM

I entirely share your feelings about the improbibility of planes actually flying. Every time I see one take off it looks like an unlikely miracle; every time I'm in one myeslf I'm sure it's going to go hurtling off the end of the runway without so much as lifting the nose wheel. No, give me a good old dirigible any day!

Posted by: Danny on March 14, 2003 4:28 AM

I am rarely frightened on a plane because it doesn't make sense. How can I be 35,000 feet in the AIR? Nope, not possible. So unreal that it's ok with me.

Posted by: Anna on March 14, 2003 5:26 AM

planes don't actually fly do they? i'm pretty sure i read somewhere that the modern aircraft is little more than a projectile with wings. of course i also read somewhere that only 7/5 of americans do the math...

Posted by: adam on March 14, 2003 6:00 AM

I _know_ airplanes can't fly, and I'm having serious doubts about air conditioners.

Posted by: Rob Cockerham on March 14, 2003 6:04 AM

Nope, they can't fly either.

Posted by: Nick on March 14, 2003 6:21 AM

i am increasingly freaked by plane travel, altho i loved it as a child, and totally agree. it's only the belief of the (other) passengers that gets that baby off the ground!!

Posted by: carolyn on March 14, 2003 6:48 AM

Remember that episode of "Amazing Stories" witht he bomber pilots who's plane lost the ability to lower the landing gear, much to the chagrin of the guy in the belly turret? But he was a cartoonist so he drew a plane with wheels and giant cartoon wheels descended from the plane just in time to save him? Artist's are so cool.

Posted by: Dave Beefoven on March 14, 2003 8:01 AM

When I was little I was a strong disbeliever in flight...my hypothesis was that the planes just drove around like cars and they played a movie of flying outside the window (I did not think about how they would need an airplane to film said movie) so that everyone would think they were up in the air.

Posted by: hillary on March 14, 2003 8:07 AM

This goes hand in hand with my Insensate Dental theory. Please, I want them both - together if necessary.

Posted by: Chris on March 14, 2003 8:36 AM

Yes! Even though I've experienced this in action many times, I simply can't believe that something large, light, and maintained by overworked technicians stripped of most of their job benefits can get off the ground and land again safely.

Posted by: Laurie on March 14, 2003 8:46 AM

As Seinfeld once said, "I'm not afraid of flying so much...I'm afraid of suddenly NOT flying. As the plane is in a spiralling freefall, flying actually sounds pretty good".

Posted by: digitaljosh on March 14, 2003 9:12 AM

As a child I loved flying...because the idea of falling from the sky was more absurd than the idea of flying itself. Later flying terrified me. I had one bad experience in a puddle jumper and a thunderstorm...and later an experience where the brakes locked and the large jet started to slide sideways.

Then I spent two years learning to fly airplanes and rotocraft...and that actually cured me of it...you see I learned the magic ju-ju...so I can actually keep any plane in the air from force of will.

Posted by: Alan on March 14, 2003 10:03 AM

The Insensate Air thing wouldn't work for me because I have too much work to do up there. You see, it's my job to watch the wings and engines to make sure nothing falls off mid-flight. I watch for rivits to pop, sparks to start flying or geese to get sucked into the engine.

I figure the captain can't see the wing from way up in the front so he'd appreciate a little heads up from me. And I must be doing a great job at this because the airlines always select me to sit directly over the wings.

Posted by: Duane on March 14, 2003 12:22 PM

I guess this would be a bad time to bring up the Twilight Zone episode where William Shatner sees the monster on the wings...

Posted by: Stacey on March 14, 2003 1:22 PM

And THAT'S why I always take sedatives on airplanes.

Posted by: Ariel on March 14, 2003 1:46 PM

As a card-carrying scientist type, I'm just glad I'm not the only one who still has a hard time believing that tons of steel can hurtle through the air at 35,000 feet. I also have a hard time with the gigantic military and oil tankers that show up in Elliot Bay from time to time and aren't ever SINKING because they are so freaking HUGE...but that's a whole other topic.

Posted by: C on March 14, 2003 3:13 PM

Well...I always pass out in airplanes. I thought it was lack of oxygen. So do people manage to stay awake? I'm incapable of noticing that.

I guess all those years of college/grad school when I had something due made me immune to worries about the plane crashing. I always thought 'well, if the plane crashes at least I won't have to write that paper!' I no longer have the same problem but the general attitude carries over to this day. As long as I'm not driving I figure I'm safer than I normally would be with me in control of any vehicle.

Posted by: Miel on March 14, 2003 3:39 PM

if i could ride a bullet, i would. i love to fly! actually, i like the take-off and landing. i just love the g-force pressure against my body... it's like my favorite airline giving me a hug showing how much they love me. then i pass out. i only wake up right before the landing, just incase the whole trip wasn't worth it... ya know, dying and all.

Posted by: matt on March 14, 2003 3:52 PM

Flying isn't so bad. It's the crashing that bothers me.

On my very first jet flight (about five years ago)we were about to land at O'Hare. We'd flown from Seattle, it was late, and I was tired, and warm. The 737 pilot seemed completely unable to fly a level path. Up a bit, then down a bit, repeat for hours.

Anyway, I was warm, so I reached up to turn on that little fan next to the reading light.

The INSTANT I pressed the button, the left wing dropped, and I was looking out my window, seemingly straight down at the highway below. Instinctively, I pressed the button again. The wings leveled out, and we landed a couple minutes later.

I have yet to turn the fan on in an airplane again. Oh, sure, the logical part of me knows that we were just turning to line up with the runway, and we surely weren't flying with the wings dead vertical.

Why risk it, just in case?

Posted by: Eric on March 14, 2003 8:24 PM

Flying in a plane is an odd form of travel. Aside from some unpleasantness at the beginning and end, it's mostly a few hours spent sitting in a box with some strangers, where we end up in a time and place unique from where we started. Sometimes, with a completely different culture. Sometimes we've lost an entire day or just gained far more humidity than humanly acceptable. Wild.
Car travel is kind of the same concept, but there's more of a sense of time passing, except through Nebraska into Kansas...where time stops. That's an interminable amount of time spent staring at fields.
So, I prefer to get into the box with wings if I need to get to the East Coast. :)

Posted by: Jami on March 17, 2003 8:23 AM

Advice for your next flight - Get some Xanex

Posted by: amy on March 17, 2003 9:00 AM

Why do they need to fly at 35,000 feet? I think it's just the pilots showing off.

Posted by: e. degeneres on March 17, 2003 4:52 PM

I think there's a Stephen King short story about intergalactic travel that involves knocking the passengers out to prevent them from going insane (physically the journey is instantaneous but mentally it takes hundreds of years). Of course one passenger skips the anesthesia. Or maybe that was a dream.

Posted by: Rob on March 18, 2003 7:42 PM

That story is the first thing I thought of when I read this post, too. "The Jaunt" by Stephan King. A great story. All should read it. Viva.

Posted by: punxkin on March 19, 2003 11:10 AM

There's another story about airplanes that I believe is by Stephen King - The Langoliers. The TV version had an all star cast or something.

In that story, everyone who wasn't asleep vanished when they passed over some kind of "northern lights" over the Mohave desert.

Posted by: Martin Alak on September 12, 2003 12:02 PM

What about slide-in horizontal cubby holes with knock-out gas, a la The Fifth Element? If you're asleep, you wouldn't even notice the claustrophobia!

Posted by: lisa on December 2, 2003 3:03 PM