Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I like airplanes. Maybe it's because I grew up around them. I built a couple of model airplanes when I was a kid, and I used to play with cast metal airplanes called Dyna-Flites. Dozens of model airplanes hung from the ceiling of the hobby shop where I spent a lot of Saturdays - a B-17 and B-52 with the X-15 hanging from its wing stand out in my memory. There were plenty of airplanes in the news, too: I was ten years old when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The F-117 was all over the news, but so were the F-15E Strike Eagles and A-10 Warthogs that came from local Air Force bases. And I read some aviation books in my early years too - the late, great Martin Caidin's Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38, about Lockheed's magnificent World War II fighter, and Zero, which Caidin co-wrote with one of that Japanese fighter's designers and one of the Imperial Navy's surviving staff officers. Another outstanding book was John Comer's Combat Crew, which was part diary and part memoir, the story of a B-17 gunner/flight engineer and the men he flew and fought with.

I spent a lot of time reading and thinking and daydreaming about airplanes as a child, and today I still like them. I enjoy visiting aviation museums and talking to the people who flew and maintained them. My favorite part of the Smithsonian is the National Air & Space Museum. I think the World War II gallery at the museum on the Mall is a magnificent study in the contrasts between the characters of five countries, as expressed through the design of the fighter aircraft on display there. I think the Supermarine Spitfire is a work of art, the most beautiful aircraft ever to take wing. I think the aircraft carrier is one of the most remarkable organizations ever devised by man - a triumph of technology, seamanship, airmanship, leadership, and plain hard work. I love the things and I admire the people who make them work.

But I hate flying. I don't exactly know why, but there's something absolutely terrifying about being in a pressurized aluminum can winging through the airy nothingness. Takeoffs are the worst. Once I get to altitude the terror subsides - a certain fatalism sets in. I'm stuck there and there's nothing I can do about it. Besides, there's also not much going on; you're just cruising along. And I love landings. Nothing becomes a flight like the safe end of it.

I think it's probably the lack of control. I know that, statistically, air travel is safer than driving. But I can drive a car, and as a driver, I have the illusion that I can avoid all the dangers out there. Plus, if it breaks down, I can pull over. Can't do that in an airplane. It's the same with rail travel. I'm not in as much control as if I were driving, but I also know that it's safer than driving - or flying. It also has other rewards, like the chance to enjoy the scenery and chat with people you never met before and will probably never meet again. There's a social aspect to traveling by train that other modes are missing.

I'd probably feel better about the whole flying thing if they gave me a parachute. Illusions are important. Of control, of safety - when dealing with irrational (or even completely rational) fears, illusions are a great shield against the unknown. And the known, too, come to that.

I have to fly tomorrow. It's the cheapest, quickest, most sensible option for where and when I have to go.

Still, on the whole, I think I'd rather walk.


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