Until my early 30s, I was happy to step on an airplane. Life stretched out before me. I didn’t think of my own mortality as the engines roared and the plane began rumbling down the runway.
All that changed in the fall of 1987 on a trip from Vancouver to London. Our flight path took us over the Arctic, and it was during this stretch of the journey that my appetite for air travel changed forever.
Our plane began shaking violently. Flight attendants were sent crashing to the floor. People started screaming and crying. A young girl next to me grabbed my hand. An older woman on my left made the sign of the cross – several times. The turbulence lasted 15 minutes before the plane went into a dramatic nosedive. We all thought we were dead.
As it turns out, the pilot was trying to escape the nasty batch of air we had encountered.
The turbulence was so bad that the plane would later be examined for structural damage. The worst part? The exact same thing happened on the return, during the same portion of the trip. Again, people were crying and holding the hands of strangers. Some filled airsickness bags. It felt like King Kong had our plane in his grip – and he was mad.
After that trip, I would never be the same on a plane. I would get on them, of course, to visit family or when my job demanded it. But I could never relax. To this day, turbulence unnerves me. I now have to sit by a window because, when the plane starts to shake, looking outside seems to calm me.
So do several glasses of wine.
What brought all this to mind was a story about the newest plane from Boeing – the Dreamliner.
Some say it may be the best plane ever produced. The program to develop it cost an estimated $32-billion. For that much money, I was hoping Boeing had developed the plane we all want to see – the one that never crashes. Alas, the best the company can do is assure us it will be extremely safe and comfortable.
Someone once said that aviation itself isn’t inherently dangerous. It’s just terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect. And that is as true today as it was in 1903 when Orville Wright made the first powered flight.
Yes, planes are built better today. And they’re unquestionably safer. But if there’s a problem and the plane goes down, the result is merciless. It’s a terrible way to go.
So for $32-billion, I was looking for something more. Like maybe the first parachute-equipped jetliner. I’ve been thinking about this for years and here’s how it works: The plane gets in trouble at 30,000 feet. It’s going down. Everyone aboard is sure to die. Except, at 10,000 feet, a gigantic parachute is activated and the plane floats to safety.
Friends say the idea is stupid. That even if it were possible, it would cost a fortune to develop. But I say there are enough people who hate flying that would pay a premium – a big premium – to fly on what I’m tentatively calling the Parachute Plane.
I admit I’ve had all sorts of crazy ideas associated with my fear of flying. Here’s another one: a pill that puts you out instantly so you don’t feel it when the plane crashes. I’m serious. The pill doesn’t kill you, just puts you into a deep sleep so you aren’t wakened by the screaming around you. If, somehow, the plane doesn’t crash, you wake up later and are obviously thrilled.
There are hundreds of millions of people just like me out there, people constantly thinking of ways to make getting on a plane easier. Someone on the Internet had the idea of putting parachutes under everyone’s seat. How brilliant is that?
But there’s always someone who wants to throw cold water on the best of ideas.
“Are you kidding?” said one guy. “The airlines can’t even afford to provide peanuts. No way they’re buying parachutes.”