Caitlin Doughty is a licensed funeral director, host of YouTube's Ask a Mortician series, and author of the book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: and other Lessons from the Crematory. She's also a contributor to Off-Ramp and shares this story:
It's a normal day, after a normal flight, and our plane is coming in for a landing. Looking out the window I can spot the airport, the runway, the other planes on the ground. Moments before we touch down, the engine roars, the nose of the plane pulls vertical, and we shoot back into the air at a very steep angle.
As we bump back into the sky, the plane is eerily silent. We passengers are flicking our eyes back and forth and white knuckling the armrests.
I grip my partner's hand. "It's not terrorism, is it?" he whispers. "Hijacking?"
"No, I'm pretty sure the wheels fell off," I reply, with no sarcasm. At this point I'm fairly sure the wheels have, indeed, fallen off. You can't land if the wheels have fallen off, right?
The plane circles around, and 15 minutes later we touch down. In those 15 minutes, not a word of explanation or comfort comes from the cockpit.
Some frantic safe-on-the-ground Googling tells me what we experienced what’s known as a go-around. A go-around is when, for some reason, the pilot decides the landing were going to make won’t work out. Maybe it’s a bad angle or the wrong speed; maybe there’s another plane on the runway.
I'm all for this. If there's any question of a landing being unsafe, by all means, try again. But the silence in those 15 minutes was downright scary. I was all set to post this experience on Facebook the following morning, sympathy trolling, when word came in that an Air Asia flight disappeared over the Java Sea.
The loss of the plane put my middling complaints into perspective, but it did nothing to help my mounting fear of flying. A lot of people are afraid to fly, but I'm a mortician, and an advocate of death acceptance. I've worked for years to become comfortable with my own death, that it can happen anytime, anywhere. So why am I suddenly so afraid to fly?
There’s quite a bit of evidence that this kind of fear pops up in our late 20s. Maybe that’s the age when we stop thinking we're bulletproof and finally realize that we have no control over our lives, and hurtling through the air in a metal tube thousands of miles above the ground is just a particularly visceral metaphor for that fact.
The only thing that seems to work to combat the loss of control, other than pills and white wine, is knowledge. How the plane works, how landing gear functions, how much turbulence they’re designed to endure. Answer: a ridiculous amount of turbulence, far more than you’d ever run into on a passenger flight.
It doesn’t help to hear general statements like “flying is safer that driving!” But it does help to hear specifics: My chance of dying in a car crash is about 1 in 5,000. Chance of being killed by a shark? 1 in 3.7 million.
Dying in a plane crash? 1 in 11 million.
Then I stumbled on a post deep in the bowels of a message board from a woman who said her best tip was to fly United and listen to “Channel 9” on the headphone selector, the conversation between the cockpit and air traffic control. The post explained, “You feel some turbulence, and start to freak out, and then the pilot casually asks the co-pilot ‘what do you think, 37 thousand better than 35 thousand feet? Let’s ask air traffic control.’”
Yes! That’s it. Right there, that’s what I want, access to completely mundane pilot chatter. Just like it helps to know what the dentist is planning before he sticks the drill in your mouth. Just like it helps so many of my clients to hear exactly where their mom’s body is going when my funeral home picks her up. It’s better to know.
My go-around would have been significantly less terrifying if the pilot had said something. Anything. The absolute worst thing is to leave a scared passenger his or her own imagination.
But as great as that all sounds: United has spent the past year pulling all their inflight entertainment, and with it, access to Channel 9. Pills and white wine it is.