On Flying (Part 1)
Or mammals don't belong 40,000 ft in the air...
Its been a while isn’t it. I had been to India for a month. I pulled a wisdom tooth, filed taxes and took care of some personal things (that’s a separate report I will be filing soon). I am now back in Bangkok, comfortably perched in my usual writing nook and letting my thoughts fly. Or rather, my thoughts on flying.
So, here you go with part 1. Part 2 is coming up soon.
"Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
- Douglas Adams.
Imagine you talk about flying to someone from two hundred years back.
“You’ll get into these metal tubes that have explosive cylinders attached to them. Huge turbines spin up at dangerous speeds. And then you are shot into the sky like a cannon ball.”
As they stare at you horrified, “Oh, don’t worry, these metal monsters have huge wings of steel attached to them. Besides, there’s a human in the front pushing some dials to makes sure it stays afloat”
I would be surprised if they didn’t run away from you screaming.
Today, more than 12 million of us fly everyday without ever giving a single thought to the magic it involves. In the words of Terry Pratchett, “Magic never dies. It merely fades away.”
When you see the steel bird weighing thousands of kilograms standing on the tarmac, are you awestruck by the seeming impossibility of how it rises high into the sky and stays there?
Or, are you anxiously throwing nasty glances at the family of one fussy baby at the gate and praying to nonexistent gods that it shouldn’t be sitting next to you?
🌍The grandiosity of long haul international flights
“My airplane is quiet, and for a moment still an alien, still a stranger to the ground, I am home.”
― Richard Bach, Stranger to the Ground
It wasn’t until my teens that I took my first ever flight - a Jet Airways flight from Coimbatore to Bangalore. That was a one off indulgence from my parents just to experience flying (covered by LTC, of course). I do not remember much of that trip.
The flying that I do remember is the next one I took, when I was 24 and travelling outside the country for the first time.
Long haul international flights demand attention. First off, the planes are real mammoth beasts. I mean, massive. Enormous. The Airbus A340 or A380 or Boeing 777 or 747. The first time you see them, they arrest your attention, especially when you see those tiny men servicing it on the ground. They can travel thousands of kilometers continuously for 8, 10, 15 hours at a stretch.
They are floating mini-cities when they are up in the air.
Just pause on that thought for a second. The idea, that for a period of an entire waking day, a few hundred people are locked in a tube, disconnected from the world and are moving somewhere in the sky up there at 500 kmph.
A mass disappearing act with a promise that they’d all reappear on Earth elsewhere, jetlagged and irate. At any point, all someone on Earth can do is point somewhere in the sky and hope they are still there.
Of course, with the availability of WiFi, some of this strange wonder ceases to exist. You could literally message “Omg! The pilot just said we’re going down” as you go down in flames, leaving those as the last words you ever said.
😱The existential horror of flying
“There are no atheists on turbulent airplanes.”
― Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Morbid thoughts are par for course for flying. You look out the window and all you see is the sky, perhaps with some clouds, and this triggers the old reptilian center in your brain.
“hey mammal, what the fuck are you doing hanging in the air so far up in the sky!”
The inside is dimly lit and most passengers are sleeping. It’s dark out there. Pitch dark. You hear snores from some passengers but you have been captured by a sudden existential fear.
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They’ve placed a screen in front of you to give you all the gory details.
It tells me that the metal tube I am sitting in is hurtling on at 500 kmph at 40,000 ft above Earth. The air outside is an obscene thirty-below-zero where hell freezes over. Or Canada. Beneath you, as the friendly graphical map tells you, is the ocean. The freaking ocean!
I recently heard a quote, “There are more planes beneath the ocean than submarines in the sky”
The dark, roiling mass of planet-sized water always terrifies me.
Meanwhile, clueless snoring bastards are snoring away inside when outside, everything wants to kill you — the cold, the wind pressure, the ocean below and the little fact that you can’t fly personally, however much your arms have wings and you flap them around.
At this point, everything hangs, quite literally, in the trust in the human collective - that science and endless experiments have ensured that this tin can is sufficient for your survival. That the pilot in the front knows what she is doing. That the machine works as expected. That the quality control guy checked for holes in the fuselage, or some such thing.
Isn’t flying the ultimate display of humans trusting other humans?
👶🏽Babies and Fart Clouds
“No matter which kid’s book I read to my screaming baby on an airplane, the moral of the story is always something about a vasectomy.”
— Ryan Reynolds
Wind and air pressure is the source of existential terror not just outside the plane but also on the inside.
Inside, it comes in two forms:
From the lungs of a baby (or many babies)
From an Indian uncle’s queasy intestines.
Babies and fart clouds have haunted me on many trips.
Babies have a different kind of existential crisis to deal with - food, comfort, poop and sleep. Doesn’t matter if we are passing over an inhabitable desert when it’s time to eat, its time to eat. It’s serious business that is accompanied by the most annoying sound in the world designed to get the attention of the human next to them.
Except in a plane, there are a hundred humans next to the baby. And 99 of them don’t really care.
In addition, the Baby Wail theorem dictates that one baby screaming in the plane means all babies start screaming in the plane. I have, over time, come to sympathize more with the parents and have never been an asshole who stares angrily or takes it out on a parent. But some babies, man, they do bring out some bad feelings inside me.
But baby lungs get tired. Indian uncles with gas in their belly rarely do.
Once, an uncle next to me, released a constant stream of nauseas gases for the entire 7 hour flight. I can only hold my breath for so long before giving in and breathing in a lungful of florid air smelling of death and decay.
Indian food may be one of the best in the world going on. But surely, its one of the worst in the world coming out.
🛫Being a baby
Despite their inability to curse effectively, being a baby can be fun for short periods. All you need to do is exist and someone takes care of the things for you. Also, while I am a freedom evangelist, sometimes having choices removed for you is a such a relief in the age of infinite choices.
Flying, especially international flights, allow us to be little babies for a while. And no, I don’t mean the disgusting adult babies you pee on Air India flights. I mean, we get be strapped in a bayonet with seatbelts, are fed regularly, someone is constantly checking in to feed or hydrate us and then they turn off lights and ask us to go to sleep.
Equally important is that, your phone is not connected and suddenly you are physically and electromagnetically free of obligations. No one’s asking you to do a chore either to your face or through an email.
To top it up, there’s even a flashy screen filled with entertainment in front of you. The future that WALL.E predicted is here and its on a plane. No wonder then passengers behave like cry babies to the stewardesses.
The only thing missing is a diaper and this creates the only little adult action on flights - getting yourself to the loo.
This is a whole art form. For one, I have such an inertia to get off baby mode that I let my reservoir fill up until I absolutely have to go. Two, I don’t want to stand in an awkward queue that stretches from the restroom until the middle of the plane. And three, I don’t want to be shoved into a nook for several minutes because food carts have blocked the path.
If you’re not sitting on the aisle, there is always the additional variable of trying to sync the loo breaks with the aisle passenger. All of this adds a lot of decisions that honestly take away all the baby-like pleasures of flying. Just give us all diapers, really.
Coming up in part 2……
Most airports are terrible places, except the little ones where you can walk on the tarmac
The White Room Torture like disorientation of flying and emerging into an airport
The anxiety of catching a flight, and the misses
All of the eating
Could be Worse,
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