Up in the air

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, March 22, 2014

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A few years ago I had an opportunity to fly to Minneapolis/St. Paul to make a presentation at a newspaper convention. My family couldn’t go, so for once, I was one of those guys, alone in the airport, flying somewhere on business.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

There are thousands of these men and women every day, smartly dressed and well-groomed, with briefcases and folders and notebook computers. Often they’re on cellphones, having serious, highly technical discussions about sales figures, presentations and spreadsheets.

Sometimes they have those Bluetooths with an earpiece and you think they’re talking to you, and you say something and then you realize they’re on the phone. (Not saying I’ve ever done that, just that it happens. And you feel so, so stupid.)

To avoid that possibility I hit the newsstand and retreated into Texas Monthly.

I was riveted by a story and was buckled in my seat, in the air, flying to Minnesota when it dawned on me that I was reading about Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash in 1959 while he was FLYING TO MINNESOTA!

I can’t deny it freaked me out just a little. But it wasn’t 1959, the weather was nice, and I was on a much bigger plane.

Apparently that was not the day-ay-ay for me to, well, you know.

But every time I get on a plane, I think about it. Too long in the news business, too many stories about disasters, too much imagination.

I’m sure many who fly all the time don’t think about it. They’re busy, they’re on the phone, they’re thinking about the presentation to the directors or the stockholders or the customer. The airplane ride is a mere interruption. Their minds are elsewhere.

But most of us, if we’re honest, do entertain at least a fleeting thought we quickly dismiss: This thing might crash.

We try to ignore those instructions about oxygen masks, emergency escape doors and the fact that our seat cushion can be used as a flotation device. We try to forget that scene from “Cast Away” where Tom Hanks goes into the ocean.

You take deep breaths, nap, read – anything to take your mind off the fact that you’re sealed in a metal tube with rockets on the wings, shooting through the sky at several hundred miles per hour.

We entrust our lives to the cool, experienced pilots, to the professionals who fix the engines and run the air traffic control grid, and to a system filled with checks and cross-checks, safety measures on top of safety measures, training and skill and technology to get us where we’re going.

What brings this up? A daughter flew to South America last Wednesday. Three days later an airplane with 239 people on it vanished.

She was on 12 airplanes in 10 days – many of those flights with her brother in the seat beside her. The whole time, the whole world was wondering where that Malaysian plane went.

It brought a unique form of anxiety.

Thanks to God and the marvels of technology, my kids’ flights all took off and landed safely. Our daughter returned Saturday, tired and happy from her adventure.

Due to a rare rainstorm, we spent a few semi-anxious moments waiting in the airport.

The families of those 239 are still waiting. Still up in the air, wanting to believe it landed somewhere, but longing even for the discovery of wreckage that would tell them what happened.

Not knowing has to be even worse than knowing the worst.

My head knows airplanes are the safest way to travel. The reason it makes news when one crashes is that it so rarely happens. I will continue to fly when I need to, and encourage my head to control the flutters in my heart whenever a loved one is in the air.

Maybe I’ll read. I will, however, try to find something that doesn’t involve a missing airplane.

Lately, that’s a challenge.

Bob Buckel is editorial director for the Messenger.

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