It is, perhaps, the most terrifying way to die. No one likes falling, not even off a footstool. But being hundreds or thousands of feet in the sky, and falling helplessly, is everyone’s nightmare...
But it wasn’t a dream for 176 people aboard Crimean Airlines Flight 752 earlier this week.
Early Wednesday morning, that flight left the international Airport in Tehran. Two minutes into its flight to Kyev, the plane veered right and plunged to the ground.
Everyone on board died; 138 of them were bound for Canada; 63 were Canadian residents.
Fortunately, these disasters don’t happen often. If you’re going to put your life into someone else’s hands, commercial aviation offers the safest, best regulated, way of travelling. Ian Savage of Northwestern University calculated fatality rates per passenger of various forms of transportation. Airlines came in at 0.07 per billion passenger miles. Bus, subway, and train all ranked below one per billion miles.
Cars were seven times higher; motorcycles more than 200 times higher.
Setting aside a plane’s greenhouse gas emissions, you’re safer flying across a continent than walking to the corner store.
Except that if something goes wrong at 35,000 feet up, you can’t get out and walk home.
It’s why there’s such a sense of shock over the crash of the Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 crash shortly after takeoff from Imam Khomeini International airport in Tehran.
As I write this column, news reports claim the plane was shot down by an Iranian missile. I don’t see any benefit to Iran in shooting down a passenger plane. By contrast, the missile attack on U.S. military bases in Iraq, just hours before, was measured and deliberate. According to some reports, Iran even provided advance notice. The missiles demonstrated that Iran had the capacity to retaliate for the extra-judicial murder of General Qassem Soleimani, if it chose to.
No lives were lost.
The same cannot be said of the destruction of Crimean Flight 752.
In a crash like this one, the media seem to focus on three things.
• Political implications. How will this crash affect relations between America and Iran? Will it hurt Trump’s popularity?
• Engineering analysis. Was there a software glitch? A mechanical fault? A flock of birds sucked into an engine?
• Human interest. Friends and relatives choking their tears. Grieving strangers laying flowers at an impromptu memorial. Politicians offering “thoughts and prayers.”
There’s little on what the victims might have experienced.
That’s natural, when there are no survivors to tell the story. Barring someone’s cellphone video somehow surviving the impact, there is no way that anyone who wasn’t on that plane can know what it was like.
Imagine being a passenger on Air India Flight 182, having your pressurized fuselage disintegrate over the North Atlantic as you neared Ireland in 1985. Or on Pan Am Flight 103 blown up over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988. Or on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, hit by a missile over Ukraine in 2014.
If you survive the blast itself, before you pass out from cold, shock, and oxygen deprivation, you might look down and see the earth, seven miles below you. And know that nothing, not even a miracle, can save you.
What would you be thinking? Or feeling?
You’d have more time for self-analysis on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 out of Addis Ababa, in March 2019. Or on Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia in October 2018. Or Lufthansa’s Germanwings Flight 9525 deliberately flown into a peak in the Alps in 2015.
You’d have the most time on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, apparently diverted over the Indian Ocean until it ran out of fuel.
The popular assumption is that the cabin would be filled with screaming, panicking passengers.
I’m not so sure. Twice, perhaps three times, I’ve been in situations where I expected to die within seconds. I didn’t, obviously. But I don’t recall panic. What I remember is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a deathly calm.
A couple of friends — one riding a plane abruptly recalled for a bomb threat, one who had a near-death medical experience — confirm that feeling.
When there’s nothing you can do, whatever happens is okay. Not welcome, but okay.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking. Maybe I just don’t want to think of my own final moments being a long-drawn-out scream.
I like to think that if it happened to me, I could go out thinking it’s been a good life, thank you.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com. This column appears every week in The Okanagan Weekend.