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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 12, 2007

The common writer
Up, up and away

By Diane Cameron

Illlustration by Forest Byrd

The airline industry is under fire again. Customer surveys report that passengers want more flights, better connections and lower fares, and yes, more security measures. I listen to the criticisms and shake my head.

The past few months I have been in a lot of airplanes and consequently lots of airports. Each time, as I await my boarding call, I take up my usual position with my nose pressed against the windows near at the gate. It’s almost always me and a group of six-year-old boys watching the planes taxi, take off and land. We oooh and aaah as we assess each plane’s trajectory. The adults behind us are reading newspapers and fuming about the delay. It’s one of those times that I’m certain kids are smarter than adults.

I have a fantasy that someday I’ll be brave enough to walk over and take away the newspapers and laptops and say, "You have no idea what’s going on here." Here’s what adults miss about flying: A lot of people get in a big metal box and by moving that box very fast something called "lift" occurs. It’s pretty much a freak of physics—air rushing at two different speeds forces an adjustment in space—and the big box full of people goes up in the air. This metal box travels at 500 miles per hour traversing thousands of miles over land and water and then it comes back down with hardly a bump 99.9 percent of the time.

Modern airplanes are, after all, the safest means of travel available. We are in greater danger on the expressway than the folks flying overhead.

For most of my life I have been in love with airplanes. Years ago I learned to fly so I could do it myself. I’ve memorized the explanation for airfoils, windspeed and drag but I still think it’s a miracle every time a plane takes off.

Not long ago on a flight from Pittsburgh I felt redeemed. In the seat behind me a little boy was watching the take-off from his window seat. As the physical sensations merged with his visual confirmation that we were airborne he let loose a laugh that rolled from the center of his being. It was the wisest and happiest laugh I have ever heard.

Yes, we’re Americans: we’re important and in a hurry. But we miss so much when we live that emotional posture. We claim to love nature but we miss the fact that aerodynamics is part of nature. Air and metal and physics are an amazing combination when they make an airplane fly.

An article last year in The Atlantic Monthly predicted not bigger or faster commercial planes but a system of aviation based on small planes and smaller airports. I’m thrilled to consider a future where we can drive a short distance, skip waiting in lines, and grab one of 10 available seats to get where we’re going. By taking advantage of the network of smaller airports—and moving away from the big airline hubs—we’ll achieve faster, safer and easier travel.

Often friends, who know my love of planes and flying, will say sheepishly, "Oh you must think I’m silly to be afraid of flying." But I don’t. A certain amount of fear is the respect due to this phenomenon and it’s an intuitive acknowledgment of what is happening when an airplane goes—and stays—up.

While a plane can fly because it obeys several simultaneous rules of physics, watch what happens if you drop your pen or this newspaper. It will go down; gravity is a force to be respected.

Yes, I know the delays are miserable and there’s no more food, but this summer, when you fly, and you find yourself waiting, come and join me and the kids at the window. We’ll be watching the planes take off and marveling at part of the natural world so often taken for granted.

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