Thursday, September 8, 2011


Our new project is now live at

Come visit, read, and contribute a story!

And our co-authored book is now available: Checking In / Checking Out.

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Experiments with Air"

From a series titled "Experiments with Air," here are few poems at Paperbag Magazine.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fear of Poetry @ Propeller Magazine

Today, I am a poet. But as a child I found Dr. Seuss’s books irritating, and I only checked books out of the library because I liked how they decorated my nightstand. In grade and middle school, the only thing I remember reading or writing were love letters, carefully folded in triangles like the flags of remote countries I couldn’t name. And looking back, I believe I only wrote and read those letters because they seemed to be required of my middle class upbringing.

Continue reading...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Airplane Reading @ Defunct Magazine

LET’S BEGIN. What exactly happened to the legendary Pan Am Airlines? In its 60-year run (1930-1991), Pan Am was the first to introduce international service, cabin attendants, emergency safety procedures, cockpit computers, fear of flying courses, and hot meals. Of course, some older folks remember Pan Am very well, but it isn’t much of a stretch to say that in fifty years no one will remember Pan Am except for its logos stamped onto vintage travel bags. For that matter, no one will remember the struggles and wars of the early twenty-first century like we now remember them. Last week, for example and for a reason I can’t recall, I asked my research assistant if he knew the year of the My Lai Massacre. “My who?” he said.

Continue reading...

Notes from an uneventful flying day

1. First time full body scanned (felt sort of like hula hooping without moving, and only once).

2. On my short flight from New Orleans to Houston I notice that Continental planes have "Direct TV" in the back of each headrest: "96 channels" so that one is never bored in flight! Only $6 and a handy swipe of the credit card. Continental flights pride themselves now on being "cash free." This phrase is fascinating for its blatant contradiction: it doesn't exactly mean the plane is free of cash, but rather that it is easier for the plane to generate more cash! In particular, one of the extra things you can pay Continental for is the possibility do work for them in the event of a crash landing or runway skid: you can pay to sit in the emergency row. But back to the TVs. You can turn them off by hitting the bottom left button about 10 times until the screen goes gray-black. Approximately 95% of the screens stay on the entire flight, creating a disturbing horizon for the passenger who chooses not to focus on a single screen. It didn't occur to me while on the plane, but now that I think about it, directly behind the back of my head there was a little flickering screen, entertaining someone else.

3. All the way from Houston to LAX, my seatmate watched a nauseating program that seemed to be solely about prison guards tackling prisoners and pinning them down. This took place over and over, in a variety of drab windowless rooms: a prisoner would do something erratic, and then prison guards would pile on top of the wretched soul. I tried to hold my book up so that it blocked the peripheral view of the repeating scenes of large uniformed men and women driving their knees into the backs and necks of people splatted face down on the floor. This tactic (my tactic, the book block) was hardly effective. My neck is a little cricked this morning from trying to look away. I spent a lot of time watching the tall winglet of the 737-800 dance in light turbulence.

4. Concourse 6 at LAX seemed to be under major interior reconstruction: upon deplaning I noticed that the gate area was a jumble of plywood slats, tarps, and support beams. It looked totally cobbled together. And no one seemed to think it was odd. We all just walked our separate ways.

5. On the progress side of things, there seems to be a belated postmodern new wing being built on one end of the airport. Now after a quick follow up internet search I see it is the Bradley West Terminal, opening in 621 days, I read. Here's a photo from the site:

It looks to be part Saarinen, part Gehry, part Calatrava—and entirely too late. Note how the Airbus A380 dominates the foreground: can airports themselves (the buildings I mean) really inspire people any more? I learn that the new terminal is designed by Fentress Architects, who also designed the Denver airport terminal that looks like a row of tents or like strangely cropped mountain peaks scattered on the plain.

6. On the flight from LAX to YVR, the flight crew gradually modulated their accents, from vaguely Californian to strongly Canadian. This was curious. The plane was a new, leather-seated and TV-free Canadair Regional Jet of the 70-seat variety -- compared to the Continental 737s, it felt like home.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

My brother, airport videographer

Killing time in Detroit's McNamara World Gateway...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Textual Life of Airports

I'm currently finishing my book The Textual Life of Airports, which will be published by Continuum this coming fall.

Here is a brief abstract:

This book is about the common stories of airports that circulate in everyday life, and about the secret stories of airports—the strange or hidden narratives that do not always fit into ordinary notions about these sites. The book considers how airports figure into a U.S. imaginary: as sites where individual identity is confirmed, as places of public display, as contested zones of private space and security, and as complex arenas for nationalism and patriotism. The book also reflects on the philosophic problems that airport narratives house: contradictory senses of time, disoriented feelings of belonging or exile, and confused perceptions of space and place. Ten chapters cumulatively demonstrate how airport stories permeate the culture of flight.

The Textual Life of Airports turns to literature not merely as one form of cultural representation among others; rather, I treat literature as a critical method for thinking about how airports function culturally, socially, psychologically, philosophically—and finally, ecologically. I argue that airports depend on textuality to a great degree, as much as for their straightforward operations (such as the daily performances and narratives that play out all the way from the check-in stand to the departure gate), as for their everyday mysteries and inoperative moments (for instance, how a thousand unique stories can be contained in and canceled out by phrases like “weather delay” and “lost baggage”).

Throughout this book I linger on how airports read, or how they are interpreted in a range of contexts. These readings and interpretations can tell us a lot about how and why humans travel by air: what beliefs humans invest in flight, and what mysteries still lie beneath the sky, on the ground.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

How to Fly

1. Seat selection. For the smoothest ride, sit over the wings. The view may not be great but youll be closest to the planes centers of gravity and lift. Also, research says that passengers sitting toward the back of the plane are 40% more likely to survive a crash.

2. G-forces. These have to do with that blasted thing known as earths gravity (the details are trivial). Most humans can tolerate 5 g before loss of consciousness. If your plane goes into a steep dive and you want to be conscious for the final impact (or recovery), make sure to grunt, shout, and strain your neck muscles as much as possible—in military experiments, these actions have helped compress arteries and keep blood flow going to the head as well as G-suits do.

3. G-spots. If you are considering sexual intercourse in the lavatory, in order to become a member of the mile-high club, I advise instead making a visit to a hotel in Denver and extrapolating the difference. On the hotel bed, or in the hotel bathroom, try to get into positions that one could only attain in the cramped seats (dont forget about the armrests), or in an aircraft lavatory (sit, stand, or kneel?).

4. Mayday. There are a variety of ways to call for help if your airplane has an emergency. The most familiar is probably mayday. But you have to say it three times—mayday, mayday, mayday—so your message doesnt get confused with another. You can also say pan pan pan or pan-pan, pan-pan but this is only for a state of urgency, not imminent disaster, and it sounds a little too childlike for a serious situation. Finally, you can say declaring emergency which means the same as mayday, but sounds perhaps too formal for the occasion. If you cant remember any of these, don’t worry youll probably do the same as most people in the cockpit as the plane goes down. The most frequently heard last word from cockpit voice recordings is, if nothing else, the most accurate: shit. (Apparently, motherfucker takes too long to say in a real emergency, and fuck alone is too offensive.)

5. Dress. In case you are in a plane that crashes, youll want to dress properly. While flying over large bodies of water, wear wool; it insulates better than cotton or polyester. Do not wear flip-flops, fur stoles, or capes, which can easily snag on the pesky edges of wreckage. Finally, no neckties (strangulation) and no pantyhose (flammable).

6. Survival. If you crash in a remote, tropical environment and may have to wander through the jungle for days or weeks, dont bother with deodorant, which can cause strange rashes or attract large insects and lead to infection and death. For mountainous crashes, remember that the bows of a thick evergreen can provide good shelter from hard snows and wind. For crashes in arctic waters, use old sea ice for water. This ice has a blue hue and rounded corners and is largely salt-free. Water from icebergs is fresh, but icebergs are dangerous if you get too close.

7. Water landing. For any kind of water landing, be careful not to undo your seatbelt right away. Its the automatic thing to do, but a lot of people have died because they released the seatbelt and then were pushed around the planes interior by the in-rush of water and got disoriented. Wait for the water to arrive and level off, then undo the seatbelt and head for the exit. If you cant swim for shore, hold onto a piece of wreckage and dont think about sharks.

8. Emergency landing. A few years ago Wired magazine ran a piece on how to land a commercial airliner in case both pilots were incapacitated (food poisoning was the example used). In varying degrees of detail, the article said to: 1) call for help; 2) set the autopilot; 3) program your approach; 4) prepare for landing; and, 5) brake carefully. This is really complicated shit, of course, so be prepared to offer moral support, in the way of grunts, shouts, and screams, to whichever passenger has been chosen to carry out these important tasks.

9. Reading. Just as airplanes connect humans through space and time, books connect humans through space and time. When you see someone on an airplane reading a book, know that they are vulnerable not only because they are on an airplane but because they are reading a book on an airplane. This is a double vulnerability on which you should look kindly. If the plane becomes vulnerable, you should hold onto this persons hand—it will become more like your own than you can ever imagine.

10. Evolution. Never underestimate all the human beings it has taken to get to you: your will to survive has a tragically long history, only a small portion of which has been in air.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cell Phone Lot

I first saw the sign about a year after the storm. I thought it indicated a place where you might go to buy, sell, or recycle old cellphones. I was in a rush on my way to a job interview at Loyola University, where I now teach, so I couldn’t pull over to investigate. But on the way back out of town, I turned into the lot and discovered that it affords a tremendous view of the airport. You can see the tower clearly, even on a foggy day, and the planes come in only a couple of hundred feet above your car before they land on the north-south runway.

The airport was first called Moisant Field after John Moisant, an aviation pioneer who died in a crash on the airfield at age 37. (The day before he died, Moisant raced his monoplane against a Packard and lost.) In 1962, the airport was renamed New Orleans International Airport, and in 2001, it was renamed again to Louis Armstrong International Airport. Second only to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport at 11 feet below sea level, Louis Amstrong is 4 feet above the water line.

Essentially across the street from the airport is the cell phone lot. Located at the corner of Airline Drive and Hollandey Street, the lot is a large trapazoidal patch of cement, roughly 200’ x 300’, circumscribed by a chain-link fence. No one seems to patrol the lot which, I believe, is because the airport doesn’t really need one. The cell phone lot was introduced into many airports a few years after 9/11 when you could no longer park curbside and had to endlessly circle arrivals and various airport roadways until your party popped out the doors of baggage claim. George Bush Intercontinental in Houston has a cell phone lot of more than 1000 car spaces, though the lot is called the “Passenger Pickup Waiting Lot.” La Guardia in New York has no such lot and instead hundreds of cars park on the shoulders of roadways or get in line for the mile-long crawl to baggage claim. Whether an airport has a cell phone lot or not seems to depend not on need but on available space. In New Orleans, the airport is only a 20 to 30 minute ride from downtown, and there’s really not that much car traffic in and out of arrivals. But obviously there was space, so in fall 2006 the sign went up.

What I do in the lot might be called ostensibly “aircraft spotting.” But the term doesn’t fit, for example, Wikipedia’s definition:

Aircraft spotting or plane spotting is the observation and logging of the registration numbers of aircraft: gliders, powered aircraft, balloons, airships, helicopters, and microlights. The purpose of this is unknown.

I observe, yes, but I don’t log information, per se, and that last sentence implies that what I do is ominous or incriminating; for the “unknown” is always a threat to someone.

I try to avoid the lot during late morning and early evening when it fills with taxis, most of whose drivers seem to be there to chat with one another. I would guess that some of the taxi drivers recognize me and wonder if I’m casing the airport in order one day to shoot down a plane with a shoulder-rocket.

One time a taxi driver pulled up parallel to my car. He rolled down his passenger’s side window and yelled “Good morning!”

I don’t know if he had seen me before in the lot and wondered why I am frequently there, or if he was simply bored. He was the cheery sort, and we talked—or rather yelled back and forth—a while about the weather, which is always a more serious conversation here than in other cities. He finally asked who I was waiting for.

“My wife.”

“Where’s she coming from?”

“New York.”

I thought it a bit odd that he was taking an interest in my wife’s travel itinerary. Then he began telling me about his wife and two kids back in Egypt—how he’d moved to New Orleans ten years ago, and now had a nice little house (“with backyard and two-car garage”) in Mississippi.

“You drive in from Gulfport with your taxi?”

“Steady airport fares all day long.”

He talked more about his family. His wife had been ill, on and off, back in Alexandria, but he couldn’t return home. It seemed he’d made his peace with having two homes—one here in the present, and one there in the past: He hadn’t been back to Egypt since he left.

“My son and daughter are now teenagers.” He said it without any desire for sympathy.

But I couldn’t help thinking to myself: What in hell do I ever have to complain about? And what am I doing out here at the fucking airport anyway?

I was about to start the car.

He reached up for something in his sun visor: a photo of his kids.

I reciprocated by taking out my cellphone which had a photo of my son holding his Fischer-Price airplane in the bathtub.

“Do you know the game ‘airplane’?” I said.

I explained that over and over I used to watch my wife play airplane with our baby son, pushing him up with her feet against his torso, and how I was always too worried about his getting hurt to do it myself.

He nodded, and handed the phone back to me.

“Of course,” I said, “our son loved playing airplane, especially when my wife intentionally crashed the plane—him—onto the bed. That’s the whole point of the game.”

He said something, but I continued: “One night, we were playing in his room, and he picked up that Fischer-Price airplane.” I motioned to it on the phone. “He cradled it, and then began rocking it in his arms singing Rock-a-bye baby, in the all honesty, at that moment, I don’t know whether I felt more tenderness for him or for the plane.”

I expected him to think I was a total lunatic, but he just smiled. He probably didn’t know the lullaby.

He said something about his wife, but I couldn’t understand him over the roar of an incoming plane. I began to feel a bit guilty about lying, so I told him I wasn’t actually waiting for my wife, but that I liked to watch the planes take off and land. And then that sounded a little juvenile, so I told him about my fear.

He said that he’d been on a plane only once, and didn’t really know if he had a fear of flying. Then, with his thumb, he pointed up to the sky.

But I didn’t see or hear a plane.

“There’s an African legend,” he said, thumb still midair, “that says long ago the sky used to be closer to us—so close you could reach up and touch it. But then, at mealtime people began using the sky as a napkin. The gods moved it higher and higher and finally out of reach.”

It didn’t make me feel any better. But it was a good story, one that I’ve repeated in the classroom whenever my students are having a hard time understanding why I believe myths and legends are still important, or why I am afraid to fly.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Steven Slater

This is the story of Steven Slater, the disrespected flight attendant who deployed his aircraft's emergency exit slide, grabbed a beer from the galley, and hollered "It's been great!" as he jumped out of the plane and left his job for good.

And this is David Sedaris in last week's New Yorker, ruminating on the culture of air travel: "But what if this is who we truly are, and the airport’s just a forum that allows us to be our real selves, not just hateful but gloriously so?"

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Art of Flight

Recently, I was doing research at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, and I came across the above typescript page. It's from Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, which won the National Book Award in 1985 and became the book that propelled DeLillo to fame as a post-modern writer. (For anyone who is interested, you can see this and his other papers at the Center. But as is custom in special collections, you may bring only an eraser-less pencil into the reading room and only staff will be allowed to make copies of manuscript pages.)

Although the page above is from a passage that never made it into the published book, it is vintage DeLillo. Here is the entire passage typed-out:
The plane bounced off the turf and came down again a quarter-mile away, grazing one car on busy State Highway 114 and demolishing a second car, whose driver was decapitated. The plane skipped across a grassy field, ricocheted off a water tower, then burst into flames as it slid across the tarmac. "It was like a wall of napalm," said Airline Mechanic Jerry Maximoff. The tail section, with one of the plane's three engines and the last ten rows of seats, was the only recognizable part of the wreckage.

Somehow 31 people, including three flight attendants, initially survived the impact and subsequent inferno. "It was all sunshine until we actually started coming down," said Jay Slusher, 33, a computer programmer who was going to catch another plane for his home in Phoenix. "Then the rain started, very heavy. It became so dark you couldn't even see out the windows. The ride got rougher and rougher. It seemed like there was something on top of the plane, pushing it to the ground. The pilot tried to pull out of it. The speed of the engines increased. We started rocking back and forth. Then we were tossed all around. I saw an orange streak coming toward me on the left side of the floor. I thought we were going to explode. At that point, I said, 'Well, it's all over.' The next thing that happened is that I ended up sitting in my seat on my side. I looked up and I could see the grass. I said, 'Thank you, Lord,' unbuckled my seat belt and jumped out."

Gilbert Green, 21, a football player at Florida State University, was sitting on the right side of the plane as the fire broke out. "It started to singe my arm," he recalled. "Right then the plane broke in half and I was shot out of the way of the fire. [The fuselage] broke off right in front of me. All the seats in front of me went the other way." Most of the survivors were in the smoking section. Said one: "That's the first time a cigarette ever saved my life." Even two dogs in the rear cargo section were saved.

Rescue workers toiled at first in a nearly horizontal driving rain. They placed yellow sheets over the dead, quickly assessed the severity of survivors' injuries and warned area hospitals by radio about what type of cases to expect. The Rev. Richard Brown, who was giving last rites to the victims, was startled when he saw the stomach of one, a baby, "going up and down." He baptized the infant instead and alerted medics, but the child later died. Most of the injured were taken by helicopter or ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where doctors had tried to save John F. Kennedy in 1963. Officials were heartened by the local response to appeals for blood donations. Some 1,500 people lined up to give.

As night fell, a large crane lifted pieces of wreckage in the search for bodies. Four were found under the landing gear. Floodlights illuminated the scene, which included the grotesque sight of corpses being loaded into refrigerator trucks labeled LIVE MAINE LOBSTERS. All three members of the cockpit crew were killed. The pilot, Captain Ted Connors, 57, had flown for Delta for 31 years. One passenger survived because she made a lucky decision. Assigned a front seat before takeoff from Fort Lauderdale, Annie Edwards, of Pompano Beach, Fla., shifted to a rear seat beside a friend, Juanita Williams. Both survived. They were among a group of women going to Dallas to attend a convention of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority. Other passengers were heading for Los Angeles, the flight's last stop. Friends checking the arrivals list there found a curt message: "Flight 191. See agent."
Despite how gripping this writing is, DeLillo decided to kill it—in fact, the plane in his book never crashes, it merely loses all engine power for a few minutes and then makes a successful emergency landing. The passengers stand around the airport unable to quite leave, opting instead to recount their story of near death: “They were not yet ready to disperse, to reinhabit their earthbound bodies, but wanted to linger with their terror, keep it separate and intact for just a while longer.” The near fatal plane crash, thus, is a bond forged out of air, but embodied in people; it is an averted experience that yet throws bare life into stark relief.

What if the emergency landing hadn't gone very well, and some of these passengers actually suffered terrible deaths—wouldn't that have made a better story? Apparently, DeLillo thought otherwise. And this is where, it would seem, fiction cannot compete with real-life, because the above passage is not unpublished DeLillo; it's the Time magazine article about Delta Flight 191 that crashed on landing at Dallas-Forth Worth Airport on August 2, 1985.

Why did I type up part of the magazine article on my old Underwood, spill coffee on it, crumple it up, and deliberately mislead you, Dear Reader? To prove a point: this piece of journalism sounds as much like a post-modern novel as anything going today. But don't take my word for it—read the Time article yourself. Just beware: for some odd reason it's dated April 18, 2005, almost 20 years after the crash.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I was recently reading an article in Newsweek in the doctor’s office, which is probably the only place I read magazines like Newsweek anymore. The article was about silence, and its general tenor was a lament for the lack of silence in everyday life. I started to think about silence in my life and concluded that one of the few places I am bequeathed silence is in flight. No cell phone, no Internet, and very few distractions from others. (Though this may change as airlines are increasingly offering in-flight Wi-Fi and potentially cell phone coverage.)

But the silence on a plane isn’t quite silence of course. There is that constant roar-cum-hum of engines and air blasting. When I reflect on my twenty years of regular flight, I have to admit that I am more silent than I used to be. I remember engaging in long, if not interesting, conversations with fellow passengers. Sometimes by the end of a cross-country flight, I’d learn the entire life story of my seatmate—or they’d learn mine. But honestly I can’t recall the last time that happened—five years ago, ten? Now, I try not to talk to people. I prefer to sit there quietly, either to be bored or terrified, without interruption. If I am flying without my wife and child, I will put on my headphones even if my iPod is turned off. Perhaps this could all be racked up to my getting older and no longer interested, as I once was, in the possibilities of having sex at 35,000 feet with a stranger in the plane’s lavatory.

And when I consider the strangest silence inside a plane it is, in fact, in a lavatory. (Does anyone use the word “lavatory” anywhere but on a plane?) When I enter that tight space, I often perceive that I am and am not on a plane. Or at least I try not to think of being on a plane, because dying in a toilet during an air catastrophe is my equivalent to being buried alive.

Usually I only have to urinate in the lavatory, as I’ve left my nerve-turd in some john in the airport terminal before boarding. After I unzip, I hold onto something—the handy rail-like grip or the wall, in a kind of isometrics stance so that when I pee I won’t splash too much. The stream of urine pelts the inside of the mini-toilet bowl punctuating the eerie semi-silence, and for a moment I am comforted in the thought that God won’t let my plane go down with my penis flailing about. Because even if my prayers to God have always been met with silence, God, I reason, is supposed to be a decent guy.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Real Poetry

It may be apocryphal, but I’ve heard that pilots and surgeons have similar psychological profiles—they are aggressive, self-assured, contain a store of vast technical knowledge, intimidating. And whether or not it is factually true, the comparison does make sense. These are people we give great, blind trust to every day, unflinchingly. Our lives are literally in their hands, and very rarely do we even remember their names after the procedure or flight. It takes a certain amount of ego to name a piece “Real Poetry,” and Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich earn that cheekiness as they constantly dazzle us through this piece’s pure expanse and its technical dexterity. The reader is constantly confronted with all of these aforementioned traits—traits that can be extended to the essayist and poet. “Real Poetry” is a collaboration in aviation that doesn’t ask for your trust because it doesn’t need it. It knows exactly what it’s doing. Relax—you’re in good, capable hands.

—Nik de Dominic in his introduction to our piece “Real Poetry” at The Offending Adam

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Real Reporting

This is real reporting:

Clinton Has Plane Trouble, Hitches Ride Home

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) -- Even when you have your own plane, sometimes you get stuck in the airport.

That's what happened to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday, when mechanical trouble grounded her and her traveling party in Saudi Arabia.

Fortunately, if you are the top U.S. diplomat, you can hitch a pretty sweet ride. Gen. David Petraeus happened to be in the neighborhood, and he's stopping to pick her up. Petraeus was in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Clinton was a couple hours away in Jeddah.

Clinton told reporters that the government jet she uses has developed a fuel valve problem and could not be repaired quickly. She is leaving most of her traveling party behind.

Metaphors and metonyms:

"airport": Clinton was surely not sitting in an Eames Tandem seat, stuck listening to announcements as other flights boarded;

"sweet ride": airplane ≠ automobile;

"neighborhood": Saudi Arabia consolidated, minimized and thereby controlled by suburban logic;

"party": these political adventures are not all fun and games.

I'm not sure how this style of writing qualifies as 'news'. I think that the subject of air travel has created—gradually, almost imperceptibly—a new genre of reportage. It is a kind of writing that gets caught on lines of flight, like an eye that catches a spot in the sky and follows it, until it becomes a delta shaped airplane...or until it vanishes on the horizon. Such writing can be incredibly flighty, trying to track, as it were, moving targets. And when these targets themselves are targeting from above, it makes the task of writing all the more difficult.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Concorde

As I have become increasingly afraid to fly, I have also become increasingly knowledgeable about flight. Until recently, for example, I thought that the Concorde was the first supersonic passenger plane. It was, however, the Soviets who beat the British and French on that score, just as they had beaten the Americans into space.

The prototype of the Tupolev Tu-144 flew for the first time on December 31, 1968, a few months before the prototype of the Concorde. But the Tu-144 flew fewer than 60 passenger flights and was retired in 1978. The Concorde, on the other hand, flew more than 40,000 flights between 1976 and 2003. The aircraft's maximum ceiling was 60,000 feet and its maximum speed was Mach 2.2 (about 1450 mph). At one time, a total of 20 planes were in service.

The only crash of the Concorde was on July 25, 2000. Air France Flight 4590 crashed on take-off from Paris with destination New York. The official report on the crash cites a Foreign Object of Debris (FOD) as the cause and not an inherent problem with the aircraft. The FOD in question was a titanium strip (3 cm by 50 cm), part of a thrust reverser, that fell from a Continental Airlines DC-10 which had taken off four minutes ahead of the Concorde.

Ninety-six Germans, two Danes, one Austrian, and one American died in the crash. Perhaps strange, perhaps not—the plane carried no French passengers. And although the official report was later disputed, two Continental mechanics and three others have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and, after nearly ten years, are going on trial today.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Crash / Landing

A crash landing at Newark came with the stunning image of yet another runway slide:

One of the rear sets of landing gear failed to open, and so the Airbus 319 had to touch down on the front and one rear set of wheels, and then skid to a stop on its wing-mounted engine. Sparks flew. Everyone survived, but one can only imagine the mindset of the passengers as the plane was on final approach.

And so we find ourselves back in Don DeLillo's White Noise, in which a plane is caught in a sharp descent, with no power:
Certain elements in the crew had decided to pretend it was not a crash but a crash landing that was seconds away. After all, the difference between the two is only one word. Didn't this suggest that the two forms of flight termination were more or less interchangeable? How much could one word matter?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Jamaican Slide

The holiday season of 2009 delivered its first of several strange plane events in the shape of a runway slide in Jamaica.

The reporting around the runway mishap in Jamaica included the following ironies:

1. The American Airlines flight from Miami had experienced heavy turbulence, and when the plane finally touched down, the passengers clapped; at that point the aircraft began to skid, and the passengers began to scream. This was an unpleasant reminder that the air is not always the most dangerous part of flight—sometimes the ground is just as slippery.

2. When the plane reached the end of the runway, skidding, it "smashed through a perimeter fence" and then came to rest in a "sandy embankment." Perimeter fences around airports are designed to keep nefarious people out. But perhaps we need more airports designed with safety nets to keep planes in, as well. (There was a design in the 1920s for an airfield that was to be situated on top of skyscrapers, replete with safety nets hanging below to catch planes that overshot the elevated landing strips—given the recent runway slides, maybe this is not such a bad idea.)

3. When the plane came to a halt, the "lights went out, and suitcases and bags popped out of the overhead bins and fell onto passengers." This scene is right out of any number of movies that show flimsy overhead bins flapping open and bags bouncing out, comically. But seriously, overhead bins are supposed to keep carry-on baggage contained—most importantly during emergencies. So it is ironic that amidst the pandemonium of a runway slide, the oft-troped overhead bins would fail, too, adding a little bit of slapstick comedy to a terrifying situation.

4. The Jamaican slide was no less dramatic for how the Boeing 737 reportedly came to a stop "10-15 feet from the sea and boulders"—I want to know more details about this scene. How did it feel to deplane out of the emergency exits and hear the surf booming so close by? And was this encounter with the nighttime sea, for anyone on the plane, a pleasant if sudden reminder that they had indeed arrived at their vacation destination?

5. One passenger, Natalie Morales-Hendricks, was quoted as describing the incident as such: “We just buckled and bumped... It was like being in a car accident." The irony here exists at the convergence of cars and planes—these are two utterly distinct contemporary mobilities that keep finding odd resonances. Thus BMW advertises their new backseat configuration as "First Class," and the Northwest pilots who overshot the Minneapolis airport in October were compared to car drivers texting. This suggests something about the inability to recognize uniqueness—and plane crashes much be maintained as unique in order to justify the intensity of airport security and the sanctity of the airliner as a symbol of freedom. Yet even here, on the Jamaican tarmac, the harrowing experience gets gobbled up by the familiar and mundane: "like being in a car accident."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Overnight on the Tarmac

Today's strange plane event is in The New York Times: "A Night Spent on the Tarmac, With No Complaints."

It makes an especially nice pairing with a top story of the moment:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

American One

Since our son was born my wife and I have seen exactly three movies. We simply can’t make it through an hour-and-a-half or two-hour movie without nodding off. And because we’re almost always too tired to read before bed (what we did previous to our son’s arrival), we have found watching an episode of a TV series an indispensable nightly ritual. Our son is now two-and-a-half years old, which means we’ve run through innumerable series—from Six Feet Under to The Forsyte Saga to Magnum P.I. (okay, sometimes my taste isn’t very discerning).

Our latest fascination is with Mad Men. I’m not that interested in ad men or in the scenes of early 1960s New York City. But the dialogue is so sharp and smart that I wasn’t surprised when the first episode of the second season featured the main character reading, and later reciting, from the poet Frank O’Hara’s collection Meditations in an Emergency. Frank O’Hara is not only the right poet for the job (he wrote quintessential “city” poems), but he is also the first poet I was obsessed with. In fact, it’s not O’Hara’s city poems that interest me as much as his love poems, which, by turns, play sentimentalism off banality and surrealism off realism. I would even go so far as to argue that O’Hara is the greatest love poet of the twentieth century—though most poetry readers know him almost exclusively for his “I do this, I do that” poems, often thought of as simple, random lists written while walking the streets of Manhattan.

Mad Men is anything but simple. In the second episode of the second season, the precipitating event is a plane crash. And not any plane crash. American Airlines Flight 1 took off from Idlewild Airport (today’s JFK) on March 1, 1962, in clear skies. Two minutes later the plane nose-dived into Jamaica Bay. Despite many being famous millionaires, none of the 95 passengers and crew survived. In the Mad Men episode, two of the ad bosses walk into the agency that morning to find all their employees in a massive football-style huddle. It is an eerie moment for the viewer, not only because everyone is huddled up (around what turns out to be a radio), but because everyone is taking the news as if a loved one had been on the plane. Or maybe, it is more important that they are huddled up around one media device, not football-style but campfire-style. On the entire floor of a Manhattan ad agency, that little boxy radio was their only link to outside news; it is a quaint sight considering even the most mundane or remote office floor today.

As a plane crash, American Airlines Flight 1 isn’t very interesting. As an example of the reporting around a plane crash, it’s fascinating. “Tragedy in Jamaica Bay” reads the headline of the March 9, 1962 issue of Time magazine. “It was ideal flying weather” is the first line. The same day “American One” (as the doomed plane is called) crashes, John Glenn is given a ticker tape parade in New York City for being the first American to orbit the earth.

Here is a passage from the article:

A minute after the crash, it lay like a giant, shattered fish just beneath the transparent waters of the bay, with scattered debris and flakes of aluminum skin glinting on the tufts of marshland. The only signs of life were clouds of wheeling sea gulls, roused from a nearby bird sanctuary, and a dozen helicopters that whirled to the scene like a swarm of dragonflies.

If I were teaching this piece, I would draw my students’ attention to the sheer amount of figurative language in the description. The plane is described as a giant, shattered fish—a fish, but first turned enormous, and then solidified into something that could be shattered. Scale and material are warped along with the main subject in question; in crashing, the plane has left the figurative ground. The fishiness continues with the “flakes of aluminum skin glinting on the tufts of marshland”—we are in a phantasmagorical nether region, between land and sea, fallen from the air. The imagery becomes even stranger: disturbed sea gulls become “wheeling” clouds (to mix metaphors atmospheric and machinic), and helicopters become “a swarm of dragonflies”—the plane crash has landed us humans in a world where categories of the human and non-human collapse, and everything is subject to dramatic revision.

What is so interesting and somewhat naive sounding about this Time article is the tone of near disbelief: To acknowledge the reality that a new, cutting edge aircraft could—gasp—crash! The innocence both soothes and piques my interest, until the article arrives at a familiar trope that I thought only got bastardized in the late 1990s: irony.

Ironically, 17 passengers had transferred to American One at the last moment, when a United Air Lines flight was canceled.

What exactly is “ironic” about a flight being canceled and passengers being rerouted? This happens everyday. Nearly avoided crashes do not always constitute irony any more than crashes consummated. When we sense an intriguing or inexplicable coincidence we often call it “ironic,” when we really just want to say “what an intriguing and inexplicable coincidence.”

It is this same impetus, I believe, that is behind what my college religion professor termed “God of the gaps.” Whenever a certain phenomenon or event can’t be explained or accounted for, people often attribute it to God until at some point it is demystified. The article ends by stating that the crash “may keep its secrets hidden forever in the muck of Jamaica Bay.” Perhaps at some point in the future someone will stumble upon one of those secrets—of its 25,000 acres of marshland, the bay is losing about 40 acres per year.

In the end, the Time article about the crash seems more distant than the crash itself. The article foregrounds the fact that there were multiple millionaires on the flight—is that, finally, what made it a “tragedy”? And yet, there I am at the end of the Mad Men episode—my wife in the bathroom brushing her teeth and our toddler fast asleep in our bed—turning on the computer. I’ve done my research on American Airlines Flight 1, and now it’s time to check eBay again—I’ve been watching dozens of auctions for weeks now, trying to find a good deal on a Fisher-Price airplane from the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Three weeks later I will get a box in the mail with a plastic airplane made in 1980 (it won’t be as nice as the earlier models but it’ll be far less expensive). And I will have to teach our son not to kick the plane against the wall, but to zoom it on the floor and then up in the air around the room. No matter how many lessons, though, he will prefer to use the plane in the bathtub, and he will teach me that better than the vintage Fisher-Price houseboat, which I spent too much money on a month ago, the plane will indeed float.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Little Airplane Reader

Look at this little airplane reader:

He's in his own little world, buckled in and flying along, reading about dinosaurs. He looks like a miniature man, settled in to a little workaday routine...not so much on vacation as concentrating on distraction, just getting through another flight, on his way to somewhere to close a mini-deal, perhaps purchasing a large quantity of small brontosauruses that will be shipped back in the belly of the plane on the boy's return flight. He's ready for adulthood, or already there: just look at that face, that angle of relaxation and the way that his lap-belt is secured but not too tight, the tail end flipped ever so carelessly across his jean-clad thigh. Out the window and far below lies the world, where dinosaurs once roamed, and where other children suckle and crawl, waiting to fly.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Angel of Flight

I am not at all afraid to fly. But last night, I was afraid in flight.

The plane was descending into the New Orleans area, and the dips, drops, and buckling caused by wind gusts were enough to make my hands sweat. I couldn't help but watch the all too flimsy looking wing whipping up and down out my window. Every time the little light blinked at the tip of the wing, I got a momentary glimpse of rain pellets being driven sideways. The ground looked so, so far away: cozy homes dotted by soft yellow lights, petite streets with silent cars and trucks, the reflective bayous—all rendered targets from this perverse missile-perspective of the plane-about-to-lose-its wings. My hands sweated more.

It is in times like these that I pray to the angel of flight. I first learned of the angel of flight at the Sacramento airport, when I saw a statue of it next to a random wheelchair—as if it had healed someone and, biblically, the person had risen and walked away:

I think about the angel of flight, I think about that empty wheelchair, and I know that everything will be okay, because the angel of flight watches over everyone, or most people, most of the time, excluding fatal crashes, in which case the angel of flight is not to be considered. But in this moment, crashing through clouds into the stormy orange glow of New Orleans, I found myself worshiping, reverently, the angel of flight.

The truth is that I don't know the name or meaning of that statue at the Sacramento airport, and I did not pray last night as the Airbus buckled. I sat there thinking about my life, about what I would miss if I were to die, and about what it would feel like to crash. I wondered if I should move away from my window seat, if I should put my USB drive into my pocket in case I had to do a duck-and-roll move to escape the skidding, burning wreckage of the fuselage, in order to protect the work that I'd done over the past few days. I basically thought these thoughts until the plane touched down; and then I thought about all the other things in life that get put on pause in flight.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Plane Crash Test Dummies

Take a long look at these plane crash test dummies:

On the one hand, they look comfortable—as if they are relaxed or meditating. On the other hand, they look tight-necked, blissed-out, preparing for impact, ready to meet their maker.... Now that I examine them more closely, why aren’t they hunched over in crash position? And how come no one is holding that baby!

This photo is from a test plane (Boeing 720 set for retirement after 20,000 flight hours) that was crashed in the Mohave Desert on December 1, 1984. Through the FAA, the Secretary of Transportation sponsored the test which was to determine, among other things, energy-absorbing seat designs and improved cabin fire safety. The plane was flown by remote control, and an anti-misting kerosene (jet fuel) was used to prevent any post-crash fire. But the crash landing didn’t go as planned. The engine on the left wing hit the ground first, the plane yawed, and a fireball erupted inside the cabin. Despite the fact that firefighters took about two hours to put the fire out, the FAA estimated that about 19 of the 53 passengers might have survived.

There is no information as to whether or not the baby lived or died.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Into the Great Wide Open

I am on a trip to Washington D.C. for the American Studies Association annual meeting.

At the New Orleans airport, drinking a Naked juice and waiting for my flight to board. It will be the first time I’ve flown on an Embraer 170 regional jet, and I wonder: what will happen? What new sensations will I have, unfamiliar to my Airbus and Boeing mind? Settling into my seat, I hear a new noise: the armrest that divides the two seats slams down—no thin rubber shock absorber—making a jolting POP as metal hits metal. That seems low-tech. Then: I’m in a ‘window seat’ without a window. 9A and 9F, apparently, are absent windows even though they are, technically, ‘window seats’. Are these bad omens?

The plane taxis, and I hear familiar lurching and whirring sounds. At the end of the runway, the engines rev to maximum thrust, we go down the runway, and we are in the air. Everything is fine, a takeoff like normal—if taking off at well over 100 miles per hour and rocketing into the sky can be called ‘normal’.

A little turbulence, but otherwise an uneventful flight, made doubly uneventful because of my windowless window seat. So, instead of looking out at the lights of towns below (because I can't), I work on an article I’m trying to finish.

The plane lands with the traditional BUMP-bump. We taxi to the gate. I see Washington Dulles out the window, getting closer: it is long and sleek, a little concrete wave blinking with lights, thank you Eero Saarinen. But we taxi past it—way way past it. We arrive at our gate, at which point I think I must have gotten disoriented and that we must have circled around. But no: we are in a separate concourse. I only learn this, though, after tromping down a very gradual decline, a carpeted hillside, following the signs that say BAGGAGE CLAIM to the point where I have to board a gigantic, wide bus. This bus, which is called a "transit lounge" by an announcement overhead, looks like it’s out of Star Wars. We wait until it is jam-packed with passengers and their constantly tipping-over roller-bags, at which point it pulls away from the concourse and roves toward the terminal building, sounding eerily like it has jet engines.

Then, a long taxi ride to my hotel. My taxi driver visits Michigan every summer, so we have that to talk about. I ask him if he has ever visited the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes; he tells me about he prefers to drink vodka in a motel pool near St. Ignace.

Dropped off at the hotel, you find yourself turned from an I to a you. You find yourself too tired to find exciting food down the block, and so you end up in the hotel restaurant, eating a “Cheddar Steak Burger” and drinking enormous glasses of an Argentinean cabernet sauvignon. You find yourself tapping your feet absurdly along to Tom Petty. You find that you know the words, culled from 15 years ago or more. You find yourself missing your mate, and your cats. You find yourself thinking, what a strange plane event.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Strange Plane Events

From crashes to lost baggage, from views of the tarmac to toy planes, from terrorist threats to toilets at 37,000 feet, this blog accounts for the strange plane events of our lives.

This blog has two authors: one is so afraid of flying that he breaks into a cold-sweat the minute he steps into an airport. The other used to work for an airline—so, when he sees a Canadair Regional Jet, he sees 50 or 70 seat-back pockets to clean out, and a pile of SkyMall catalogs to replenish. In other words, this blog will run the gamut, from the dramatic extremes to the mundane details of our great age of flight.