My earliest brush with death came when I was 12 years old and I had no concept of it at the time. It was one of those strange coincidences that you look back on half terrified and half amused (depending on which parts you’re thinking about, I suppose). It’s a story I sometimes tell whenever the subject of airlines comes up, which given recent events has been quite frequently. I often relate the event with a smile, but deep down I know I feel a great bit of unease about what might have been.

July 17th, 1996 was the day my family and I departed for Paris France.

Some of you may have  put two and two together: I was originally scheduled to be on TWA Flight 800. My family was going to fly into JFK from Phoenix and quickly rush to make our connection en route to Paris. At some point, my parents decided lugging 3 children across JFK in a hurry wasn’t too appealing and my father was able to book us on a flight out of Atlanta headed for Charles De Gaulle with a little more of a layover.

Across the Atlantic, our Parisian friends awoke early the morning of July 18th. Pierre and his wife, Catrine had years ago employed my mother as an au pair in Paris. That evening Pierre was unable to sleep with nightmares of a plane crash. Catrine, finally fed up with his silly dreams, sent him to the living room with orders to watch TV.

You can imagine the surreal horror that awaited him when he clicked on the local news.

I remember a few distinct things from our arrival in Paris. I remember FINALLY getting off the plane. I remember heading into baggage claim and being overwhelmed hearing so many foreign languages. I also remember the tears in Pierre’s eyes when he saw us.

This incident, long filed away by me as just another story, has resurfaced of late. I travel quite a bit for both business and pleasure. As you might imagine, I’ve on occasion had some interesting things happen on flights: aborted landings (frightening, but ultimately a bit routine, as I’ve learned), passengers with health problems, rough landings in weather, etc. However, traveling to St. Louis out of Sky Harbor last summer I experienced something  that changed my relationship with planes – an emergency landing.

Shortly after takeoff (which at this point I’d done hundreds of times on many different carriers and planes) the engine noise on our Airbus became very quiet. I looked out the window and noticed we didn’t seem to be ascending and that the nose of our plane had settled into more of a level cruising angle. The plane began to bank to the right. Level out. Bank to the right. Level out. After the 3rd turn, a general murmur of whispers .

Something was up.

The flight attendant came on. “We appear to be headed back to Phoenix. Stay seated with your seatbelts firmly fastened.”

With such little information (and I in no way blame the flight attendant for conveying only what she knew at the time) my mind feared the worst. For the first time in a plane, I recall being deathly afraid. As we swooped closer to the airport I was able to see fire trucks, ambulances and other flashing lights on the runway. I gripped the seat as hard as I could.

Silence from the cockpit.

I felt the familiar rumble of the landing gear kick out as we made our final approach to the runway. And then- we were down. Just like every other landing I’d had in my years of flying. Routine even.

As it turns out we had an engine failure (just one thank God) at takeoff. The pilots did eventually come on and explain that they were a bit busy up front handling the situation and didn’t have time for a blow by blow account for the benefit of the passengers in back.

This situation is exceedingly rare. My girlfriend’s father who flies weekly has never had one before. But the rational part of my brain that tackles logic and reason had already lost. That fear of not being in control, the fear of being just so damn high above the ground and not understanding a damn thing the pilot was doing had gripped me. And now when I fly, I find myself acutely aware of our altitude, the engine noise, the bumps. The overwhelming feeling of wonderment is gone, replaced instead with my mind in a two horse race: my fear vs my rationality.

As the world ponders the ongoing mystery of whatever happened to Malaysian flight 370, I can’t help but feel that the mystery of aviation to the average person is what fuels the conspiracy theories, the wall to wall news coverage and the fascination. We don’t understand every concept behind how a metal tube gets up to 35,000 feet in the air and lands at ridiculous speeds. And for the average person, they probably don’t want to. Imagine the fatigue that would grip the average person as they listened to hear if the flaps had been lowered, or if the engine had been properly tested etc. etc.

So we trust the mammoth machines and the pilots up front and the unseen mechanics below. And every once in a while we get an aviation mystery, that likely will be solved. Until then, one form of “therapy” if you will has been reading Patrick Smith’s excellent Cockpit Confidential. (click the image below for a link)

Cockpit Confidential


Patrick breaks down every aspect of flight, from takeoff to landing. And, for the curious, he also discusses every major air disaster of the last 30 years. I have it on my kindle and reference it often.

Just last night I was having dinner with my mother and the subject of flight 800 and the Malaysian Airlines mystery came up. As it happens, we were with an aviation expert who collects his paycheck from a major player in the airline world. As we chatted I couldn’t resist asking- what did bring down Flight 800?

“We don’t know. Might have been a missile.”

And like eager viewers huddled around CNN, we listened for his take on it.

And, just one more question- what do you think happened to the Malaysian flight?