Wednesday, May 31, 2006

New York City trip - Part I: Fear of Flying

OK, so here is the first part of a brief (yeah, right - serialized summary of the New York City trip with going off on tangents and everything else that blog-posts are supposed to do.

Thursday, May 25th.

The Flight or Fright syndrome

I have not been on an airplane since 2000 and, as you know, everything changed on 9/11, especially for the cowards and for the "it can't happen in America" crowd who could not see it coming.

As a kid, I used to fly a lot - at least a couple of times a year, on old chubby Caravellas, the brand new DC-9s and once even on an ancient propeller-driven Convair (we had to hold our suitcases on our laps since there is no baggage hold on that plane). I always loved flying and had great fun.

Then, as a teenager, I traveled mainly by train - the EuroRail pass is a great invention: for a relatively small amount of money you get a ticket which allows you to board any train anywhere and travel everywhere around Europe for a month or two during the summer. After a few years of that, when I got on an airplane again, I realized I was scared - I was old enough to realize and appreciate my own mortality and the knowledge of traffic fatality statistics did not do much to alleviate the irrational fear.

Since then, I flew only occasionally. In 1995 we went to Belgrade via Paris. This was a little gap in the sanctions so, apart from the white UN airplanes delivering food for refugees in Bosnia, there were only two, freshly installed flights into Belgrade (the other one from Vienna). So, the DC-9 from Paris to Belgrade did not have a regular slot at the boarding gate. We were shuttled on a bus to the airplane somewhere at the edge of the airport. Once we boarded, the pilot drove the airplane for about 20 minutes over roads and bridges, between the fields, to a distant landing strip which, apparently, was a tad bit short for a DC-9 so the pilot used the "Russian take-off" method - revving the angine to the max while holding the brake, then suddenly releasing the brake and we're off - straight up into the air! Having to fly around the still-dangerous skies of Croatia made the trip a little longer, but at least we could descend and fly at a very low altitude all the way from Hungary to Belgrade, watching the houses, people and fields of the Vojvodina plain, then recognizing the buildings of Belgrade as we approached the airport. That wild ride did not do much to alleviate my fear.

In 1999, I went to two conferences in a row - one in Washington DC, the other in Oxford, UK. On my way back from England I had to go via DC again. The airplane from DC to Raleigh was a tiny little propeller-engine thingie with hard wooden seats. I was the only one awake, as the Fort Brag marines on the flight promptly fell asleep even before the take-off. What was scary about it was that we were flying straight into hurricane Dennis, so the airplane was being tossed around and I was watching endless lightnings hit the wing on my side. Needless to say, that flight did not do much to boost my confidence.

In 2000 I went to Chicago and that was a really nice pair of flights that helped me a little bit. This flight, last week to and from NYC, helped me again. I was still nervous during take-off, but once we were up in the air, I had fun looking around and trying to figure out "where are we now", as well as watching the NYC landmarks as we approached. I actually enjoyed the landings, especially the one at La Guardia, where you fly low over water and once you finally get to the dry land your wheels are already touching the ground. That made my wife nervous - she'd like to see where she's landing, but she took to heart what I told her: if you can see the landing strip just before landing, you are in deep trouble - it should be straight ahead, visible only to the pilot.

Kids liked the flying, I think, especially on the way back when it was already "old stuff" for them. Coturnix Jr. flew with us to Belgrade when he was 2 years old and does not really remember it. This was the first time for Coturnietta. They did not mind taking their shoes off at security because they never experienced the airports before 9/11. On the way there, the security guy swabbed the inside of one of our backpacks with a little piece of paper. Apparently, that is a test for explosives - I think the paper gets warm if it detects traces of explosives. Does anyone know how that really works? I asked the security guy, but he is just an employee - he had no idea about the underlying science of the test.

Why is there security check on the way OUT of La Guardia? Aren't the supposed terrorists going to try to get INTO New York City instead? Shouldn't they do a security check on people flying into NYC? Ah, I forgot, this was designed by the Department of Homeland Security, the most inept bureacracy in the History Of The World, ran by the most inept members of the most inept political party running the most inept Administration in the History Of The World. And, by the way, RDU airport is so nice, clean and pleasant compared to almost any airport I've seen in my life.

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