So, here’s a story.
On January 8, 2003, my phone rang just as I was getting up for work. A plane had tried to take off from Charlotte, NC bound for my home airport, Greenville-Spartanburg International. It didn’t last a minute in the air. Flight 5481 didn’t even clear the airport before crashing into a nearby hangar. All 21 people onboard died. As one of the lead reporters in the Greenville market, it was my job to tell the story.
There is a lot I remember about that day. I remember standing next to CNN’s Gary Tuckman as we talked to the NTSB. I remember the news conferences where they told us about the victims. I remember blindly walking into a gay bar that night with my late friend Chris and a couple other journalists (who we won’t name here, but you know who you are), all of us in need of a beer and none of us recognizing the rainbow on the sign of what we thought was a cowboy tavern.
Covering that plane crash was one of the toughest things I ever did as a journalist. There was something terribly clinical about the entire operation. Everyone around me–the investigators, the journalists, the emergency workers–all had a look in their eye I couldn’t force myself to adopt. For them, it seemed it was just part of the job. For me, it was my first plane crash and one of my biggest mass casualty events (a term that seems sickeningly clinical as I type it). I’d seen a lot up to that point–the kinds of things I still think about today but almost never talk about–but I hadn’t seen the smoldering ruins of 21 lives ended in less than one minute. I was 29 years old and had two years left in the business. That was ten years ago next week.
When the cockpit recordings came out, I listened to them, two young pilots–a man and woman–chatting about everyday silliness. The tape was so short, and I don’t know how many times I rewound it and started over. After that, I developed a sick habit of finding cockpit recordings from doomed airlines and listening to them over and over again. I never talked to anybody about it. I just listened and discovered how completely hopeless a crashing plane’s victims are.
The takeaway was a weird and lasting one. For whatever reason, I remembered the flight from taxi to crash lasting exactly 29 seconds. The number is burned into my brain. I know this because almost exactly two years later, I became a globetrotter. I’ve flown to countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. I’ve flown all over the United States. I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve taken off in a plane over the past decade. But I know this: every time I’ve taken off since Flight 5481 went down, I’ve started counting with my eyes closed. I open them when I hit 29 seconds.
Ridiculous? Yes. Arbitrary? Completely. Superstitious? Without question. But I do it. I’ve done it on four continents. I’ve done it at my home airport. I did three days ago with my son sitting next to me on the plane. That’s the hardest part, and one I can’t write much more about without getting too dark and maudlin.
The simple fact is, for whatever reason, my brain re-programmed itself to believe that if my plane could make it to the 30th second of flight, that it was all going to be okay. I honestly have no idea about the statistics regarding air disasters. I don’t know how many happen on takeoff, landing, or in midair. It doesn’t matter, because the irrational brain is irrational. My only comfort is knowing how irrational I am. Oddly, I’m not the least bit afraid of flying.
So, for the past ten years, I have counted to 29 when my plane took off. When I hit 29, I opened my eyes and got on with the flight.
I’m on my way to an event. I took off from Atlanta a little while ago on my way to Nassau. It’s the ninth time I’ve taken this same trip, and it’s become pretty rote.
Tonight, I’m working with a pilot named Woody Wood (who seemed a little drunk) and a flight attendant named Prudence (who seemed a lot drunk, if completely friendly, and a lot hotter than a self-identifying grandmother should be). And I kept my eyes open. This is what I saw:
It was a gorgeous sunset over Atlanta (one I photographed with my iPhone against all Delta rules). I don’t know how many seconds passed before I realized I’d skipped my ritual. I was too busy realizing that I thought this was the day I was going down.
I can’t explain it. I’ve been on planes in China, Denmark, and Uruguay. I was once on a retired Iberian Airlines plane on which the oxygen masks fell down in front of us. I never thought once about crashing. I’ve been in two emergency landings. I’ve been on a plane in which smoke filled the cockpit. On this same trip last year, I experienced the most ridiculously jolting turbulence. I never thought I was going to die.
Today? Before I ever went to the airport? I wished my wife happiness. Why? I wish I could say. For whatever reason, I thought this was it.
It’s apparently not. We’ve made it through the first 90 minutes of this flight and we’ve not gone down yet. We should be landing soon, and all will be normal again.
But, as we prepare to land, here’s the odd thing: from this plane’s inflight WiFi, I looked up the flight on Wikiepedia to confirm my memory. It tells me flight 5481 lasted 37 seconds. Not 29. I pulled up the NTSB report and looked it over. It’s hard to determine how I came up with 29 or how Wikipedia came up with 37.
All I know is that I have to put up my tray table. And maybe, just maybe, I have an extra eight seconds.