A retired pilot for a major airline once offered to tell me the secret to surviving an airplane crash.
"Go ahead," I mumbled.
We were 30,000 feet over Iowa at the time. He was in the next seat and apparently sensed from the rosary beads and the large crucifix attached to my tray table that I was a nervous flier.
"The secret to surviving a plane crash," he said, "is don't panic."
"That's the secret?"
"Absolutely," he said.
I looked out the window. Down below I could see cornfields and farms and the grain silo that, I felt certain, our 747 was about to slam into at any minute before bursting into a towering fireball.
"Let me get this straight," I said. "You're saying that if the plane suddenly plunges into a dizzying nose dive, with flames shooting through the cabin and rivets popping from the ceiling and people clawing at each other for the oxygen masks, that I shouldn't panic?"
"Right," he said.
"I should remain calm?"
"It's essential," he said.
Naturally, my next thought was: Why do the psychos always pick to pester?
They're like street mimes, these people. As soon as they sense you don't want anything to do with them, they won't leave you alone.
And now I had to sit next to this nut all the way to Los Angeles.
The only other empty seat was next to a swarthy man in a Greek fisherman's cap who, I felt certain, was about to pull a gun from his waistband at any moment.
Personally, I think the only way to survive a plane crash is to make sure you're not on the plane.
That business about not panicking is a lot of hooey.
In the first place, how many people are capable of remaining calm as their plane begins barrel-rolling through the sky while the captain, through an inadvertent open intercom, is heard exclaiming: "Oh, (bleep)!"
Secondly, with only a minute or so to live, who exactly are you trying to impress by keeping your cool?
Believe me, if we're coming in at tree-top level for a crash landing at 200 mph, I'd be elbowing nuns away from the emergency exits and screaming: "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"
The retired captain's point, I guess, was that by not freaking out, you stand a better chance of making decisions that might save your life.
But I don't buy that at all. If you're a passenger on a lumbering L10-11 that suddenly loses power in three engines and begins a screaming, spiraling descent toward Earth, I would say the situation is now officially out of your hands.
(Of course, the little black box containing the flight recorder will survive. There can be charred wreckage strewn over miles, but they always find the little black box, which lets everyone know that the flight crew was discussing something deep, like the latest "Night Court," right before the accident.
(As someone once pointed out, if this little black box is so damn indestructible, why can't they make the entire plane out of the same substance?)
Over the years I've developed a three-point system to tell if the plane I'm on is going down:
1. Study the pilot. The first thing I do upon boarding is peek in the cockpit to see just how slender a thread my life is hanging by.
I don't want to see some young guy who looks like he's just back from Spring Break in Daytona Beach.
On the other hand, I don't want to see someone with a shawl around his shoulders. Or someone who goes on and on about what a pleasure it was to see Ty Cobb play.
What I'm looking for is someone with an alert countenance, someone who looks like he won't forget to hit that little switch that says: Wing Flaps Up.
(All these accidents caused by someone forgetting to put the wing flaps up -- I don't get it. To me this is sort of like getting behind the wheel of a car and forgetting to put it in drive.)
Anyway, if the pilot looks like a dolt, the plane is going down. It's that simple.
2. Study the businessmen. This is an excellent barometer of disaster. If the turbulence gets so bad that even the businessmen put their paperwork away and snap their briefcases shut, the plane is going down. It's that simple.
3. Study the engines. If you're near enough to the window, look for that tell-tale wisp of smoke or loose bolt that indicates the engine is about to drop off and free-fall 22,000 feet into someone's living room. If the beverage cart is nearby, this might be a good time for a cocktail.