Plane Simple

Andrew G. Gibson
11 min readJun 23, 2024


“I’d like to die in my sleep like my father, not screaming in terror like his passengers.” This is one of my favourite sayings, but I use it very rarely. The last time was at a party in 1997. Many of the details escape me, but I quite distinctly remember becoming embroiled in one of those meandering free form discussions that middle class people tend to have once partially intoxicated. Somehow, the conversation had taken a rather morbid turn and moved into the area of death, and in particular, the sort of death that one might wish to aspire to.

This was all the encouragement I needed to reel off my sound bite. The way people react to this revelation never ceases to amuse me. It did, of course, generate the usual smattering of hearty laughter, which quickly died down when it became evident that I was not joking.

I sometimes find myself wondering whether he awoke before his 747 stove, nose first, at a 45 degree angle into the Alps. It was a magnificent crash. If there was such a thing as the platonic ideal of an air disaster then this was it. There were 360 people on board the plane as it slid through the sky, for all intents and purposes, appearing self confident and suave as it sliced through the air, boldly defying gravity. 23 Crew and 337 passengers. Still, what goes up must come down.

I often try to reconstruct the minutiae of that night, even though, I should add, I wasn’t actually there. However, it’d be fair to say that the accident that killed my sleeping father and 359 other sundry air travellers has become one of the great obsessions of my life. The grand narrative, if you will. I don’t for one moment believe that experiencing such a horrific incident at such a tender age has had a significant impact on the development of my psyche. I don’t believe, for instance, that it has conferred any special powers on emotional endurance upon me. But I do find myself dwelling on it for prolonged periods of time. It haunts my waking life.

One of my most treasured possessions is the Aviation accident report, a 400 page fantasy designed to explain the inexplicable. It tells a story of a catastrophic break-up in flight. A cover-up for the truth.

“Hello. How can I help you?”

I was standing, in mid perusal, by a shelf of books pertaining to aviation, in my local branch of Waterstones. I was feeling a vague sense of disgust at the vast range of titles whose purpose seemingly was to turn fighter aircraft into fetish objects. But I must say, the uncharacteristically proactive level of customer service did rather take me by surprise.

I turned to face a rather studious, although not entirely unattractive, young sales assistant. She was wearing a pair of rectangular, narrow framed spectacles, which conferred an intellectual edge to her countenance. It took me a moment to realise that the open nature of her question demanded some form of response.

“I’m not entirely sure you can.” I said.

“Is there a particular title you’re looking for?”

There was. I was looking for a title on the theory of flight. I needed confirmation, a form of reassurance, that they’d still got it wrong, that some scientific breakthrough hadn’t occurred over the last few years that I was unaware of.

She bent down to the lower section of the shelf and began scanning the spines.

“Here we are.” She said, clutching a copy of the “Osbourne Bumper Book of Flight”.

“Let me see.” I said, taking the book, checking the publication date, then flipping quickly through the pages. “Here we are!” I said, with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm.

The sales assistant moved around to gain a clearer view of the double page spread on display.

The page depicted the standard cross section of an airplane’s wing with Linea , although the editors of the book had elected to pique the interest of small children by placing the diagram on a gaudy diorama of mountains, sky and birds in flight. For a brief moment I found my mind flashing back to that fateful night in 1974. I reached for the elastic band on my wrist and gave it a discreet but painful twang. This was my own form of D.I.Y aversion therapy. By associating negative thoughts with pain, my unconscious mind would start to suppress them. Or so I thought.

The diagram was approximately similar to the sketch below. Although I’d be the first to confess that I’m not a graphic designer.

“See the thing is, if that’s really how planes fly, how do they fly upside down? Surely the pressure on the wing would be reversed and they’d fall out of the sky?”

“Hmmmm.” She said, with such a level of bemusement, I surmised that she perceived me as some sort of harmless madwoman. She was simply not prepared to question received wisdom in any way.

“The theory of flight is wrong, you see. But it’s still used to fly aeroplanes. I’m writing a thesis on it.”

This was a lie, but it had the desired effect. I was no longer a harmless madwoman in her eyes, but an eccentric academic. You see, if there’s one easily digestible fact relating to intercontinental air travel that my ongoing study has revealed then it’s this: Planes never crash by accident.

. . .

The idea came to me fully formed, in a flash of insight, an epiphany of understanding. There was a sense of truth to the idea on a raw, existential level. Planes only fly by faith. Well, not faith exactly. More a powerful form of collective belief. A morphic field agreed upon behaviour. It’s a form of magical realism that we take for granted. We were born into an agreed consensus on how the world is supposed to behave. A plane’s ability to fly is entirely dependent upon the belief of its passengers.

As a buyer for a large luggage retailer, I’m expected to fly several times a year. I’m no stranger to locations as diverse as New York, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan. I can fly. But I do not enjoy the experience. For me is akin to entering a state of hyper reality, of suspension of disbelief. I am unable to submit myself to a state of complete dependence on the external. It is vitally important that I maintain a sense of control.

For the first few flights I undertook after my father’s accident, I followed the unusual course of anaesthetizing myself prior to take off. However, given the current climate, smuggling the syringe and needles on board the plane presents a severe challenge. I have spent many hours answering awkward questions in customs. Fortunately my general practitioner has proved to be a staunch ally on these occasions and has consistently prevented me from being charged.

I think that in many ways people could easily view me as an aspirational figure. I have a successful, dynamic career and although it is of little or no interest to me, my job could conceivably appeal to a great many people. The financial security that my employment brings should, I believe, confer at least a small measure of (if not happiness) then at least some form of contentment. But it doesn’t. The pantomime nature of post industrial capitalism sickens me.

I was able to walk away without a scratch. I was alive in all senses.

I could read the carefully masked terror in the faces of the air stewardesses as they glided around the plane. I sat, feeling certain that they were party to the knowledge that the electrical systems might fail at any moment. I watched impassively as they served gin and tonics to the condemned, each and every one of them giving an Oscar winning performance. But that was all it was. At any moment the cabin would be plunged into darkness. The thin veneer of calm would drop, revealing the all consuming terror beneath. That momentary flicker of the cabin lights during take off confirmed this hypothesis. What could the pilot possibly do if the electrical systems failed? He was nothing more than a glorified bus driver. His months of training would account for nothing.

From my window seat I was able to gaze out into the darkness along the wing. A light blinked through the fog, illuminating the wing tip and clearly revealing a hairline fracture in the aileron. One brief moment of turbulence was all it would take. At any moment, a migrating albatross could be sucked into the jet engines. A small sacrifice to the god of air disasters, its shattered skeleton and mangled viscera would be consumed in a Viking funeral as the engine ignited. Could a 747 land safely with only one engine? Perhaps, if the engine failed during the landing approach. But not here, 22,000 feet over the middle of the Atlantic. The blaze would spread across the wing, the heat buckling the already damaged structure. The air pressure would tear the wing off sending it spiralling into the darkness. The plane would flip over, the remaining wing pointing skyward as the plane dived, a giant metal shark heading for a watery grave.

I’m not sure at what stage of the journey I became aware that I was flying the plane. Of course, at no stage was I physically in the cockpit or behind the controls. Ostensibly, the pilot was in control throughout. But gradually I began to realize that by visualising these unpleasant eventualities, I was
in some peculiar and esoteric manner, preventing them from happening. That somehow the safety of the plane was entirely in my hands, or indeed, more accurately in my mind. For a short time I found this responsibility almost intolerable. I began to perspire heavily.

That stomach in mouth sensation was accompanied by a loud ping as the seatbelt lights illuminated. I laughed out loud. What difference would these thin strips of fabric make as…

I began to enjoy the sense of control I had over my surroundings. I was no longer a passive passenger of fate, but its master. I closed my mind to the chaos around me. The screams of my fellow passengers dissipated along with the groaning of the fuselage as the plane was buffeted around by the storm as if it was made of paper. Mighty nature how great you are.

I was dimly aware of the voice of the pilot over the intercom as he blithely requested that we adopt the crash position. Not, he emphasised, because the plane was about to crash, but in order to prevent injury should the turbulence continue. The turbulence would continue. That much I had already decided. He continued his self consciously reassuring spiel, attempting to explain that the plane had merely entered an air pocket and that there was no cause for alarm.

One factor that the report failed to mention was that my father suffered from Narcolepsy. It was his dark little secret. One of my more enduring childhood memories is that of cycling with my father, he on his ostentatious racing bicycle, me on a second hand Raleigh Chopper. I believe he had taken me out on a ride to the countryside in order to collect horse chestnuts. I can see it now as clearly as if it were yesterday. One moment he was cycling along the country lane with me pedalling furiously behind in a desperate effort to keep up, the next he was zig zagging across the road like a drunken maniac. Lucky he impacted against the curb and was merely thrown over the handlebars, landing on a grass verge. I spent a tearful four hours listening to his adenoidal snore while fruitlessly prodding his prone torso.

What was it that drove my father to become an airline pilot? as they say in foot-balling circles, the spectators see more of the game. As such, I feel unable to comment with any real authority on the psychology of my family life.

Given that a routine requirement of my job is to fly all over the world, one of the questions I’m often asked is how I do it. How I’m able to transcend a fear that reaches far beyond phobia into the realms full blown psychosis.

Sleeping tablets as an alternative to anaesthetic. I would wait until just after check in then consume a carefully measured supply of Zopiclone. By the time I’d reached the departure lounge I would invariably be overcome with a sense of drowsy serenity. Surprisingly, this process only backfired on one occasion when a flight was delayed. I woke up several hours later in a hospital bed. My stomach had been pumped. It was not a particularly dignified experience.

It was at that point I realised that there was only one way to truly exorcise the ghost of my dead father and his demons. One single method of finally being rid of the 423 specters that haunted every minute of my waking life. I had no choice other than to put myself in their place. No more half realised empathy. No more striving to merely imagine what they had been through, just the unambiguous reality of experience. Obviously, I would need to survive in order to benefit from this baptism by fire. But it was not their deaths that disturbed me, but the terror they must have suffered prior to the impact. That unimaginable helplessness in the face of oblivion as the sleeping plane tore downwards through the sky.

I ceased to focus on the certainty of the aircraft’s doom and no longer dwelled on images of twisted metal and shattered, charred cadavers. Instead I began to contemplate reassuring statistics pertaining to airline safety. G’s of Turbulence generated by nature compared to the G’s of turbulence that the plane could withstand. How planes always give storms a wide berth: The way in which each aircraft was supposed to have its own corridor of airspace, twenty miles wide. It had the desired effect. The left wing was struck by lightning moments later and all hell broke loose.

I should point out that, as much as I try to deny it, I do feel a certain level of complicity in my father’s accident. I was 15 years old when he qualified for his pilot’s licence and 27 when he died. I could have rumbled him at any stage. Perhaps the reason I didn’t was out of filial loyalty. Or perhaps I just didn’t care. Either way I have no choice other than to accept at least a small portion of responsibility for the deaths of all those people.

But by themselves, equations are not explanations, and neither are their solutions. By far the most popular explanation of lift is Bernoulli’s theorem. And of course, the concomitant romance that such a prestigious position brings. Assuming he was able to stay awake.

Like many people who are entirely dependent on prescription medication for a normal life, my father became so convinced of the efficacy of his drugs that he concluded that they were no longer required.

I’m sure the average plane crash doesn’t even register as more than a tiny blip on the news radar of the average person. After all, how could it? Such things, as with all such things, only happen to someone else. Given the air safety records of most major airlines, if people actually sat up and took notice every time a jumbo did the dumbo, they wouldn’t still be in business…