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Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006 | Fascinating, this week, to read the story by The New York Times travel writer Joe Sharkey, of his experience on an airplane he believed might crash. He was aboard the executive jet, flying above the Amazon forest, that was clipped by a jetliner with 155 people aboard. The jetliner crashed, killing all on board, but Sharkey’s story tells how his damaged aircraft was able to stay airborne until they could find a landing field.
It was the first such experience I had ever read, since the same thing happened to me, almost 50 years ago. On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 28, 1958, I was on an airplane that I believed was going to crash. For a moment, in fact, I believed it had crashed, and that I must be dead.
I was a sophomore on our district champion high school football team, the Abilene Eagles, and we were flying from Abilene, in West Texas, for a first-round playoff game against Ysleta, an El Paso suburb. We were on two chartered DC-3s, the first team and head coach on the first plane, the scrubs on the second. I was on the second, in the last seat on the right-hand side.
I loved airplanes, knew all the makes and types, liked to go to the Abilene airport and watch the Pioneer Airlines DC-3s come and go. So I knew, that at Big Spring, 100 miles west of Abilene, there was Webb Air Force Base. The base was south of us, to our left, so I got out of my seat and asked the two guys across the aisle if I could lean across and look out their window at the base. There it was, the runway perpendicular to us, maybe five miles away.
In the next instant, without any sense of anything happening, or time passing, I was stuck, spread-eagled, to the ceiling of the airplane. I couldn’t move a finger, couldn’t close my eyes. Directly below my eyes was the window I had been looking out of. Below that was the ground, brown West Texas ranch land, coming up to get me.
In another instant, again without any sense of happening or time, I was on the floor, underneath one of the guys – Graham Holland – I had been leaning over, and on top of us was a lot of stuff, including a long, large, glossy stick, red and white with black marks and numbers on it. Loving airplanes, I knew this was the stick that, at the airport, they used to measure the fuel in the wing tanks. I looked at the stick and thought: this stick is supposed to be outside the airplane. It must mean that I am outside the airplane, too, which means I must be dead. Never having been dead, it made sense that this is what it would look like to a departing spirit: just like life.
But then we started to stir, pick ourselves up. We were flying again, straight and level. It was very quiet on the airplane. The pilot, Charles L. Kageler, came on the intercom. He said we were almost hit by a T-33 jet trainer, taking off from Webb. He said he cut power to his engines, stood the DC-3 (a fabulous airplane) on its left wingtip, and dropped about 1,000 feet. That’s what stuck me to the ceiling. Kageler said the trainer missed us by about 25 feet.
We flew on to El Paso, played the next day, won, 45-0, and flew home without incident. But the people on the airplane that Friday afternoon had become members of a club who know what it is like on an airplane that is about to crash. We knew three things: your life really does pass before your eyes; the ground really does come up to get you; there is no panic, or terror. No one on the airplane yelled, or screamed; it was eerily quiet, during and after.
For 48 years, I believed the absence of terror was because of time. It happened so quickly, the brain couldn’t figure it out. The brain, being a logical instrument, strives to put patterns on everything, but things were happening too fast. I came to believe it was a form of compensation: people who were about to die at least would not die in the indignity of terror.
Now, this week, I read about Joe Sharkey’s experience, a “terrific jolt,” the sight of a wingtip sheared off and the skin of the wing peeling back, losing speed and altitude, and no visible place in the thick rain forest to land. They were in the air for 30 minutes, “the most harrowing 30 minutes of my life,” Sharkey writes. Plenty of time to figure things out. Yet, Sharkey writes: “Amazingly, no one panicked.”
So there must be something else about human beings. We – not our intellect, but our visceral selves – must understand the singularity of life, of being alive, and we are born with an instinct that says such a possession cannot, will not, be taken away. A wingtip is sheared off, the plane is going down, but that’s OK. Plenty of time left. Plenty of fight. I have witnessed some evidence of this. A person is dying, wasted by disease, yet in the last minutes, the final minute, the last seconds, the body is fighting visibly, ferociously, to stay alive, to possess its singularity, until finally it relaxes, takes a deep breath or two, and then surrenders. This thing about life in us makes us all noble.
The World Trade Center victims didn’t jump to die. They jumped because it was their last fighting chance to live.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com.