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Turbulent thoughts

Posted by Tom Haines, Globe Travel Writer  June 3, 2009 11:45 AM

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A friend yesterday pointed out that, when taking a flight, he always worries most about take-off, when engines fire up, wheels lift off and there is a feeling of unleashed energy until that little bell dings at 10,000 feet and life in the sky gets normal.

Flight attendants unbuckle to push beverage carts up and down the aisle. Seats go back. Movies begin. Books open.

It must have been like that on Air France flight 447 out over the Atlantic. There was probably even time for dinner to be served while moving 500 miles an hour 5 miles above one of the planet’s largest bodies of water.

airfrance.jpg

And yet.

Over the past decade of frequent flying, including dozens of trans-oceanic flights, I have never felt comfortable during those hours of crossing. Most flights I have taken traced the North Atlantic, and I would always relax a bit when the on-board map showed an eastbound flight crossing over Ireland, or a westbound route reaching the air above Newfoundland. Something about terra firma below, even if only false comfort.

Imagine then the frantic final minutes for the 228 souls on board the Air France flight bound from Rio to Paris when on-board routines were interrupted by free fall.

It is normal, of course, in a world in which we fly in comfort from continent to continent to think that everything could have been avoided. One questioner at the French newspaper website Le Monde asked if some routes are safer than others. The answer, from an aviation expert: No.

On a flight several years ago from Buenos Aires to Miami, a ten-hour red-eye that traced northward across South America, I awoke suddenly as the plane bucked through heavy turbulence. Overhead compartments jiggled their insides and sleeping passengers bolted upright, alert that something bad may be near.

The engines sighed as the pilot lowered altitude to smoother air. Somewhere over the Andes, a cloth seat belt around my waist, I wondered: What am I doing here?

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