James Pasley’s recurring nightmares about plane crashes are almost as scary as his waking experience of flight.
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Illustrations by Eddie Monotone
Every night before a flight I have a nightmare – I am on a plane and that plane crashes. The dream is always the same. I am looking out the window as the plane begins a deep turn. Something goes wrong; the plane begins spiralling and I watch numbly as we plummet to our death. On better nights I wake before impact. Even so, the dream lingers on into the following day, which is bad enough. But today it’s worse, because today as the plane begins to ascend, we do the exact deep turn and I am looking out at the exact same view. All I can hope for is that I wake before impact.
The problem is while I’m afraid of flying, I’m not afraid enough to avoid flying. On the ground, through security, I think rationally. “I’m not going to die. Who do you know that’s actually died? Exactly.” But in the sky, I’m fearful the entire time. I’m looking out the window, down at those lucky specks at sea level, thinking, “What the hell am I doing up here?” or “This isn’t natural” or “Man was not meant to fly”.
I’m writing this on my phone during a two-and-a-half-hour flight from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. I’m writing this to keep my mind busy so I don’t throw up or start howling “Oh fuck!”. I’m flying to Jacksonville to bring my dog to my wife who is caring for her sick father. She misses him more than me and that’s fine, I get it. He’s a good looking, soft-haired pooch. It’s for a good cause. And yet right away I am filled with a deep, boundless regret because before we even take off the pilot tells us there will be delays; we need to refuel since we will be landing in the middle of a thunderstorm. I don’t know how this relates to fuel consumption. I message my wife with the update and she sends back a photo of blue skies saying, “weird, all clear here.” Weird indeed. I have just finished a third cup of coffee. I haven’t eaten in six hours. I don’t feel so hot. A complimentary bottle of water says “It’s great to see you again.” But the bottle is lying. It’s not.
Once we’re in the air, the woman behind me asks the flight attendant if we are going to die. She doesn’t word it that way exactly, but that’s the gist. She doesn’t do so well in turbulence. I’d been too afraid to ask myself, but I listen closely while my dog pants, terrified and unaware that I may be taking him to his death.
The flight attendant tells her not to worry. They’re just air pockets. It’s definitely not enough to knock the plane out of the sky. Just a few stomach-dropping falls. Just a limited service. Just cries in terror and reflections on lives not lived to their full.
“Oh OK,” the woman says weakly. She is all of us.
We are above the clouds now and I want to come down. Far below, boats on an estuary turn in wide, strange curves and I attempt to read messages in what they leave behind, but the foamy wash fades away long before anything becomes clear.
Sitting on the other side of the aisle from me is a well-known college football coach. I know this only because everyone walking past during boarding kept commenting about the game last night. He has a thick moustache and tired eyes and he fumbles with his dining tray for so long I almost reach over and yank it up for him. In front of us, there’s a red-faced man in a Hawaiian shirt with both his sunglasses and his sunglasses case tucked into his shirt pocket. He’s tapping his seat, looking at the ceiling. He has recently had something possibly cancerous chopped out of his nose and later he will listen to Kasabian and Big Red on repeat. By the time we are 10 minutes into the flight he’s on his third beer. His face grows redder the longer we are in the sky.
One of my favourite pieces of journalism is a 1982 article titled ‘The Plane That Fell From The Sky’ by journalist Buzz Bissinger, who made a name for himself with the non-fiction book Friday Night Lights. He wrote about 45 seconds where a Boeing 727 went into a spiral dive, falling something utterly crazy like 30,000 feet. The plane didn’t crash. It probably should have, but it didn’t.
In the opening paragraph, Bissinger wrote: “The old philosophy among pilots, starting in the days when the DC-3 was the biggest thing going, was that you didn’t really get paid for all the times you flew without a hitch but for the one time out of a thousand when everything went to hell you still brought the plane in. That was the test of skill and the reason for all the other pay checks.”
Bissinger might not have spent hours agonising over his line “one time out of a thousand”, but that’s what rings in my head every time a plane I’m sitting on takes off. These are odds I don’t like the sound of.
If I do have to go down in a plane crash, something I think about fairly often, I would rather plummet into land than sea. My thinking is this would be the quicker death, a guaranteed instantaneous demise. No time to play with the ego, no terrifying few moments trapped in a cabin, panicked, drowning in the dark after you somehow survived first impact; or even worse, no lonely few hours spent floating in the empty sea waiting for the sharks. A good, clean death. No trace left behind.
Another thing I think about, as I sit here, is dying in the aeroplane toilet – locking yourself in once the end is near and bracing for impact. Sure they’re awful and smelly and promote claustrophobia, but toilet cubicles are also enclosed, so when the end comes it comes without a view. It comes blind, like sleep.
Everyone around me, other than Moustache, has headphones on. Usually, I wear mine. I like to limit what I can hear. But today, so I can reassure the dog, I leave them off. This makes everything worse. I hear every strange beep, every throaty clunk outside. I hear the pilot tell us we are 30,000 feet up in the sky, that we will be disembarking at gate 85. He relays this useless information before saying, “Keep your seatbelts on, turbulence ahead.” His words are like a criticism sandwich, I think, except it’s got no bottom layer, it’s just the softening and then the blow.
To calm myself I look at the clouds. I try to find shapes, but from above the only shape I see resembles pellets of sheep poo. Later I see a long, flat white cloud that looks like a landing strip and I’m comforted. I read it as a good omen. But then I realise it means the clouds are thickening.
Outside it’s grey now. It’s dark grey, then it’s bright grey. The sun seeks to break through. The sun fails. The turbulence begins softly, like an old lady shaking your shoulder. The plane begins to turn and everything begins to tremble. Hawaii looks at his wife in despair. When the turbulence hits properly it is better and worse than I expected. Strange debris falls from the ceiling like dandruff. The bathroom doors rattle. My stomach is at my feet. My dog is shaking. I pat him through the mesh of his bag. Moustache drinks some water. I drink some water. I need to take a leak, but the idea of dying in the toilet now seems terrible. Old men die on the loo all the time, but not in the sky.
The turbulence eases pretty quickly, but I don’t know if it’s over. It’s so dark outside now I can’t see a thing. I type then retype and the phone keeps autocorrecting and my typing of this essay, or death note, must appear panicked because Moustache says to me, “Alright?”
And I say back, as if without a care in the world, “Oh yeah, fine mate.”
I wait for him to say, “Nice. Heard it’s beautiful down there,” so I can tell him it is and that I hope to look upon it at least once more before the end. But he doesn’t say anything else.
Before I booked this flight I looked up the timetables of trains and buses and how much it would cost to rent a car. They were all either more expensive or more time consuming or both. My definition of expense has changed up here; now I consider 20 hours on a train a bargain compared to an eternity in hell, or dark nothingness, or whatever happens post-impact.
People tell me the stats, how it’s safer than driving or walking or eating raw fish but so what? I’d rather be mowed down from behind than watch the earth grow larger as engines fail and we glide down to meet her. I have heard of flocks of geese getting sucked into the vents causing engine failure. I have heard of oxygen masks falling for no good reason. I have heard more: One of my best mates met his ex-girlfriend when they were both flight attendants before they got laid off during Covid. One night we were drinking and she told us there was this one type of plane that is basically known for being unreliable and goes down “all the time”. My mate and his ex-girlfriend actually worked on one of these planes. She said she was sweating the whole time and didn’t tell him to avoid freaking him out. As I watch Moustache make short work of a packet of nuts I try to recall what plane this was and what plane I am on, but when I’m nervous my mind empties; I become useless. I remember nothing.
Life is full of unpleasantness. At a work function at Rainbow’s End last year I caught the Stratosfear twice in a row, pretty much because of how dreadful it was. For some reason I felt like punishing myself. This is worse. The drop is knowable to almost anyone who has flown, but to describe it is to limit it, to box it in; it is awfulness; it is downward whiplash then a communal groaning; it is spilled drinks, white knuckles, whispered prayers, no eye contact, no hope, not enough time and too much time. Everyone keeps themselves busy with screens and pages and liquor and dull conversations and heavily salted foods, waiting for the end in whatever way it comes.
As if to dare fate, Moustache gets up and goes to the bathroom. When he gets back the seatbelt sign dings. The pilot tells us we’re landing in 25 minutes. He does not say if it’ll be rough or not. He mentions light rain. He thanks us for flying with him.
The lights come on. The lights go off. We descend, we rise again. We are clear of the clouds and I see vast stretches of greenery and brown —Florida bush, Florida waterways. We are lurching up again back into clouds. We keep turning, this way, that way. These are not smooth turns. How I wish they were. The plane accelerates. The plane brakes. I wouldn’t call this a smooth ride. We’re turning again. Hawaii is smiling sickly at his wife. We’re turning the other way. Moustache is an oasis of calm. At some point I realise the plane isn’t accelerating or braking. What we’re feeling is the wind. What we’re feeling is our utter insignificance up here in this piece of tin. We are being blown one way and then the other.
I feel the first spattering of relief about three or four minutes before landing. We are at a point where I decide, based on nothing, that if something goes wrong now we might survive anyway. It’s the moment when you can recognise the brand of car on the highway below, or make out the shapes of people milling about.
And when we land, which we do, as I knew we would, I breathe out for a good long while. I tell the dog it’s OK. I nod in a hopefully dignified manner to Moustache. But I feel little in the way of relief – already I’m thinking about what happens in a week or two when I need to go home. Because that will require another flight and though right now I would choose bus, train or six-day hike rather than get on another plane, I’m also aware that in the days to come I will decide, as I always do, that flying isn’t so bad. My wife will tell me I’m being silly. I survived today, I will survive another. And she may be right. But she may be wrong, too, and next time, though the odds are with me, I may not be so lucky. My dream might come true.