Bracing for impact: our morbid fascination with plane crashes.

July 9, 2013

Icarus, falling from the sky…

What is it about plane crashes that upset and titillate us so much? They are unquestionably tragic. But there is something more going on. There always has been. Fear of flying is at the top of any phobia list. Since vehicles learned to go up we have been inordinately fascinated by the idea of them coming down.

The Asiana crash landing at San Francisco International airport claimed the life of two teenaged girls and maimed dozens more. Yet, given the shattered hulk scattered on the runway it’s a miracle far more people didn’t perish. Those are the facts.

Of far lesser importance were the countless throngs of holiday travelers, whose flights were abruptly canceled. Including mine. I was scheduled to return to SFO from LAX and had to rebook myself on an early morning flight the next day to Sacramento. A huge headache, yet I consider myself very lucky. My plane landed safely. I am home. I am alive.

Shattered bird…

But back to my original question: What is it about plane crashes that freak us out beyond that of other tragedies? Few other “accidents” captures our attention as much.

For example, a train wrecked in Canada, at least 5 dead and 40 people unaccounted for. Terrible news, but it barely made headlines. CNN did not feature uninterrupted coverage. Experts were not called in. The world was not informed. A while back, a limousine caught fire on the interstate near me, killing a group of women trapped inside. The story came and went. In both scenarios many more people were killed in just as hideous a fashion as on the Asiana flight yet the news was trifling by comparison.

Why is that?

In my hometown of Chicago, over the same long holiday weekend, 74 people were shot and 12 of them killed. The Chicago Tribune provided an interactive map of where the shootings took place. Grim stuff. Ten more dead than in the plane crash. But it was local news. It shared the front page with the Asiana story. Tomorrow it will go away.

The analysis of what happened at SFO will proceed for weeks. Months. Ball games have been halted to say prayers for its passengers. Blood drives commenced. The pilots have not been heard from. The so-called “black box” has yet to be played back to us. All of that will come. And then some. And then some more.

US Airways 1549, bobbing on the Hudson…

Clearly, when it comes to plane crashes it is not the death count that makes them so riveting. When US Airways Flight 1549 came down in the Hudson River no one died. It was a miracle! Captain Sullenberger was deemed a hero. If anything a lack of deaths made the story even bigger.

Something else then. As I’ve implied earlier, our fascination with plane crashes goes back to the beginning of flight itself. We our haunted by the ceaseless echo of that famous cryptic statement: “If man was meant to fly God would have given him wings.”


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