There’s something predictable in human terror. I hypothesise that if I were to don a white lab coat and find enough volunteers, I could arrange a scale from nought to ten corresponding to frightening instances and guess reactions at each stage. At level nought, just a handshake on the terror scale we reach four and we’re told we have cancer. At level six a loved one is abducted, then we’re thrown from a plane for seven. At eight we look outside the shower and for the first time in our lives it doesn’t vanish when we turn to face it, but its fingers stick against the opaque curtain. Nine
Here I am again, this time with the moon so high I can see my room in ink blots. He’s in the bathroom, but it’s so tiny, I’ve no idea how he can fit. He’s watching and will soon unfold from the cubby-hole to meet me. I could try to climb out the window, but I know it will just stretch on forever, as hopeless as trying to crawl back into my mother’s womb.
I can’t face him.
He’s coming now. I saw him move. The moon melts from his grin and the air is thick. I’m drowning. So just shut my eyes. Surprise when I feel his hands around my neck.
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I circled the wreckage once in pursuit of the figures but only met disheartening barricades of plane, cargo and fire. People shrank through the smoke when I tried to approach them despite seeming desperate to find other passengers and safety. At other times I fancied I could see a sole survivor look straight at me, holding my gaze, before turning and running back into the flames. With my circuit complete I again stood looking at the hill where I had first watched this catastrophe unfold.
I was frustrated with my lack of success and unsettled being near the plane at all. There was a quality in the sounds it made, a bleating of heated metal and aching joints, that paired with its dangerous position on the hill made it impossible for me to believe that it was not malevolent.
I pulled out my phone with the objective of calling for help. No signal, then one flickering bar as I left the valley. Emergency calls only. I dialled three nines and heard it ring, but an automated operator answered before I had a chance to speak:
We understand from your location that you wish to report the plane crash. Don’t worry, we are aware of the problem, and special teams have been dispatched to assist you shortly. Thank you for your concern.
I had to talk to another human being, one close to me, and strode to higher ground in an effort to gain more phone signal. As the air cleared again I heard a familiar whispered cry to my left.
It came to a halt close enough that I could see a door pop off and a yellow tongue unroll towards the ground. The plane was mostly intact. Several massive tears were present across its nose and a handful of small fires enveloped the wreckage in an ochre shroud. I jogged as figures leapt from the emergency exit and assembled nearby, trembling with their arms crossed. None came from the back door and nowhere near enough were gathered to account for all the passengers.
As the survivors began to look my way I noticed just how precariously the plane was positioned. Its tail section was almost completely shredded, and what remained balanced on the crest of a hill. The mid section was suspended above ground and looked ready to spill passengers and debris like a bloated artery. The fuselage already showed a noticeable buckle and was capped with white stress marks that spread like make-up on a clown’s grin.
The air was thick this close, and the chaos leagues from the tranquillity of my earlier vantage point on the hill. Pieces of jet, cargo and passenger were scattered across the landscape, obfuscated by clouds of black smoke and the constant orange hum of fire.
I was out walking through the countryside when it happened. The air was an azure blue bleached with bright, hot light from the sun directly overhead. At first I could only see a glint bobbing delicately above the horizon. It was framed by tapered streaks of glare in such a way that the mystery object appeared like a dancing Star of Bethlehem. In time the glare receded and from it came a cockpit, fuselage and wings that listed from side to side as if swimming a gentle front crawl.
I couldn’t see any smoke or visual signs of a problem aside from this exaggerated roll, but the plane was clearly on the descent. It was also almost completely silent. I considered it could be engine failure, or the pilot shutting them off in preparation for an emergency landing, but these were assumptions. All I knew was that this aircraft was quickly falling to earth.
Now I could see its shape more clearly: a large jet, the type used for international flight. It pulled away from a copse of trees a few miles ahead of where I stood and changed it’s path so I could once again see it straight on. Now I could see the the British Airways insignia on its flank, and for the first time fear flushed my thoughts.
But I was slow to react. As the urgency of my condition dawned the behemoth’s wing clipped a hillside, barely five kilometres away, and what grace it had managed to retain fled instantly. In another heartbeat the sound of torn metal resonated through the landscape as the plane hit the ground. Joints and materials, rubber and earth, screamed in different pitches as they were stretched, thumped and cut past their limits.
It is said no-one fully understands how a plane is able to stay in the sky.
I once sat in a classroom at the end of a school day. My backside was numb and my legs tingled from a lack of movement. Sunlight, filtered through blinds already half-drawn in preparation for the final bell, drooped over benches filled with students in heavy felt blazers. Near the front of the class a teacher droned on about the relationship between thrust, gravity, lift and drag, occasionally turning to a poorly sketched diagram of a plane cut with arrows representing each force. As he spoke my eyes drifted to one of the many threads of dust hanging lazily in the late day sun, and I absently wondered how the same natural laws the teacher described worked to keep it afloat.
That was my intial experience of aviation physics, and I would imagine this is as much as most people ever learn. However, I have since spoken to a number of engineers who tell me that these forces alone don’t explain how a plane is able to stay airborne.
Anyone who has seen a plane land knows exactly what I mean: it drifts so casually to earth it makes the sky seem viscous, thick and able to support its massive bulk. As effortlessly as a whale plunging through fathoms of water it yaws belly up, and only betrays its true mass when its wheels bounce and groan as they touch the runway. Until this moment movement is guided gently from underneath and free of the the familiar rules that bind us to our clumsy terrestrial sphere.