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Tips for the fearful flier

Buckle up. Breathe. Locate the exits. And whatever you do, don't forget the squirrel.

April 11, 2012|By Laura Blumenfeld
  • JetBlue flight 191, which was headed from New York to Las Vegas, made an emergency landing at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport in Texas when an unruly pilot caused the flight to be diverted.
JetBlue flight 191, which was headed from New York to Las Vegas, made an emergency… (Roberto Rodriguez / The…)

The midair meltdown of a JetBlue pilot last month confirms what I try to deny while flying: Hurtling 30,000 feet above the Earth in an aluminum tube is indubitably nutty. JetBlue passengers tackled the pilot on the New York-Las Vegas flight, the airline said, when he stormed the cabin, rambling, due to a "medical situation."

While I sympathize with the captain's medical situation, I wonder if he was acting out what the rest of us are thinking when we're on a plane: I want off.

I tried recently to become a fearless flier. At a Washington dinner, I had met Robert Benzon, a Vietnam War combat pilot and, at the time, one of America's top air crash investigators. The National Transportation Safety Board director referred to him as "The Rock." Benzon has sifted through more than 30 major air wrecks, including the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie bombing, the 9/11 jets and the US Airways ditching in the Hudson River.

And yet, Benzon says, you could fly every day for 11,000 years before you'd board a doomed airplane. "I'm more aware when I fly," Benzon told me. "But I'm not apprehensive at all."

I asked the veteran investigator if I could observe him at work. He was about to retire, and before he did, I wanted to learn his secret and make it my own. I arrived at Benzon's office, which overlooks Reagan National Airport. All morning he'd been analyzing past NTSB events — cockpit fires, torque tube failures, wingtip strikes. At lunch, he chewed on a sandwich while listening to the scanner from Reagan's control tower. When storms blow through, he told me, the voices in the tower rise an octave. The voices in the cockpit rise too.

The more time I spent with Benzon, the more confident I grew that he might have the cure. In my family, we battle travel anxiety by clinging to stuffed animals. The night before a flight, we lay a trail of Post-its to the door to remind us to pack Dolphie, my 8-year-old daughter's totemic, stuffed dolphin. Last Christmas break, when I accidentally set the alarm for 5 p.m. instead of 5 a.m., we woke to the taxi driver banging on our door and stampeded into the icy dark, panicked that we would miss our plane. A block down the road, my daughter gasped when she realized what she'd forgotten.

"Keep driving," my husband told the taxi driver. "Not without Dolphie!" My daughter cried, "Dolphie! Dolphie!" The driver, who spoke little English, cut his eyes to me: "Who Dolphie?"

I was hoping that Benzon would carry us beyond Dolphie. His job was to pinpoint causes of accidents, then recommend steps to prevent them. Some were common sense, like buckling up. "I never take off my seat belt," Benzon told me. "If I could leave it on and go to the bathroom, I would."

Other discoveries are technical. Benzon picked up a half-inch metal disc from his desk: "A 3-cent washer could destroy a whole plane." A mechanic had dropped the disc while repairing a China Air Boeing 737. Later, when the plane landed in Japan, a bolt came loose and the engine caught fire. Passengers had to jump down inflatable slides. The airplane exploded. Benzon found a similar problem on 21 aircraft worldwide.

In one NTSB lab we visited lay a recorder recovered in Katmandu, Nepal, a crushed orange box caked in mud. They would play the pilots' dying words hundreds of times.

In all, Benzon had investigated the end of 3,000 lives. The smell of burning jet fuel, hydraulic fluid and human skin mixing and rising in an orange-black ball had, at times, made him want to quit. One of the most painful scenes he heard on a recorder was in Denver: "A couple on board, upside down in a muddy field. They were crunched together, and they were talking about their kids, as she was slowly slipping away."

Talk of dying mothers reminded me of my own air anxiety. In the taxi to the airport last Christmas, I overruled my husband and we went back for the ragged Dolphie. We just made our flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we were met by a magnitude 5.4 earthquake.

Now I wanted to become an intrepid traveler, like Benzon. So I asked the investigator the essential question, the real reason I had contrived to tour the NTSB. What did Benzon do to feel safe a mile high? He always carried the NTSB's crash-scene checklist. But what else?

"A little stuffed animal," Benzon said, stifling a chuckle. "One of those Beanie Baby squirrels."

Nuts, the squirrel. Nuts flew with Benzon to Kabul, Afghanistan, to reconstruct an aircraft that struck a mountain, to Greece to sleuth the mystery of a failed pressurization system, to China to inspect wreckage in a rice paddy. His wife had given him the plush toy. "She said don't lose this or you're going to be in trouble overseas." The squirrel travels in Benzon's checked bags, never in carry-on.

"I'm afraid," Benzon said, "I'd lose him."

Laura Blumenfeld, author of "Revenge: A Story of Hope," is writing a book about World War II.

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