Lost in Air
MARCH 18, 2014
I’ve known the anxiety of being completely lost, flying, at night. It can be extreme. You’re travelling at close to five hundred miles an hour, and every minute that goes by takes you further into being lost unless you get help from ground radar somewhere or somehow figure out the error. If you maintain altitude, is it a safe altitude or should you climb? How long have you been lost? It doesn’t happen suddenly. It’s just suddenly recognized.
But the Malaysian airliner was not lost. It was on course on a long, late-night flight to Beijing. I am identifying now with the passengers. An hour after takeoff, some are already asleep. The plane is flying smoothly at altitude. Only a change in engine power would have gained anyone’s attention. If, in fact, there was a change of course in a turn to the left, it may have been a very gentle turn, almost unnoticeable. Everything is proceeding normally. The fact that they are no longer in communication with anyone or anything on earth gives the plane and its passengers, most of whom are by now sleeping, the equivalent of invisibility.
Does this particular plane have the small television screens that show altitude and airspeed and then distance to destination and estimated time of arrival? Do the screens show a map and the course?
One of the pilots, most likely, knows where they are going, possibly both pilots. Possibly even a third or fourth person. But at some point the cabin crew will realize that something is wrong. The passengers know nothing, and, even if there is finally some understanding or feeling of unease, what can they do? They realize that they have been flying for too long, dawn is breaking. There have been no announcements, or, worse, there has been an ominous announcement that causes panic. At some point, the passengers, perhaps coming out of sleep, know.
There were airplane crashes during the Second World War, in the mountains, the jungles, in the Arctic, at sea, where the wreckage of the plane was never found or found decades later, sometimes in pieces, sometimes nearly intact. Eventually most questions about what happened are answered, but only after the wreckage has been found. I think the answer for the flight out of Kuala Lumpur will finally be found in the sea.
James Salter’s latest novel is titled “All That Is.”