ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You’ve probably gone somewhere on an airplane in the past few months. It’s summer; we go on vacation; we like to get there fast.
I’ll get on a plane in a couple of weeks, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have at least a touch of the willies. Since March, these things have happened to airplanes: One (Air Algérie flying in North Africa) went down in a storm in Mali. One (TransAsia Airways flying in Taiwan) crashed into a neighborhood while landing. One (Malaysia Airlines en route from the Netherlands to Malaysia) got shot out of the sky. And one carrying 239 passengers and crew (Malaysia Airlines en route from Mayalsia to China) just flat-out disappeared.
Complimentary peanuts and soft drinks, anyone?
In all this mayhem and weirdness at 30,000 feet, one man has gotten a lot of media air time and ink. He’s Alan E. Diehl, an aviation psychologist and former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force Safety Center, who happens to live in Albuquerque these days.
He’s been asked by the likes of Chris Wallace, Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff and Shepard Smith for his theories about what might have caused the missing Malaysia Airlines to disappear and where it might be.
He also did a strange little interview with New York Magazine recently to help explain why many of the victims of the jet downed by a rocket launcher over Ukraine were found without their clothing. Short answer: When you fall from a jet cruising at 33,000 feet, the wind speed can literally rip off your clothes.
He recently took a break from playing in the news media big leagues to talk to me about what is going on in the skies.
“It’s a very strange time, obviously,” Diehl said. But although the odd string of fatal accidents catches people’s attention in a big way and helps feed the fear of flying, Diehl said their circumstances are so varied that they don’t add up to a pattern of safety concerns.
“I don’t think any of that portends a degradation of airline safety,” Diehl said.
But it also doesn’t help worried flyers feel any better about inserting themselves into a metal tube and trusting a team of strangers to shoot them into the sky.
Diehl has a lot of professional history, and he talks very fast, as if he were trying to get everything in before the cabin pressure drops and the oxygen masks fall from the overhead console.
He peppers his conversation with “Long story short,” “I’m trying to make it quick,” and “I know I’m talking fast.”
Diehl has self-published a memoir about his days with the NTSB, the Air Force and the FAA, “Air Safety Investigators: Using Science to Save Lives – One Crash at a Time.”
With his background as an aviation psychologist, a discipline that applies psychological principles to safety in aircraft design, maintenance and pilot behavior, Diehl also understands how airline passengers act and think.”I think the psychology of fear of flying is that you are not in control,” Diehl says. And these recent disasters – especially getting shot out of the sky and disappearing with no trace – feed into that.
Those oddities aside, “You actually have a lot more control than you realize,” Diehl told me. And, despite very recent history, he reminds me that flying is statistically safe compared with other forms of transportation and that, at least in modern times, “Most people walk away from an airline accident.”
If I were to be on a plane going down, I would like to be one of those people. You probably would, too.
He recommends flying on larger aircraft – Boeings and Airbuses. “Generally speaking, they have more beneath the floors,” he said, which can help protect passengers if an aircraft skids to an emergency landing.
And he counsels passing up some of those open seats in front and heading toward the back. There’s usually more damage to the front of a crashed plane.
When choosing a seat, he recommends sitting a few rows behind an exit row in the aisle seat. In emergency evacuations, Diehl says, “people race for the place they came in – the boarding door at the front left. They’re creatures of habit.” If you start behind a middle exit, you can peel off from the herd and have a quicker exit through a less crowded door.
That’s if you’ve kept your wits about you. “The thing that’s easy to say and hard to do is don’t panic,” Diehl said.
But let’s say you feel a bump or hear a noise or look out your window and see some trees whooshing by and you think, uh-oh, this could be trouble. “The safest position is the brace position,” Diehl told me. Flight attendants tell passengers to brace on rough landings because it contributes to survivability. If no one else seems concerned and you don’t want to yell “mayday” and call attention to yourself, Diehl advises, “Bend over and pull up your socks.”
If it’s a false alarm, you won’t look stupid. If it’s a crash, you’ll have a better chance of walking away.