The damn things weigh half a million pounds, fly a third of the way around the world, and they carry passengers in greater comfort and safety than any vehicle in the history of mankind. Now, are you fellas really going to stand there and tell us you know how to do the job better? Are you going to pretend you know anything about it at all? 'Cause it looks to me like you boys are just stirring folks up for your own reasons.
Aviation legend Charley Norton, 78, speaking to reporters in 1970 after an airplane crash
The irony of the Information Age is that it has given new respectability to uninformed opinion.
Veteran reporter John Lawton, 68, speaking to the American Association of Broadcast Journalists in 1995
ABOARD TPA 545
Emily Jansen sighed in relief. The long flight was nearing an end. Morning sunlight streamed through the windows of the airplane. In her lap, little Sarah squinted in the unaccustomed brightness as she noisily sucked the last of her bottle, and pushed it away with tiny fists. "That was good, wasn't it?" Emily said. "Okay ... up we go..."
She raised the infant onto her shoulder, began to pat her back. The baby gave a gurgling belch, and her body relaxed.
In the next seat, Tim Jansen yawned and rubbed his eyes. He had slept through the night, all the way from Hong Kong. Emily never slept on planes; she was too nervous.
"Morning," Tim said, looking at his watch. "Just a couple of hours more, hon. Any sign of breakfast?"
"Not yet," Emily said, shaking her head. They had taken Transpacific Airlines, a charter from Hong Kong. The money they saved would be useful when they set up housekeeping at the University of Colorado, where Tim was going to be an assistant professor. The flight had been pleasant enough - they were in the front of the plane - but the stewardesses seemed disorganized, the meals coming at odd times. Emily had turned down dinner because Tim was asleep, and she couldn't eat with Sarah sleeping in her lap.
And even now, Emily was surprised by the casual behavior of the crew. They left the cockpit door open during the flight. She knew Asian crews often did that, but it still struck her as inappropriate; too informal, too relaxed. The pilots strolled around the plane at night, kibitzing with the stewardesses. One was leaving right now, walking to the back of the plane. Of course, they were probably stretching their legs. Stay alert, all of that And certainly the fact that the crew was Chinese didn't trouble her. After a year in China, she admired the efficiency and attention to detail of the Chinese. But somehow, the whole flight just made her nervous.
Emily put Sarah back down in her lap. The baby stared at Tim and beamed.
"Hey, I should get this," Tim said. Fumbling in the bag under his seat, he brought out a video camera, trained it on his daughter. He waggled his free hand to get her attention. "Sarah... Sar-ah... Smile for Daddy. Smi-le..."
Sarah smiled, and made a gurgling sound.
"How does it feel to be going to America, Sarah? Ready to see where your parents are from?'
Sarah gurgled again. She waved her tiny hands in the air.
"She'd probably think everybody in America looks weird," Emily said. Their daughter had been bom seven months ago in Hunan, where Tim had studied Chinese medicine.
Emily saw the camera lens pointed at her. "And what about you, Mom?" Tim said. "Are you glad to be going home?'
"Oh, Tim," she said. "Please." She must look like hell, she thought All those hours.
"Come on, Em. What are you thinking?"
She needed to comb her hair. She needed to pee.
She said, "Well, what I really want - what I have dreamed about for months - is a cheeseburger."
"With Xu-xiang hot bean sauce?" Tim said.
"God no. A cheeseburger," she said, "with onions and tomatoes and lettuce and pickles and mayonnaise. Mayonnaise, God. And French's mustard."
"You want a cheeseburger too, Sarah?' Tim said, turning the camera back to their daughter.
Sarah was tugging at her toes with one tiny fist. She pulled her foot into her mouth, and looked up at Tim.
'Taste good?" Tim said, laughing. The camera shook as he laughed. "Is that breakfast for you, Sarah? Not waiting for the stewardess on this flight?'
Emily heard a low rumbling sound, almost a vibration, that seemed to come from the wing. She snapped her head around. "What was that?'
'Take it easy, Em," Tim said, still laughing.
Sarah laughed, too, giggling delightfully.
"We're almost home, honey," Tim said.
But even as he spoke, the plane seemed to shudder, the nose of the plane turning down. Suddenly everything tilted at a crazy angle. Emily felt Sarah sliding forward off her lap. She clutched at her daughter, pulling her close. Now it felt like the plane was going straight down, and then suddenly it was going up, and her stomach was pressed into the seat. Her daughter was a lead weight against her.
Tim said, "What the hell?'
Abruptly she was lifted off the seat, her seat belt cutting into her thighs. She felt light and sick to her stomach. She saw Tim bounce out of his seat, his head slamming into the luggage compartments overhead, the camera flying past her face.
From the cockpit, Emily heard buzzing, insistent alarms and a metallic voice that said, "Stall! Stall!" She glimpsed the blue-suited arms of the pilots moving swiftly over the controls; they were shouting in Chinese. All over the aircraft, people were screaming, hysterical. There was the sound of shattering glass.
The plane went into another steep dive. An elderly Chinese woman slid down the aisle on her back, screaming. A teenage boy followed, tumbling head over heels. Emily looked at Tim, but her husband wasn't in his seat any more. Yellow oxygen masks were dropping, one swinging in front of her face, but she could not reach for it because she was clutching her baby.