Thoughts at 35,000 feet

How does Internet access work on a plane? I’m sure I could just open a browser and look it up, but let’s you and I pretend we are in the pre-Internet age (and ignore the obvious contradiction that I’m crafting this pre-Internet fantasy on an almost-always-Internet-connected smartphone).

And why am I so afraid of flying? It flies in the face of statistics, and if there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I don’t like to fly in the face of statistics. One website says that you have a one in 7 million chance of being in an airplane disaster. Another says that you could board a plane every day for 19,000 years before you board a plane that crashes. And yet here I am, sitting in an airline seat, white knuckled and having to remind myself to breathe.

I’m a whole ecosystem of anxiety. What’s that noise sounding directly above me like occasional rain on the roof of the plane? It must be a stress fracture. The young lady next to me in the knee length boots and her face poking out of her hoodie like E.T. and the terrible posture (seriously, she’s almost perpendicular to her seat back) is using the Internet to check her Instagram feed after the captain explicitly said to put all devices in airplane mode. That causes a scrim of sweat to break out along my brow. They’re showing Mythbusters on the small screens embedded into each seatback and one of the scenes in a running montage shows a plane sliding off of a runway and exploding in a ball of flames. It’s a military plane and the runway is an aircraft carrier, but you’d think they’d avoid even sniffing around the concept of catastrophic airplane events. Even with the screen in front of me off, I catch the scene again the next time it loops around because there are about ten small screens still lit and broadcasting and in my vision from where I sit, inescapable. The definition of a captive audience.

Wireless internet access, or Wifi, has always required access and proximity to a base station. The base station takes the signal from a physical Internet connection (usually over DSL, which looks like a phone line, or cable, the same kind of cable you plug into your cable box to watch tv) and broadcasts the signal wirelessly. With an airplane, you (obviously) can’t physically connect the base station to anything. So where does the Internet come from?

Once up in the air, my anxiety levels out – though there’s that feeling that happens every once in awhile that brings it pulsing back. It’s not the turbulence that gets me, that I can ride through. My friend suggested that I listen to music and try to time the song to the turbulence, making a game of it, and though it’s a pitiable distraction, it does help. The feeling is the occasional feeling of the bottom dropping out from you, as if the plane has started to descend and you and your insides are trying to catch up. It’s a feeling not dissimilar to the feeling of that first drop on a roller coaster. As soon as it happens, I immediately think, this is it, the final descent. Not as in “we are arriving,” but final descent as in the macabre notions of the movie title “Final Destination.”

The United pamphlet states that the Internet is satellite internet. So in layman’s terms, I suppose this means that there’s a satellite in space beaming down an Internet signal. Does the satellite beam individually to each device, as in, you put in your credit card to register a device and it establishes a temporary, unique relationship to the satellite? Not likely, I decide. More likely is the fact that there is a base station on this airplane that communicates with the satellite, and your individual device communicates with the base station. In essence (barring the magnificent reality that an internet connected satellite is beaming an Internet signal to an object that is moving at 6.5 miles off the ground at a speed of 600 miles per hour) it’s the same as your home Internet connection. Internet source -> base station -> device.

The understanding of how a massive object such as a commercial airliner (the Boeing 737-800 that I’m currently in weighs ~90,000 pounds) takes off from the ground into the sky, gains and maintains altitude, then lands back onto the ground, has long eluded me. I look at a plane, whether as a tiny pinprick in the sky or as a massive, very heavy- and immovable-looking weight on the ground, and my mind boggles. My inability to intellectually assent to how an aircraft works is, I think, at the core of my anxiety around flying. I mean sure, there’s more: the feeling of loss of control, the lizard brain reacting to the bald fact that if your airplane crashes it’s a given that you are going to die, the idea that one man, the pilot, in whatever state he currently is: tired, overworked, happy, sad, manic, even keeled, going through a divorce, experiencing indigestion from the Chinese food he ate in Dallas last night; is completely responsible for whether you get to your destination in one piece or not. But the fact that I simply cannot wrap my head around how a plane works is at the core of these white knuckles and at the pit of my knotted stomach.

If a plane is 6.5 miles in the air, how far up do you suppose the Internet connected satellite is? There must be a minimum acceptable height for satellites, or else they would be a hazard for commercial and military aircraft, not to mention UFO’s (any Roswellians in the house?). And I just realized something. The Internet signal must be first beamed up to the satellite, then redistributed to the airplanes as needed (or as purchased). Right? After all, it’s not like the satellite is getting the Internet from space. Comcast doesn’t service the upper atmosphere; shit, my coworker can’t get Comcast at his house in Windsor (population 30,000 and growing quickly). That makes sense though. If a plane were to get its Internet from the ground, it would have to keep transitioning to different Internet relay stations as it traveled, like how your cell phone pings from one cell tower to another. And that would be a hell of an infrastructure to build.

Descending now. The attendant told everyone to turn off and stow their large devices but E.T. is still typing away. Why do people feel like they are above the rules? I suppose I know why, but Jesus Christ it’s annoying. Oh, we didn’t know you were working on an all important email, excuse us, you keep doing you and we will keep making rules that are surely inconsequential and meaningless and have no bearing on you, capital “You,” the source and sustainer of the universe. I want to reach over and close her computer lid but that would simply make me an equivalent asshole. Back down a few rows, there’s another guy on his laptop too, blissfully, ignorantly typing away…so maybe I was too harsh on you, 10c.

I can’t believe how much writing this during my flight has helped. And true to my first paragraph, I typed all of it on my iPhone. Maybe the old joke needs to be updated: I just flew here from San Francisco, and boy are my thumbs tired.

Stay with me here. Descending. Out the window: cloud covering, now houses, now cars, now drivers in cars, now airplanes, now the complex rainbow lines of the airport runway, touchdown.

Safe. God it feels good to be safe.


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